Thursday, 31 January 2013

Speech to the Cromer and Sheringham Rotary Club

On the 30th January, I had the delight to dine with the Rotary club of two of my favourite Norfolk towns, Cromer and Sheringham. They meet in the Dormy House Hotel, and after a lovely three course meal, I took to the floor. Here are just a few extracts from the speech.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

SATURDAY SUPPLEMENT

My Saturday afternoons are like newspapers; full of all sorts! Granted that I may not pay 90p for this particular segment of the weekend, and my time doesn't have to be spent prying into the personal lives of people I don't care to know about, but like the crossword and the 'Letters', there are a few things that my Saturdays always seem to contain. Listening to the Alan Titchmarsh show on Classic FM; a general desk area tidy up session; a guiltless viewing of a long forgotten film.

Starting this week, another garnish to this already packed sandwich that is my typical Saturday afternoon is brought to Geography with Dan, as I select a current piece of news and demonstrate just how far the world has come by using a historic National Geographic magazine from my vast collection. This year marks 125 years of the magazine, and I hope through my Saturday Supplement, you will join me in celebrating such a wonderful resource for knowledge and history.

On Monday, the UK government's transport secretary will unveil the route for the new High Speed 2 train which is planned to run from London, to Manchester and Leeds. There is no doubt that the train has come a long way down the track since it was first introduced here in Britain, in the early 1800s. The 'Big Four' routes were created to stretch across the island, and ran through what were, and still are, the most prolific cities. In 1948, the nationalisation of British Railways occurred and I take, from the January 1961 National Geographic an advert for the company.


"60-80 miles an hour"? Really? It's incredible to think that in just over half a century, the whole concept of a train journey has revolutionised. Yes, it may still be "British Tradition" (in fact, now more than ever as train ticket sales have shot off the tracks into the air) but the whole ethos of allowing yourself to be gracefully shuttled through "ancient abbeys" and "historic castles" has been lost. Soon, as High Speed 2 becomes available, seeing the UK's "glorious past" will be almost impossible; the trains travel at 225mph, and the only exterior vista a passenger is likely to be exposed to, is an untidy smear of green and blue.

"The milestones of Britain's Railways are the milestones of history" as it so rightly states in the advert. But I feel, as a frequent commuter, that whilst travelling by High Speed 2 will take the country from Platform Present to Future Station, it will come with a sad cost to the country's past.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

We've had some weather...so what have we learnt?

Britain is so meteorologically diverse, so commenting on the wintry spell Norfolk has recently received I know may not be the most all-encompassing of blog posts. Nevertheless, I think it's fair to say that the whole country has experienced or is currently experiencing a noticeable plummet in temperatures; some have received a modest dusting of snow and other areas have been more severely affected. Norfolk is (I cross my fingers) emerging from this wintry stage and entering what I hope to be a fresh Spring, and snow is slowly but surely melting away to release Mum's lawn from it's icy imprisonment. As this ablation continues, the question remains: what have we learnt from this spell of British Weather?


After coming back from Alaska, first and foremost, I've learnt that Britain's approach to winter is one of the aspects that separates these two places far apart. In Alaska, granted, winter-time is almost engrained into society. It is set as hard as ice into routine, and the joys of such an austere season have become exploited: ice-skating championships, mountain-side skiing and even some of the work I was doing out there on frozen lakes. The winter is almost as certain as taxes in this regard, and I suppose after hundreds of years of temperatures regularly below minus 20 degrees C, you ought to expect the state to cope 'reasonably' well.

Britain, I realise, doesn't clench on to such wintry certainty; in fact, recent years have shown there is very little we can foresee when it comes to the weather. Having said that, when the island gets a beating by our characteristic mix of atmospheric forces, it is as if we have hardly experienced anything like it before. The truth is, though, we have. And worse! The winter of 1947, or the Great Freeze of 1963, are just two instances of weather events which did battle against the most hardy of men. Over the week, the tumult that has spread, like a snow cloud itself, over the radio airwaves as a result of "a few cm of snow" here and "minus 13 degrees C" there has inspired those who bore witness to those two skin-piercing winters to call in and share their experiences. It's only after listening to these accounts that modern life seems so feeble and frail.


One of the more prolific aspects of this year's event has been an uproar over the opening or closing of schools and colleges; it seems whatever decision a principal or headteacher makes is always the least favourable. But surely, now is the time to harness the bounty of technological enhancements that have become part of daily routine and apply them for education. Surely a lesson can take place online with the use of webcam and microphone? Surely learning can be sustained outside of the classroom? Apart from Jack Frost biting at my nose, this is the issue that's been biting me ever since Britain received this recent bout of snow. Education pauses like it's controlled by a television remote, and with many schools and colleges in my county selecting to introduce exams earlier (like, January) I find it very difficult to comprehend that in times when the class is immobilised and house-bound, that teaching cannot continue.

This has not been the first series of snow flurries to meet the county, and it won't be the last, but maybe this single event might inspire a fresh look at just how to use weather to our advantage. No-one can control what falls from the heavens, but we can adapt our own individual lifestyles to accommodate what eventually does. Whatever happened to "we'll wear the weather, whatever the weather?"

Monday, 21 January 2013

SOMETHING NEW COMING SOON...

In February, I will unveil a fresh sound to Sunday evenings. After the success of GeoPod last year, I will launch a brand new radio show, bigger and better. It will feature weekly interviews, a competition, and a fantastic range of music. The new show will, like GeoPod, stream online between 7:00pm and 10:00pm across the world wide web. More details will be released on Geography With Dan soon!

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Daniel on BBC radio

Listen to my views on the current weather chaos, that were broadcasted on BBC Radio last night, during the Richard Spendlove call-in show.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Public Speaking Programme- Launched

No more than a week of being back in my home county of Norfolk, I have become re-acquainted with so many of my passions; the traditional British public house, the 'green and pleasant' land of the English countryside (though currently white and crisp) and the familiar traits of country living such as an over-exaggerated emphasis on the weather, narrow single-lane roads, and the unmistakable presence of a farm-yard aroma. I have become engaged deeply in the re-discovering of the British traffic light system, public phone boxes, village post offices and council estates.

Yesterday, I got back into one of my much loved activities: public speaking. This week, I have launched my country-wide speaking programme, which will see me, over the next few months, travelling the length and breadth of England to deliver my reflections on what was a truly memorable journey in America.  However, I started yesterday close to home, offering remarks to two Rotary Clubs. I dined with the Lowestoft Rotary at the Parkhill Hotel at lunchtime, enjoyed what was a splendid Steak and Kidney Pie, and then gastronomically fulfilled was invited to the floor to address a warm audience of 46 Rotarians. Later in the evening, I dined with the Norwich Centenary Rotary Club at the Oasis Leisure Centre, relished a fine fish course and then proceeded on with the talk.
 
With two speeches under my belt already, I feel back at home and look forward to the many more that are scheduled for the next few months.
If you would like to book Daniel to speak to your club or group, then please do not hesitate to email: daniel.evans994@yahoo.co.uk

Friday, 11 January 2013

Press: Article on my scholarship

Whilst I was away, the Just North Walsham magazine published an article I had sent them from Alaska. In the next few weeks, I shall be sending a follow-up for them, and will also be speaking to press officers from both the Great Yarmouth Mercury, the North Norfolk News and the Eastern Daily Press.

Read the article below:

I've only spent a couple of months, surrounded by the beauty of America's largest state, tasting the native culture and soaking up the purity of the landscape. It's sheer diversity is like no other place I've visited. From the panorama of the tundra, to the grandeur of the Denali Range, I've been lucky to travel to some of its most spectacular scenes, including North America's highest mountain: Mount McKinley. It's a state where I've found myself hiking through the Boreal forest during the day, and surveying the elegant Northern Lights at night. With a thirst for Physical Geography,  Alaska has fulfilled a dream and I've had the opportunity to skip stones on the Yukon river, hike glaciers,  and watch Sea Lions sunbathe on Basalt extrusions.  Alongside my excursions through wilderness, I've also had the fortune of experiencing the diversity of Alaskan culture. My stay in the quaint, colourful harbour town of Seward will be a segment of the tour I will never forget, and likewise, Homer as it continues to inspire the tourist with its warming community, local art and handmade craft. 
For the majority of Alaska, the tourist season is over and a long winter is ahead. But I'm eager to taste what a true Alaskan winter is like and despite the uncomfortable numb fingers and toes, I've watched the leaves of White Birch slowly transform the Fairbanks' forest canopy from a lush green into a rich orange, and observed how one by one they float down to carpet the forest floor. Flora aside, the fauna is just as inspiring. I've cycled past a Moose, spotted a Killer Whale from a cruise boat, seen a Black Bear from a train and walked to within one meter of a Bald Eagle.
In such a small space of time, I've had an experience of a lifetime, and it's enhanced my zeal for exploration. Whilst it has developed me as a person, it's ultimately made me appreciate just how diverse the world is, and right now, I feel so lucky to be a part of it.
 
 

Thursday, 10 January 2013

SCHOLARSHIP REFLECTIONS

Today I made some final reflections on the Gap Year Scholarship.
 

 

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

SCHOLARSHIP DAY 132: Final Day of my Royal Geographical Society Scholarship- Visit to the CN Tower

The CN Tower that stands, forever mesmerising and altitudinous in the heart of Downtown Toronto, concludes this scholarship in an admirable fashion, and I've been considering these thoughts all day. I have re-lived my first day in America; the bag of mixed feelings that I carried on my back through the drizzle, as I approached what would become my first hostel experience. The unforgettable consciousness of feeling far from the comforts of home and yet a simultaneous excitement about being so. My mind replays the scene in that very first cafe; I sat, absorbing the American culture for the very first time, in between bite-sized chunks of Halibut and Chips. Like standing at the base of the CN Tower and gazing up to it's conceivably ceaseless number of floors in awe, I wandered through Anchorage on that very first night, contemplating what then seemed an endless exploratory chronicle through such a diverse country. I consummated the scholarship would bring about some of the highlights of my life thus far, but like the CN Tower, I knew that a journey would have to be made to reach them. A journey that would inspire in ways only imaginable and a tale that would mould my perspective of the western world, in the 21st Century. And yet, one which would undoubtedly stumble upon challenge and trial.


As I entered the CN Tower, the security personnel that serves in the interest of safety, rather than intimidation, casted my mind back to entering the US customs for the first time. In retrospect, the officials with which I was thoroughly interviewed by upon my arrival into Alaska, were similarly exercising routine in the most commendable regards to state-wide invulnerability. Having passed the security, the CN ticketing staff were called into action to print me a valid ticket for the two available viewing areas; a small rectangular shaped piece of card with a few numbers and letters printed underneath a bar code and a couple other logos with very little significance and yet here presented to me with an attached receipt was a ticket worth about $50. I pondered for some time how one trip up and one trip down could with any justice consume $50 of my precious Canadian Dollars, and it was throughout this consideration, that I started to remember how very often on this scholarship, the principal of 'money' and that of 'experience' so often are separated from each other. I stood in a virtual muse over the Brooks Range trips I made with the Fairbanks University. Each one, for me, completely complimentary on behalf of the geological engineering department, but despite the fact that not one cent left my pocket, I had one of the best experiences of my entire life. And yet, I have so very often paid large expenses for buses and attractions which have failed, miserably, to even ignite a spark of excitement. So I executed today's $50 spending, cautiously, although I'm pleased, from retrospect, to report that the experience made it a fantastic expenditure.


Having shuttled up a speedy elevator to the first series of all encompassing urban vistas, I discovered the CN Tower's outside viewing facility was closed because of the wind. Oh, how many times have I been confronted with moments like this; times when the weather stood firmly in the way of adventure and did combat with comfort. From the austere menace of the Alaskan winter to the deluges that prevailed over Seattle, my scholarship has confronted the perils of minacious meteorology. How unsettling a walk in minus 20 degrees can be, and yet, how simultaneously invigorating; perhaps even more revitalizing than the Californian sultriness I experienced. So I couldn't obtain photos of Toronto from outside, so I settled for shooting through the glass instead, and achieved some half-decent shots.


And that's been my philosophy across the entire scholarship. Don't regret the things you are unable to do; a doctrine I adopted from Sarah and Bill Redhead during my stay with them at Billies Hostel. I can remember wanting so desperately to travel to Deadhorse with Ronald, so to remark later that I had travelled the entire length of Alaska. The morning we set out, our journey was fleeced with snow and Ronald made a dutiful decision to negotiate a re-think. Do I regret, now in hindsight, that we turned round? No, of course not. Otherwise we wouldn't have seen those wild caribou, and I wouldn't have engaged in the experience of wading through waist deep snow. We wouldn't have spotted an orographic cloud formation, and neither would we have enjoyed a bewitching sunset.

The CN Tower has two floors; the first being more popular than the second, which charges an extra $10 for admittance. Nevertheless, I paid the extra sum to adventure up another 100m and to gaze upon an augmented sense of ecstatic wonderment. I have learnt as a result of travelling so far and wide on this scholarship that if you go that one step further- if you exert a small amount of extra effort- the rewards are even greater. Walking the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco was a life-fulfilling experience that has left a positive imprint upon my mind, which will forever remain, I'm sure. But had I not gone that extra mile, clambering up the side of an extremely steep densely vegetated hillside, I would never have been treated to what I still believe was the best vista in the entire trip. Similarly, by committing to a 10 mile walk in Portland and not settling for one more convenient on the feet, I made it to an extinct Volcano cinder cone and the Hoyt Arboretum. And with the same view, I relieved another $10 of my money to fix my ascending journey.


It turned out to be a very good decision. The views from what was now over 400 meters above the ground, were spellbinding. If my eyes were buckets, they would have been filled to the brim, instantly, with beatitude. I was blessed with 360 degrees of the most exceptional views, and cherished in a state of guiltless self indulgence the overwhelming euphoria. I may have been staring at Toronto, but I was recollecting the countless moments on this scholarship that I have been offered such felicity. Whether it was standing on top of a Frozen Debris Lobe in Alaska, or relishing a hot chocolate at the Seattle Space Needle, or standing in altitude at Yosemite National Park, the feeling of being amongst the clouds, far from the hurly burly of the world below, never ceases to inspire. For a gentleman who has spent the best part of nearly 20 years travelling across the Yorkshire Dales, the Devon Moorlands and even the gorges of the Greek Isles and the deserts of Africa, I have become naturally passionate about surveying a fine view; absorbing not just the pristine wilderness, but sometimes a city-scape, and the CN Tower today offered that very chance.


The CN Tower has also installed patches of glass flooring, allowing those with a willingness for a rising pulse, to know what it feels like to be so terrifically high in the sky. I have to admit that this is something I wouldn't have dreamt about doing ten years ago, during a period where my fear of heights was more than just an emotion. This scholarship, however, has taught, if nothing else, how much a hindrance to adventure a fear of heights can be, and early on I realised the only way to explore a great deal of Alaska was to overcome my fears. I recall, in my very first week back in September, treading cautiously along narrow aretes in Girdwood, and over-powering a fear of possibly slipping to meet my death. But not only has this scholarship aided what once was my short-comings, many other fears have been likewise phased out. A fear of getting lost in a foreign country I conquered by becoming adept at orienteering and map reading. My trepidation of missing scheduled buses and flights was vanquished by ensuring I had planned everything through. Even my anxieties over bears in Alaska soon subdued, as I progressively adventured into the wilderness on my own, each day being successful in my journeying.


I realised, after a time, that this was the end. Finality on a journey that once upon a time was just a dream. Here, at the highest viewing platform in America, I had not only reached the apex of the CN Tower, but the conclusion of what has been the summit of my life so far. The crest of my very existence on this planet. Four unforgettably historic months; 132 monumental days. Though this maybe the closure of one journey, I am sure that my zeal for exploration will inspire another one day. For along Toronto's horizon today was a thick mist obscuring the view of beyond, and I rest tonight knowing that like that mist, my future is likewise unpredictable. One can only dream of what lies ahead, beyond that mist of uncertainty. But now I know that dreams can come true, with dedication and perseverance, I travel home tomorrow to begin another segment of my life which I'm sure will be just as great.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

SCHOLARSHIP DAY 131: Niagara Falls- including Wine Tasting and Ferris Wheel Ride!

Before my very last day on what has been a trip that has impacted upon me in a way that I cannot encompass with mere words, I had one last treat up my sleeve. My visit to Toronto has come at a cost; I've departed the pleasantly balmy California, and re-entered the ice-box that most accurately describes the present state of Toronto. However, there are some days where that cost is a trivial one in comparison to the enrichments offered  by a fantastic excursion, and today was one of those days.

Niagara Falls is one feature, in one place, on this one Earth, but it means something different to many different people, depending on which part of the world you reside. For the Canadians, it's a magnet for the tourism industry, and to some, it's a economical way of harnessing energy. For South Africans, I imagine it's refreshing to survey something other than Victoria Falls. For me, fundamentally as a geographer but also as an explorer, arguably one of the same, the Niagara Falls represents something of an international natural treasure; something moulded not by blueprints on strict schedule, but by Mother Nature, at her pace and direction. It's something that one should espy upon at least once in a lifetime, and today as I awoke at 7:30am, I knew that I was in for a real treat.

So as to not get burdened by a long and complex journey there, involving multiple changes in the most out-of-city locations, I decided to comfort the experience by going with a tour. Unsurprisingly, the bus was almost full on the way there, and multicoloured as well. Just from my hostel, three French ladies and one Spanish gentleman accompanied me; we each found an available seat and the journey began. Toronto was blessed by a untarnished sky, and for the first time since my arrival, I obtained my finest view yet of its architecture.


Our tour guide was bubbly, even for a Monday morning- always an aspect to consider when deliberating whether to offer a gratuity or not. Unfortunately, perhaps a tad too excited, as often he would deliver his strand of interesting information in one deluge of words, showering the windscreen with spray as he attempted to pronounce some of the more obscure words; occasionally to an extent where I felt he required windscreen wipers on the inside! I admired his enthusiasm; if I had to take the same tour everyday for a year, I would get progressively less exhilarated.

Prior to our visit to 'The Falls' as they are more commonly referred to, we negotiated a pause at a Vineyard Boutique, in perhaps not the least surprising of spots. After all, we had been cruising along flat terrain for at least half an hour, with what I could gather from episodes in between short powernaps, were vast expanses of farmland, and the evidence of last year's fruition. On behalf of the tour company, we were offered a complimentary session of wine tasting, which although not completely connected to the Niagara Falls, was a delightful way of punctuating a long journey.


Andrew was the sommelier today, (the person who pours the wine if you're not a connoisseur, and if you're not, you join the club with me.) I have been acquainted with a few various labels at home for the last few years, and have served wines as part of a watering job, though I can't protest much knowledge. I couldn't, for example, distinguish a particular brand from its aroma, and similarly would find it almost impossible to identify on which date it was bottled. However, I can tell whether it's a sweet or dry edition; a skill that unfortunately isn't going to help me get recruited to the industry, but it was all I required today. We were offered three separate wines; the first, according to Andrew was the driest white on the market. The grapes were harvested in October, though that little gem of information didn't add much to the palette. The second sample was 20% sweet and an Iced Wine, which I'm not surprised Canada is famous for, although I have to admit, I found it almost too sweet.


I soon realised that this wasn't demonstrative of a 'proper' wine tasting session. None of us were discussing the wines, or if we did, we were acknowledging our first sips with a slight cocking of the head, a moment's contemplation, and then an approving nod. Other than that, the session was a very successful exploration into each others journeys. The third and final sampling came in the way of an Iced Red, which Andrew dutifully informed us was one of the rarest wines in North America. (It's something to do with the thickness of grape skin.) And as I took a glass, and decanted the drop of this prestigious Vin, I did something that confirms the unlikelihood of me landing a job in sampling. I contorted my face into the most abstract of expressions, and declared in such a volume that silenced the room for a time thereafter, "wow, that's strong!" What I actually meant was 'sweet' and so not only had I made my opinion known to the entire boutique working force, but had been entirely inaccurate in my doing so. I departed shortly after, in shame.

In a further attempt at maximising the suspense, the tour guide drove us to the whirlpools and incidentally, I never caught his name within his welcoming speech. (Why is it that the most coherent will inform those of their name perhaps five times in two minutes, whilst those who didn't make it clear first time round, refuse to repeat?) Anyway, we arrived at the whirlpool. It's a little bit like a lay-by for water; the Niagara River flows into it, proceeds in the potholing of the whirlpool making it deeper, and then it leaves this eddie and continues it's flow downstream. From only one vantage point, you can't appreciate the eddies, but certainly I grasped a sense of scale. We engaged in a photo session, I aided parties who requested one all together, and then we were escorted back onto the bus, ready for one final stretch to 'The Falls'.


We had been granted just over two hours at Niagara Falls, which may seem a tad excessive to view a couple of waterfalls, but when you factor a brief luncheon and a wander around the attractions, then it's almost the perfect duration. When I bring up 'attractions', I am referring to a ream of amusement arcades, miniature theme parks and a host of various hotels and spas. Having said this, I found the abode nearly isolated of any tourist activity. The weather had turned overcast by now after this morning's meteorological ecstasy, which had probably drawn many to the spas and the massage parlours; well, what else do you do in a place like this when it rains? I decided to overcome a small bout of disappointment on the lack of what had been forecasted clear blue skies, and take a ride on the Ferris wheel.

I have been meaning to do a Ferris wheel ride. In Seattle, I had planned one, but the last day it rained religiously from dawn to dusk, and I scored it from the itinerary. In Los Angeles, the Santa Monica  Pier's Ferris wheel exercised a strict 'two-person minimum' policy, so I devoted my ticket to the roller coaster instead. But this one was perfect. By far the largest I've happened upon in this journey, and very relaxed with the fact I was a solitary tourist, the only reservation I had was monetary. Nonetheless, I did get value for the bills I dispensed into the ticket boothe; I had a pod all to myself, and we made three complete revolutions. Enough time, therefore, to take in the panorama and then to document it on film. As I made the first ascent, I obtained a clear view of the dimensions of the tourist attractions. Rows of hotels seemed to stretch out for miles, slowly fading away as a low pressure front moved in to obscure.


On each revolution's peak, the encapsulating sweep of the Niagara River and the focal point, the American Falls. Niagara Falls is a collective term for three separate water cascades: American, Horseshoe and Bridal Veil. Through the glass, I overlooked American Falls, enchanted by the coercion of the feature. From what appeared to be a rippleless river, flowing to velvet's degree of serenity, and then an immediate transition: an expeditious chute into a menacing cauldron of frantically bubbling water vesicles, surfaced foam and froth like yeast in mass production, and a continuous issuing of spray to fill any void of dry air in the vicinity. Not bad for a $10 Ferris wheel ride!


Though a view from the air is always encouraged, a chance to be up close and personal with such natural commotion was an opportunity not to be missed. I strolled the promenade, battling against a strong polar breeze and a spray, which seemed to be either a light drizzle or the discharging vapour from the falls below. Nevertheless, I was captivated by the vista, which was now a lot clearer. I could make out small birds, seemingly unaware that a couple of feet from their beaks was one of the deepest watery plunges on the planet. I could make out the smoothed rocks which would await them at the bottom, and watched as water would crash into them, and thereupon rebound in an emission of vapour, as if these ancient boulders were aerosols in perpetual fusillade.


Of course, this doesn't compare to Horseshoe Falls, shaped such to fit the label. As I approached, the first aspect of the experience that caught my attention was the sheer volume. A continuous low-pitched roar, rumbling from the depths below was vibrating the very ground I stood upon, and when I placed my palm on the wall beside me, the same vibrations. The fact that mere water did that, and does that right now as I type, and now as you read, and the very fact that it will not cease to do this in the future is one of those incredible simplicities of life, which astounds millions each year.


I was employed in one long gaze at the falls, hypnotised by it's sublimity. Nature is seldom predictable. Weather continually fluctuates, volcanoes can erupt without warning, earthquakes alike. The Ash Tree can grow for centuries, across a country, and then in one single year, hundreds can become infected by disease, and thousands of others are slaughtered in fear. And yet, here I was today, viewing one of the very few predictable performances this Earth provides. I knew, and others that crowded around me, all similarlarly knew that the water above would flow over the edge, and cascade to join the river below, before continuing its journey. It's driven by gravity, and executed every second of every day, has been for thousands of years in an identical way, and will continue to for many more millennia. So why did I find this foretold process such a stimulating sight? Why was I surprised at the display of sheer, yet the expected scale of power? I had seen many waterfalls in my life, but this seemed such a novelty. For a landmark to empower over human emotions in this way is a tribute to the beauty of the physically diverse planet we live on.


I have witnessed so many of these spellbinding natural configurations on this trip. From the glaciers of Alaska to the coastlines of the west coast, and the mountains, volcanoes and rivers I've observed in between, to the Niagara Falls, the American landscape hasn't failed to amaze and excite. I have trekked across tundra, explored wilderness at its purest, and shared my enjoyment with the flora and fauna lucky enough to call it 'home'. At the end of the day, it's a spiritual experience. In these small heavens of stillness, the experience is moving. Whether uplifting at the time or not, the very fact that bare rock and a torrent of water can authorise over human feeling, human emotion, over our very soul, is what makes mere existence on this planet so rewarding.

Monday, 7 January 2013

SCHIOLARSHIP DAY 130: Lake Ontario and the Ontario Art Museum

After yesterday's sluggish efforts on exploration, I was eager to start the day today, and so after a revitalising session of breakfasting at Tim Hortens, I proceeded to walk Lake Ontario. Though the day was fortunately dry, there was an ominous scene up above, surfacing over the rooftops of towering structures; the CN tower became progressively fainter and from ground level, it appeared to travel for infinity. I dodged the slush still lingering along pavements, and avoided to my best ability the inevitable splashing from cars as they raced past on the way to what I presume were significant morning business appointments.


As I approached the trail which commits to follow the sinuous border of Toronto city and Lake Ontario, my journey's progress was hindered momentarily by a mature gentleman negotiating a push bike across the sidewalk. Once you engage in a single microsecond of eye contact, then undoubtedly one is trapped within the confines of conversation. Thus my boots were glued to this spot whilst he accounted a tale of losing his rucksack, and his wallet consequently, being 20km away from his wife and not having any money for a bus or any food. Though I never said anything, my gentle nod and what appeared to him as a facial expression of compassion led him to continue and he told me about how he had spent two nights out in the cold of Toronto, and then another plea for monetary assistance; he even offered to sell his bike to me for some money and supplementing this, he vowed to send back another $100 to England as a gratuity for providing emergency assistance now. The problem for me was that I genuinely didn't have any cash on me, and what I do have on my card is just enough to see me through until Thursday. In addition, I wouldn't know what to do with a bike, and although his desperate attempts to appear a genuine charity, I cast much doubt on him sending me money to England. And so, I bid him farewell, untangled myself from this gentleman's net of appeal, and watched as he crossed the road to cast his tackle on some other innocent member of Toronto's community. I have experienced so many of these instances, and remain just as committed to my philosophy; if the beggar uses what skills he does have to perform in front of the community, then he or she is deserving of a small token for the entertainment, and I have been known to offer a couple of dollars to these people. But if there's anything that so strongly binds all of the places I've visited on this trip, that is undoubtedly the presence of the dispossessed.

Solitary once more, I engaged in a combat with a strong headwind, and any hair that wasn't contained within my hat (quite a lot, now) became a talking point for those who passed me. Incidentally, let me note here, I am receiving an accumulating number of smirks and unconfined laughs; I am well aware that I don't appear as suave as your average tourist, but the length of my hair is perhaps the most visible representation for the duration of my scholarship. As I followed the trail, leaving downtown behind, very soon I became acquainted with Lake Ontario. Now, I don't know what images you conjure when I refer to a 'lake' but the nature of the one I was visiting today is one which sets quite a few contrasts with those I have witnessed thus far on the trip. Lake Ontario, today, was a scene of such tempestuousness; shallow waves embraced an essence of impatience to break and the buoys received this treatment of outrage the most. Thus it was that I scanned the horizon; neither Lake Ontario or it's immediate skyline above it looked inviting, but all the same, the scene was oddly invigorating. I felt like I was caught within an argument between forces of nature and it's most probably the only conflict that bears some beauty about it. If only human conflict could follow suit?


I continued admiring this very vista along the promenade for some way, and then executed a departure towards some 100 Canadian Geese. Reminiscing on sightings of them in Portland, those many weeks ago, I passed my regards from their Oregon companions; this gaggle were treading on frost-bitten strands of gelid grass but didn't appear in any way benumbed by their present living conditions. Upon the sight of my red waterproof, they took a speedy scamper to what they considered safety, and I ambled on.


My downtown-bound journey took me along the labyrinth of pathways that circuit Exhibition Place; a destination that for once does exactly what it says on the label. Exhibition Place exhibits the most elaborate grandeur that Ontario is fortunate to contain. Today, I had the 'place' to myself; all bar one walking his dog and he departed prematurely anyway. I couldn't make out why I hadn't approached many on the walk along Lake Ontario and now similarly sequestered was Exhibition Place. The government house from 1912 boasted a great view from each facade, and close by, I caught sight of the first urban wind turbine in North America. It's a typical blend of the classic and the contemporary that I have become aware of these last few months.


With the afternoon to spare, I decided to finally visit the Ontario Art Museum, and taste for myself what I hear is a city with a vibrant art scene. They're entirely accurate with this. The complex is segregated conveniently to aid those, like me, who aren't confident with a paintbrush and a black canvas; the first exhibition was themed around Europe and so I was transported back to the 12th century and shuttled through to the 16th, hopping between different countries simultaneously. Museums like this one, I've noticed, attract a wide variety. There's those who will savour one painting for half an hour examining intricate brush direction; these seem to be the ones who will open an deeply philosophical discussion with those also enjoying it. And then there's those who will maintain a pace, nodding approvingly at the ones that catch their eye, and worry not for the hundreds they miss out on. I'm comfortably in between.


There's some rooms that I will whizz through, to escape museum fatigue, and to maintain some aspect of captivation. And then there's exhibitions like the Ontario Museum's Evan Penny floor which literally left me spellbound with admiration. If the purpose of art is to capture reality as close as possible, Evan wins gold in my books. He has taken photographs of people and then creates a 3D construction, using real human hair! They all posses a certain actuality about them, and it's quite difficult not to mistake them for real people.

 
 
A muffled voice announced the museums closing, and I made my way down to the exit, descending one level by staircase, which offered a wonderful panorama view of twilit Toronto. The city's sky scape didn't appear so menacing from this vantage point, but my stroll back to the hostel wasn't without a few chills. And so, another week closes, and a new one begins. It's difficult to acknowledge the fact that in less than four days, I will be back, pillowed by home comforts, but I have a special treat to look forward to tomorrow, and then it's one final day before I board my final plane, back to Great Britain.
 
 

Sunday, 6 January 2013

SCHOLARSHIP DAY 129: My lengthy visit to the Land of Nod

Despite it's never failing ability to amaze and excite, travelling for an extensive period of time can have it's shortcomings. Daily hiking can wear the feet, late night dining can upset the stomach, and early morning flights can increase fatigue. Travellers, in some ways, do not have a regular body clock; they live in the present moment, willing to explore at any time of day, in any weather conditions. Since the end of August, there have been countless times where I've brushed aside the principal of a good night's sleep, and instead engaged in a spot of early morning writing, or a midnight stroll. In Alaska, witnessing the Northern Lights often led to this degree of nocturnal activity; sometimes I would start writing the blog at 3:00 and wouldn't get to bed until 7:00am. In the cities along the west coast, I would be so actively involved in a packed day of adventure, and engrossed in a lot of evening discussions with hostel guests that I would achieve only three to four hours sleep at most. Health to one side, I have no objection to any of this; some of my most memorable experiences have emerged at these twilit hours, and have added an unique essence to the whole scholarship.

I knew it would catch up with me though. I hit the mattress at just after midnight last night, after entwining myself in a web of conversations weaving throughout the hostel. My philosophy is not to have an alarm because I am usually very good at waking up at a convenient hour; 8:00am or 9:00 is often the case. As my final dream faded away, and I emerged from my visit to the land of nod, I squinted at my analogue watch, and saw it was only 3:00am. As my eyes began to become accustomed to the objects around me, I began to observe a few oddities. One such anomaly was that my dormitory buddies were all absent from deep slumber. I then gazed towards the window, and thought it was slightly peculiar that despite the fact it was 3:00am, the adjacent street was fully lit. I took another scan of my watch; all was present and correct, it was most certainly 3:00am. I decided to check with my iPod to ease the mind, and then realised the inexcusable error I had made. It wasn't just 3:00, it was 15:00, and it had transpired I had slept continuously for 14 hours.

Emerging from my top-bunk, I couldn't believe I had achieved an uninterrupted duration of slumber. (I still can't!) I took a moment to reflect on this, peering out the window to a city wide awake. It was then that I realised that my stint of four months marathon of nightly adventures had finally caught up with me. And even though I had spent most of today not in Toronto but in Eype, Dorset (that was one of my dreams) and with the St. Johns Ambulance Cadets (that was another I recall), I was pleased that my body had at last been given the chance to recover and I now feel all the more better.

So what to do? I couldn't embark on a great adventure; the Sun was beginning to set and at first I decided to stay in the hostel, catch up with my speech-writing and an article for a newspaper I'm currently working on, but with my departure from Toronto so close, I realised to make an attempt at an invigorating walk to explore Toronto's striking university campus, which was not only close by, but looked an interesting place. It would also permit me to witness the city by twilight, something I wouldn't often engage in on a voluntary basis. And so, I emerged out of the hostel to begin my day, even though the Sun's was nearly complete, and offices were starting to turn their desk lamps on. I made my way to Queens Park, casting shadows on the buildings I passed as early evening commuters were illuminating me with their beams. Also starting the day with me were neon lights illuminating shop logos, street side lamps, and the CN tower with it's captivating display of it's multicoloured glistening.


Queens Park emerges onto the scene as soon as you enter College Street, but there are still a couple of campus buildings that appeared on my journey long before I got there. One such arresting one was the University of Toronto Art and Design Centre that conveniently educates in a building called 'Above Ground'. Indeed, it sits alight a spectrum of stilts, but I didn't spot the steps up there. So I drew two conclusions. Either Art and Design students apply for a lifelong course where they spend their entire careers in one room, religiously committed to exploring every distinguished style or Toronto hasn't churned a single Art and Design student since the building's construction.


I find the latter difficult to believe; Toronto has a vibrant atmosphere of artistic dexterity. Just ahead of me now was the Art Museum of Ontario and as is often the case around these areas of the city, sculptures sit in parks and monuments celebrating notable artists stand on street corners. But with a slowly dimmering light, I made direct progress to Queens Park.

Queen Park was absent of students frantically going about their academia clutching ring binders, and also seldom seen tonight were grey haired specialists rehearsing to thin air, their forthcoming lectures. However, clearly visible was the Provincial Legislature. The lack of captivation from the name is more than made up in its grandeur facade. A narrow passageway bordered by two intricately trimmed, snow dusted, bushes led the way to a clearer viewing of the structure. Like I noted in Sacramento, the fundamental key to its impact was pure symmetry.


My walk skewed away from this symmetry; I negotiated a trip around the east of the building and entered a stretch of my walk which the city has entitled 'Trees for Toronto'. It's a small arboretum, with a host of multicoloured bark, but a thick snow made me unable to approach each one and take a peek at it's silver plate detailing the name and it's country of origin. I have to admit, though, in an observed mood of pessimism, that barren of leaves, these trunks could all pass for the same species. Or perhaps in the obscurity that dusk often provides, I didn't spot the various indicators of diversity.



I ambled through more university buildings, all of which exhibited the fine work of construction from yesteryear, before I was shuttled back to the 21st century with another cohort of the evening's commuters making their last journey of the day, and more workers rushing on foot to their local eateries, desirous of a well earned meal. And that included me to. I stopped by Tim Hortons, the largest quick service restaurant chain to bless Canada to date. They offer a generous 'combo' including a grilled cheese panini, a delectable donut and they even throw in a can of soda with that too! I went for the Canadian Maple Donut, still in the world of trees it seems, and enjoyed the a Coke flavoured fizz before heading back to catch Toronto, in full twilight.


As I negotiated traffic lights and road crossings, I became aware of the hive of activity that occurs in a city at these times, when I'm usually back at the hostel. Restaurant staff are setting their tables ready for another bustling evening serving a portion of the city's wining and dining clientele. Day hospital staff are offering up their car parking spaces for those with a grinding night shift. I passed the Fire Engine Station, which showed no sign of shutting down for the day; in fact, I caught a faint siren cruising through the city some way away. For party-goers, this is when it all begins. To clubs and bars, this must have been a premature time; I even spotted one bar with chairs still overturned on tables. This scholarship has become all the more rich as a result of my late getting up, because it illustrated the action which I don't often voluntarily explore. Having said this, tomorrow, I'm putting my alarm on!

Saturday, 5 January 2013

SCHOLARSHIP DAY 128: Exploring Toronto- the world's largest underground shopping mall, Black Squirells, and St. James Cathedral

As I lugged my baggage up a set of precarious steps, and wrestled with the front door of my hostel last night, a young gentleman immediately rushed to assist with what must have looked the most unglamourous of entries. He planted the cherry and glazed my arrival with icing by welcoming me to the hostel and wishing me a pleasant time here; a greeting that warmed the heart. And in this austere climate, any form of heating is welcomed. I spent a delightful evening acquainting myself with the reasonable number of British travellers staying here, as well as exchanging remarks with a couple of Germans and a Brazilian gentleman. Our discussions with one another were joined, I have to add, by a horde of scurrying mice; three or four of them, in fact, who found great satisfaction in a spot of late night scampering.


It would not be fair to rank Canada as a country on these forthcoming few days here in Toronto, and I emerged onto the streets today with this consideration very much in mind. My first exploration of Toronto would be characteristically unmapped; there was a map offered generously by the hostel, though it was folded in the most abnoxious way, which when fully unravelled stretched the dimensions of a large bath towel, and generally obscured all view in the process. But with a typically American waffle-griddle traffic operation in place, I felt reasonably safe in yet another unknown.

After several sun-drenched weeks, delightfully spent amongst Palm trees, the satisfying scent of freshly embraced vitamin C, and bounteous balmy beaches, I have to admit a slight struggle with being catapulted all the way to the austere winter today. To say Toronto has a revitalising breeze is a optimistic approach to describing what is a ruthless breeze; a penetrating unpredictable sub-zero gust which can blast through the most robust of Goretex, and thrust a torrent of shivers down the vertebrae. For the first time since I departed Alaska, out emerged into daylight my trusty hat and gloves. My walk today was paved with a thick slush, from recently fallen snow that couldn't make its mind up as to whether it was best being a solid or a liquid.


Though this isn't strictly the case for the city, the street that my hostel resides on is currently engaged in a lengthy and complex series of ground operations; nearly every sidewalk is blockaded at some point with guidance for the stroller to negotiate an immediate crossing, but once he or she has dodged a rush hour of motorised metal, there's a similar sign to greet you on the other side. I'm sure that such engineering is greatly required; why else would a handful of florescent clothed men be huddling around a manhole in the austere? Just aside from one of these sites, I caught a Toronto oddity. The Hamari Grill restaurant whose frontage must receive some 'second glances'.


Maybe my walk took a particularly obscure route, but I seemed to be exiting and entering a fresh district on each street. But despite the most scrupulous observation, I couldn't spot any remarkable change between each one. Each district had a host of private office buildings, with the mainstream assemble of contemporary window blinds and varnished pine desks. Each street had it's own Pizza takeaway outlet, it's own billboard advertising some purchasable product, and it's own bus-stop. It's the eccentricity like suspended cows charging through concrete that offers some degree of individuality. A little further on, the Financial District set itself aside from every other segment of the city. A congregation of towering glass showpieces shadowed the promenades, though some designs demonstrated at least half an hour's worth of inspired thought, and the result was a collection of some very arresting structures.


Not requiring an urgent fiscal debriefing, or any other pecuniary consultation, I often wonder why I walk around the Financial District. Almost always, I am confronted with the same company logos, and yet there's something that naturally inspires me to saunter through. Toronto, I imagine, realises that such an executive, money-orientated area of the city cannot support a wide range of viewing interest above ground, so what they've achieved is the World's largest underground shopping complex, and it's only when you enter this intriguing subterranean world that you obtain a sense of its internationally recognised Herculean dimensions.


Officially, it is acknowledged under the name of PATH, though whether this is an abbreviation of some tongue twisting arrangement of words is still an enigma. No less than 17 miles of arcades are free to the visitor's advantage, and in a way, I imagine that PATH adds a spoonful of originality to the shopping experience. As I ensued deeper through the labyrinth of this city's retailing arteries, I realised that there's another very cunning advantage to retailing down here. That is, simply, that's it's almost impossible not to get lost, or failing that, not to achieve a small sense of bewilderment. And so, shoppers attempt to re-trace their steps, make a couple of false turnings, find themselves greeting shops they haven't approached before, and subsequently their shopping experience is unavoidably lengthened. Thereby, this increases the chances of them making a purchase before they finally locate the nearest exit out of this subterrestial environment. So I feel slightly proud to admit that I didn't get lost, and I resisted the urge, as a result, a most unnecessary transaction.

When I re-emerged to greet residual light again, I found myself being drawn into the Brookfield Place, like chub salmon is drawn to fishing tackle. The Brookfield Place sits aloft ground this time, in the edge of the financial district, and it's thoroughly composed of both the economical and social textures of Toronto. I'm informed that it's visited by millions each year, and it's not exactly a mind boggling equation to see why. I made an entrance and was instantly lifted by a lustrous galleria, through which a unrelinquishing river of light flows through each day.


In sharp contrast, though, at the other end, is the noteworthy facade of the Bank of Montreal, though perhaps even more thought-provoking is the fact that surrounded by these four restored bricked walls, is the Hockey Hall of Fame. Now, when it comes to Hockey, I'm just as close to being an expert as a professional footballer is to being poverty stricken, though all the same, I had a brief stroll as an all-embracing traveller, in these cases, commits to.


Incongruity greeted me again as I made way around the perimeter of the financial district, passing a number of theatres and other performing arenas. In two ways, this occurred I suppose. Firstly, I caught sight of my first Black Squirrel, as it made a dart up a frost bitten trunk, towards a bare nest of branches above. Just ahead of this, was perhaps the most intriguing of building faces I've encountered on this journey; a sort of audacious attempt at recapturing what I imagine once was a formidable structural gem.

 
 
In this respect, it was a pleasure to step inside real history, and I achieved this by way of wandering through the Cathedral of St. James. Both it's interior and exterior facades oozes late 18th century antiquity. A warming glow of light diffused through a stain glassed veneer, diminishing any impression cast by a wintry scene. I took a moment to reflect and absorb the atmosphere along a wooden pew, lit a candle in offering and took leave.


 Such to my astonishment that it was actually open, though I was perhaps even more surprised to see that the area was abundant in similar grandeur, even if they weren't all dignified upon entrance. One that will lodge in my mind for a long time, like an apple peel trapped in between two teeth, was one such majestic church with a long winding ploughed walkway, where Black Squirrels played innocently with the snowflakes. It seemed to embody history like a book embodies words. It was to my consequential amazement to find not a row of wooden pews, stone floors, and an ornate technicoloured window, but a corridor of offices. Metal rimmed contemporary glass desks, swivelling chairs, modern art. In one room, a group of individuals worse for wears were indulging in a modest spoonful of soup and engaging in a communal laughter. I wandered through and my nostrils caught essences of more pungent cooked meat, blended with a raw aroma of dried sweat that was engulfing a lengthy queue of more vagabonds. From the outside, such an interior would be the farthest from my mind, though it's these small observations that make Toronto memorable.

Feeling slightly fatigued, I decided to complete my loop of the city, and head back to the hostel via Chinatown. Having experienced quite a few of these now, I realise that each and every city devotes a varying degree of effort towards making Chinatown worth the trek to. No matter where you are, the ethnic enclaves always feel so very far away; a reminder, if any, of the geographically long distance China actually is to all of these American cities. Toronto's Chinatown is stretched over several streets, and try as I might to find the rich red arch to enter from, I realised it wasn't to be found anywhere. Where there might have been a lack of these traditional symbols, still present on the scene were small yet densely packed stores, adorning advertisements I couldn't begin to interpret. In such bitter weather, I was surprised to see so many garments outside, though I imagine the breeze was keeping the copious fruit and vegetable stalls fresh.


I am aware, though, that Toronto offers much more than the selection of sights that have blessed before my eye today, so I remain ever eager to explore more of the city tomorrow.

Friday, 4 January 2013

SCHOLARSHIP DAY 127: Goodbye U.S.A- Last stop Toronto, Canada

There's a plethora of reasons why I love travelling. Aside from the predictive 'seeing new places, tasting new cultures, making new acquaintances', it's perhaps one of very few portions of your life that you are continually changing pace. For instance, on this epic scholarship journey, I spent over two months in one Alaskan city (Fairbanks) and then travelled 1130 miles from Seattle to Los Angeles in just over six weeks. Today, I travelled over double that distance in four hours. Regular and passionate commuters, such as myself, will recognise the exhilaration that erupts as a result of this. If anything, it eases the pain out of a long plane journey, which I had scheduled today.

I couldn't sleep last night. This lack of slumber may have resulted from the fact that just before I hit the sack, I guzzled down a cup of coffee, though this wasn't entirely a fault on my behalf; I had selected 'tea' on the vending machine, but out spurted coffee. Having admitted this, I must also confess I was looking forward to a fresh scene, which is not to say that I was getting vexed by the United States, just that after an extensive chunk of the calendar spent in the country, a revitalising excursion to Canada was appetising.

Understandably, one might enquire why, after such a timely exploration in the United States, I would select to complete the scholarship in Canada. In a way, I imagine this last week in Canada to act as a trailer for a future journey; an appetiser for a more extensive Canadian adventure later in my life. It acts in much the same way that table of 'free samples' does at your local supermarket; you're tempted to a nibble and enjoy it to an extent that your taste buds tease you to buy a whole bag. Perhaps two. That's my philosophy on the matter, though there have been times when I've questioned it myself!

As the last alkaloids of caffeine paddled around in my bloodstream, I finally got a few winks at 3:00am, though what sleep I did achieve was next to ineffective, as my alarm belted out its monotonous ring down my ear canal on the strike of 6:00am. The next hour I performed like a regular military routine; checking out of hostels, now, is becoming just as familiar as brewing cups of tea. Having deposited my key at the reception, I took to hauling my bags to the entrance of the hostel, where dutifully, I would be collected and shuttled to the airport; all of which, may I add, for a reasonable expense of $15. The journey towards the airport was without incident, fortunately, and I arrived with plentiful time.


I passed 'Security' relatively successfully; have you ever listened to the conversations some idle personnel have? Having passed the various scanners and probes, I was doing my shoe laces when two armed uniformed bodies stopped behind me to enjoy a rather thorough exploration of each others favourite kitchen cleaning products. (I'm not joking!) There, before me, was a tedious three hour wait until the staff at Gate 26 even considered the possibility of boarding, though it turned out to be a well spent one. I wandered around 'Duty Free'- a concept I can never understand as very little if any products are indeed free- I bought breakfast at a rather costly restaurant and rested my soles in the departure lounge, treating my eyes to more of my Steinbeck book.

I have come to the conclusion that 'AirCanada' is one of my favourite airlines. If by small chance, your portable music device- and I use the broadest term here as I'm aware there are quite a few out there- has become deprived of power, the seats have in-built sockets with which you can simply plug and re-charge as you go. And failing that, if you have forgotten your charger, the seats have in built televisions and radios. Not once on this trip, have I been treated with such an arrangement, and a result what was a four hour flight, seemed to flash by, aided by my selection of viewing and listening. Watching 'To Kill a Mockingbird' again, after all this time, hurled back memories of revising for G.C.S.E exams.


Also included in the headrest in front of me was an updated electronic map of which specific segment of the globe we were flying over, which meant for once, I didn't require a pilots license to observe the route we were taking. It transpired we hovered over Phoenix, gained altitude and proceeded over Oklahoma City, St Louis, just missing Chicago, and then continued north-east to Cleveland, before crossing into Toronto. As we approached Canada, the heart warmed when flashing in front of me were a whole host of recognisable places; well, Canadian locations with names after English towns and cities. Scattered around the state were the delights of Bedford, Sudbury, Cambridge, Norwich, and despite the fact there wasn't an Oxford, there was Woodstock. Also appearing were Dansville and Evansville which caught the eye unsurprisingly, but let me note here that none of these recognisable names were in their 'British' geographical locations. London was north of Norwich; Cambridge even more to the south. But it was pleasurable to think that in some way, I was getting closer to the British Isles.


And so, one more week is remaining, and I aim to explore Toronto just as much as I have treated the other cities on this trip. As I funnelled my way through the obligatory customs and withdrew my luggage from the conveyor belt, I emerged into winter again. There was a biting chill; it was invisible meteorological inspired acupuncture as I waited for my coach to the hostel. If a little discomforting, it's bringing back memories of Alaska again, and that has to be nothing but a benefit.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

SCHOLARSHIP DAY 126: Final Day in Los Angeles, Final Day in United States

The idea that today was to be my last day in the United States of America was, frankly, an implausible one. Since August 30th 2012 (and if a date was a planet, that is almost certainly Pluto) I have been fuelled on pure wanderlust, exploring and documenting 126 unforgettable days of my life here in the U.S.A and tomorrow I depart to Toronto, Canada for the concluding week of my peregrination. Part of me- the segment that nourishes adrenaline- is looking forward to a fresh country, even if I, the visitor, might not be as brisk and crisp as I was when I first set off those many months ago. However, there's still a fraction that is protesting it's too abrupt; after so long in one country, the consideration that in less than 24 hours, I shall be writing 1600 miles away is not one that makes any coherence.

With all of this on my conscience, I set off this morning eager to uncover the last portion of Los Angeles that my many guide books insist is worth a stroll. Long Beach would be the most southerly attraction in Los Angeles I would adventure to, and unsurprisingly, the most southerly on my scholarship, though it doesn't quite win the trophy for the most southerly in my life; that is awarded to an unforgettable strip of sand in the Sahara Desert. To access Long Beach- even to achieve a glance of it- involves the traveller having to endure close to three hours of metro commuting, through some of Los Angeles' most unkempt, ram shackled neighbourhoods. Perhaps even more frustrating is the fact that this three hour transit is divided into two separate rides, with the first heading in nearly the opposite direction to Long Beach. This clear absence of logic with regards to the public transport system here in Los Angeles does very little to settle the unwary traveller, but being the only feasible way to my desired destination, I bore the brunt and proceeded.

When the first segment of the journey met it's final destination, in Downtown Los Angeles, I withdrew myself from the usual display of morning automotive chaos and purchased a deletable hot chocolate and a pastry also delightfully of the chocolate persuasion, before I boarded the southwards bus towards Long Beach. Our battle for a unhindered journey with commuting engines and spinning tyres was a long, painfully extensive one, and yet our confinement concluded abruptly in the most unexpected of locations; underneath the most repellent of bridges, saturated in a thick menacing gloom, overflowing with a sense of undiminished dread, and engulfed in the most disagreeable of aromas as if under this bridge housed the bowels of Los Angeles. I took a few exploratory steps through the abhorrence, and realised without any map, I had little if any idea of where both the detestation and I were in relation to Long Beach. I quickly engaged myself in a brief session of orienteering and after concluding that there was only one road to take anyway, I set off.

There are, I've decided after months of travelling, two types of unknowns. They both reside in places unexplored by the traveller; not necessarily uncharted territory, but segments of the planet you, yourself, haven't passed through. One of these 'unknowns' soughts to aid the tourist, by offering as much hospitality as possible; maps on stands, a host of comprehensible street signs, some method of displaying compass direction, and a string of shops hosted by charming owners who find pleasure in assisting the lost, free of charge. Locations that find themselves in this category are ones that the visitor labels 'unfamiliar yet homely'. Unfortunately, the other 'unknown' is truly a bewildering place; befuddling the visitor, and ensuring that their every step confounds them even more. It's a place that treats foreigners as aliens, and it's this category that I regrettably slot Long Beach into.


For the first time on this journey, the Sun beat down on me like a sledgehammer, piercing through my flesh and grilling me as if I was a slab of meat to be sandwiched inside a bun. I persisted nevertheless, in anticipation of finding the beach, but the further I walked, the more disconcerting the surroundings seemed to be. Partitioning a wide expanse of road was a grass verge, well weathered though exposing large patches of bare earth. I passed a row of uninviting shops, with tinted glass and bedraggled walls, and when I peered inside, I caught only silhouettes and shadows. The beach didn't seem to be within eye distance, so I stopped by what could be classed as a newsagents, half-hoping that there would be a charming owner who finds pleasure in assisting the lost, free of charge, to ask what specific patch of planet I was trekking aimlessly through.

The shop was half-lit, but with natural light, I studied the store I had strolled into. It was stocked from floor to ceiling with everything that one might possibly require for life, and I imagined that residents of Long Beach shopped nowhere else. Leaning in boredom against the till, which perched on a well worn wooden tabletop, (a true carpenters bench) was what I assumed to be the store manager, though he possessed no more authority than the customers behind me. "Excuse me, I'm looking for the beach," I asked, cautious that I was stepping through a language barrier that probably wouldn't shift. "You at Long Beach now," the figure replied, after a seconds hesitation and a few more seconds of formulating the most grammatically correct sentence he could manage. "No, I know, but I want the beach...the coastline!" I made the most intriguing curving shape with my hand to demonstrate the coastline, but this only befuddled him more. "Sand, you know, the beach with sand" I reiterated, and instantly this manifested a sudden beam as if we shared a deep passion for the place. "Yes, the beach, umm, you go on freeway...to..umm," he looked round at a customer he obviously knew standing behind me. "he wants beach, so he goes to freeway one and then...," and immediately a deep thorough exploration of what seemed to be a handful of possible routes ensued. The lady seemed to have expertise on the matter, turned to me, and told me exactly what to do. "Listen, you take the the 101 southbound, or is it northbound? Well, anyway, you take the 101, cross to the 88 interchange, make the exit to the 68 westbound, which I always find quicker, than the 47 southbound," and this prompted a small but decisive nod by the rest of the shop. "Once you're on the 68 westbound, continue on for four miles, and you'll get to the highway crossing to the 6th mile of Ocean Avenue. Take a sharp 48 degree easterly turning here, and continue for the next two and a half minutes, but make sure you're travelling at precisely 37 miles per hour. And then you'll be there. Well, you won't see the beach at first. You'll have to fight through an overgrown hedge, walk through the lobby of the Grand Hotel, out the cleaners cupboard window, and then you'll see the sand."

Well, words to that effect. I felt very far from home. "And what about if you're walking?" I quizzed, but I only received a small chuckle from the store manager and a look at bedazzlement from the Spanish lady, who gazed at me as if I was attempting to break a world record. She broke out of this trance and then admitted: "That's a long walk. Miles!" I acknowledged their efforts, in any case, and stumbled out in the most dejected of exits.

I relinquished my quest to head for the beach, but didn't have much of an alternative plan either, so I decided to head back to the bus stop, still not believing these moments were shaping what would be my final ones in the United States. I took a detour, in the search of some sub standard adventure, but I found myself still enveloped in a bubble of passiveness. Having said this, it was at least agreeable. The houses were kept in a comparatively better fashion, with grasses trimmed, and windows cleaned. Playing innocently in the street, I passed a few young children, unguarded and unleashed. They took off on their bikes, to another house, and called from the drive towards what I imagine were the bedroom windows of their friends. Whilst it was a pleasant enough neighbourhood, simultaneously, it felt like the residents here seldom if ever ventured off it; as if, by ritual, they were confined to this one half mile stretch of road.


On the way back, I refreshed my unmoistened gums with a most revitalising ice cream, but even this perceived treat has some drawbacks in Long Beach. Without a bin for the wrapper, my fingers slowly became the victim of a sticky strawberry scented syrup. I boarded the bus, back to Santa Monica, though there was one other possibility to balance out what so far had been a rather uneventful day. The Getty Centre is apparently a fine building, with great views of the city, and a rather extensive selection of apparel outlets. I asked the bus driver upon boarding where exactly it was. "Oh, it's in Westwood. That's miles away from downtown." Miles from downtown? Long Beach was miles from downtown and I wasn't in the mood for another lengthy excursion from civilisation, so I muttered a quiet discouraged "oh" and took my seat.

Let me round up Los Angeles. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. It hasn't met up to expectations, but then perhaps that's partly my fault for having pre-designed ideas on all of the places I've explored. It's not that I've had an atrocious time here in this last segment of the west coast trip; just that, for once, I'm slightly disappointed to witness such decline in what I once believed to be a highly prolific city. I can't put my finger on just what makes it this way; perhaps it's the unmanageable size, or the unwillingness of the inhabitants. Perhaps it's a combination of both, or perhaps it's neither of these things. However, I've come round to thinking that it's these locations- these experiences- that make the greatest moments of this trip all the more memorable.