Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Niagara Falls

From Richmond, it was a quick scarper up the east coast of America to Toronto. We left Richmond on Sunday morning and headed north. It's a rapid run through Washington, Baltimore and up to Newark, just outside New York, where we spent the night. In the morning we crossed over the river into New York, and swapped the car over with the rental company and kept driving. We headed through upstate New York and got to Niagara Falls late in the afternoon. We crossed the boarder into Canada and spent the night at Niagara Falls.

Canadians don't like to be mistaken for Americans. I'd never thought too much about it - I just figured that they all came from the same continent and had more or less the same accent. But they're different. Canadians are very very polite. Extremely polite. It was so noticeable - even coming almost directly from the US South, where goodness knows there are folks who make a living out of manners and etiquette.

Niagara Falls sits right on the US/Canadian boarder. And it's a disappointment. Maybe we were spoilt by the Grand Canyon. However, the Falls aren't as big as they look in photos and they're not as spectacular. The town of Niagara Falls is also, frankly, crap. Imagine the most tacky sideshow alley that you've ever seen. That's Niagara Falls. It's a shame.

We got in late in the day and decided to see the Falls the next morning. So after breakfast, and with the car all packed for our drive to Toronto, we drove around to the Falls. We could see them from the road as we looked for somewhere to park. We drove back past them as we continued to look for somewhere to park. We saw them again as we did another lap, looking for the car park.

We never did stop. We found the car park - and at $40.00 an hour for parking decided that we'd seen the Falls from the car, and that we didn't need to see them any closer.

So - off to Toronto!

Stuck in Charlottesville.......again

We decided that we'd go to Charlottesville and see Monticello - Thomas Jefferson's home. It's a special place, because Thomas Jefferson holds a special place in America. It's also a marvellous example of it's period in history. It's a fascinating place - I knew that Jefferson was an early President and had been involved writing the US Declaration of Independence, but I didn't know much more. This fellow was very well read, was passionate about education and defined himself as a farmer - not a politician. He was a man of ideas. Our visit to Monticello left me with a desire to read about Jefferson and find out more.

Charlottesville is the town nearest to Monticello. It's a few hours from Richmond, and so we thought that we'd stay a night or two there. (If you've been following along with our travels, you'll know that our bags have already been to Charlottesville) We had dinner with George and Mama ( at the Outback Restaurant - it's supposed to be Australian themed and George wanted to check out if it really is. It is.) and then after dinner drove the few hours to Charlottesville.

America is full of inns - Quality Inn, Holiday Inn, Comfort Inn, Days Inn. Some towns will have 2 or 3 of a particular chain in different parts of town. So we drove on up to Charlottesville after dinner and programed Ken for the Comfort Inn - we'd booked on line with Expedia. We drove to the Charlottesville Comfort Inn......and found that we weren't booked there. Not to worry they said - this happens all the time we were told, and they directed us to the Comfort Inn on the other side of town. The one that isn't called the Charlottesville Comfort Inn.

Trouble was, we weren't booked there either. I knew I'd booked us somewhere, but in my first act of disorganisation and overconfidence, I hadn't printed the email confirming it. And without a hotel to check into, I didn't have any way to check my email.It was dark and not much was open and there are very few netcafs in the US anyway because there's so much cheap and free internet access. Except at 10.30pm in Charlottesville.

Amy remembered my phone - my Australian mobile, which had been turned off for most of the trip. But it also downloads my email. We switched the phone on, got onto my email and got the email confirming our accommodation.........at the Quality Inn.

Back across the other side of town, not far from where we'd started at the first Comfort Inn, we checked into the Quality Inn. It was dark and we were tired. Amy went to the bathroom, planning on running bath before she went to bed. I could hear her......because she squelched across the carpet. Maybe you know that sound that wet carpet makes when someone walks across it - that's the sound that about a third of the carpet made when we walked towards the bathroom, because it was soaking. Not just a bit damp, but really really drenched. We decided that we were too tired to move rooms and that we'd cope with telling hotel reception the next day. Amy tried to run the bath and found that the only way to run it was to turn the shower on. Another thing to add to the list for Reception. And then she found the final clincher - pubic hair in the bath. Urk.

I told Reception the next morning. The fellow on reception at that point was very apologetic and told us that he'd get a plumber to fix the bath, the cleaner to take care of proper cleaning, and he'd get a fan into the room to dry out the carpet. We went off to Monticello.

When we got back from Monticello late that afternoon he'd done exactly as he'd said. The bath was fixed and we didn't need to turn the shower on to fill it - and there was no foreign pubic hair. There was a huge industrial fan in the room - which helped with the Virginia-in-summer-heat - and the carpet was drying. We went off for dinner feeling much better about the whole thing.

After dinner we settled back into bed to watch some TV and read. That's when we discovered that the fan had got the fleas in the carpet on the move. A lot.

We told Reception the next morning. We expected some sort of discount on the room, or voucher for future use........something! Instead, we were told that they 'don't do discounts' and it was too bad about the fleas. The manager told me that as well when I asked to see him.

I told Expedia about our experience and received a voucher from them that we used to reduce our accommodation costs in LA on the way home. And we left a scathing review on the website.

It's better to stay than to go

We had a ball in Richmond and stayed longer than we’d originally planned. We figured that New York would still be there for another trip, that we could do an overnighter to Washington, and that we’d much rather stay in Richmond seeing family longer.

Where else would we get to sing karoke but at Kevin’s place. He’s got a huge plasma TV and playstation karoke. Kevin works as a bartender and does a very good job of it. I know – karoke is so much better after the second mojito.

And George’s band – East of Afton – plays in Richmond. They play the best bluegrass music that I’ve ever heard.

I haven’t laughed as much as I did in such in a long time after a night out with Katie. Have several nights out with her and Joyce, her buddy, and I wound up with sore sides from laughing.

And then there was just the pleasure of sitting around the living room while Amy and her mother and Katie went through 40 years of family photos.

Amy was such a cutie!


Amy has 5 brothers, one sister and a step sister. There are assorted nieces and nephews – the eldest is 21, the youngest is 13 months old. And there are the various in-laws and partners and girl friends.

It’s not often that everyone’s in the same place at the same time, especially with Ricky a 12 hour drive away, and Amy in Australia. So, Amy’s mama decided that the time had come to get everyone together while Amy was in Richmond.

So Saturday afternoon there we all were.

This is what happens when an Australian takes a photo, and says "everyone say vegemite!"

So - who's in the photo?

That's Amy's brother Bruce and his son Nathan at the back next to Amy. Then Amy and her sister Katie. The fellow with arms around them is brother Kevin. Directly in front of Kevin is their mother, and beside her is George, Amy's stepfather.In front of Amy is Callie, Bruce's daughter, and beside her is another niece Abigail. Sitting on the front porch is Mark, another brother and behind the bush is Susan his wife. Next to her is Ashley, Amy's daughter, and beside her is Linnae, Amy's mothers step mother.


Richmond is green and leafy. There's history around most corners - it was the capital city of the South during the US civil war, and before that, a site of early settlement in the US.

I know that there's a city – a downtown – there in Richmond. Big buildings and traffic and the like. But that's not the Richmond that I saw. I saw a green and leafy Richmond.

The US is a strange place. Or maybe Australia is. Anyway – I'm used to cities that have a big line drawn around them and that's the city. The line includes all those suburbs and people that stretch off into the Australian horizon. In the US it seems that there's the city and the line is drawn in tight. Then there are towns and counties that seem to be part of the city – at least to me they do – but are actually part of something else. It's all very confusing to my Australian eyes.

So my Richmond is actually Chesterfield County. That’s where Amy’s family lives. It’s like lots of TV pictures - big oak and pine trees, weatherboard houses on blocks of land that lack definition. There are no fences. None at all. There are no jobs for fence building fellows in the US. Unlike Australia, where we’re all very quick to get our 6ft pailing fences up, and make sure the neighbours can’t see into our yards and gardens, in so much of the US there are no fences.

Richmond gets snow in winter and is stinking hot in summer. Seriously, humidly hot. And serious snow that needs to be shoveled. My Australian temperate-climate heart shuddered. We get a bit warmer, and a bit colder. None of this temperature below zero nonsense. No humidity that makes it hard to breath.

This was my first real taste of the US South. Not actually deep south, but south none the less. It showed. Everywhere we went people were unfailingly charming. Nothing was too much trouble. There was usually a conversation thrown in about my accent, and where did I come from and that they’d always wanted to go to Australia and did I really have kangaroos and koalas? Increasingly folks told Amy that they could hear her Australian accent as well.

Oh - and the photo? That's Amy and her sister Katie

Sunday, August 17, 2008


From Alabama, the plan was to fly to Richmond in Virginia to see the rest of Amy's family.

At least that was the plan. The flight from Alabama to Charlotte in North Carolina was fine. There as a brief stopover in Dallas, and all those empty seats were filled by loud laughing ladies in various hues of pink and red. There'd been a Mary Kay cosmetics convention in Dallas, and they were all on the way home.

From Charlotte, we were supposed to have a few hours stop over and then fly on to Richmond. That's where things started to unravel. We hadn't been allocated seats – was in spite of having booked tickets in January. So we were checked in, and our luggage had left – but were told that originally the flight was allocated to a 70 seater plane, but it had been changed to a 50 seater – and there were now 14 people too many.

Doesn't make much sense, does it.

But that was okay, because the plane – any plane - wasn't there anyway. And no-one seemed to know when we could expect one to show up. The staff at the gate certainly had no idea and they didn't want anyone asking questions like 'do you know what's happening?'

Around 4 hours later we were told that it was fine – a new plane had been allocated and it had 70 seats, so we could all go to Richmond now. When the plane got there. The new guy on duty at the gate was much more on the ball, and seemed willing to answer questions so we felt like we were getting somewhere.

An hour or so later a plane turned up, and we all looked expectant.

We all continued to look expectant. A flight steward who was also waiting to hop a flight so that he could get to his next assignment began chatting with me and told me that the airline had installed a new software system three months earlier and that this kind of confusion and delay had been happening ever since then.

The guy at the gate told us that there were mechanical problems and that the plane was delayed.

Half an hour later – and six or seven hours after we were due to leave – the guy at the gate told us that our flight had been cancelled. We'd all be put on flights to Richmond the following day. No – there weren't any hotel or food vouchers, and there was no guarantee that we'd actually be on a flight the following day. Oh – but if we wanted to go to Charlottesville in Virginia they could get us there that day. Oh – but our luggage would go to Richmond. regardless of what we did, it seemed that our bags were going to fly to Richmond – but not us.

Charlottesville in Richmond is about 2 hours by car from Richmond. That seemed closer, so we took the re-route, thinking that we could hire a car and drive to Richmond.

We got on the phone and tried to get a rental car from Charlottesville to Richmond. No luck. No car. Charlottesville VA began to seem like a lousy option. Staying in Charlotte NC was another lousy option.
We could get a rental car in Charlotte NC, though and drive that through to Richmond. We couldn't get our bags back – we'd have to retrieve them in Richmond the next day. That seemed the best option.

The drive to Richmond took about 6 or 7 hours and we arrived around 1 in the morning. The next day we went to Richmond airport to get our bags and were told that – despite everything we'd been told about them going to Richmond - they were in Charlotte VA. While the airline got them back – and promised to have them delivered to our hotel by midnight that day – we went to Kmart and bought underwear and T shirts.

Around 10.30 that night, our bags arrived in Richmond, at our hotel.

On to Alabama

From New Mexico we flew to Birmingham in Alabama to see Amy's brother Ricky and meet his partner and kids.

When we got off the plane, the first thing we noticed was the heat, followed soon after by the humidity. Alabama in July is like walking through warm milk – hot and steamy. The contrast between New Mexico and Alabama couldn't be more stark – from flat dry deserts, to steamy trees and humidity. Either way, it was all hot.

Ricky is one of the nicest people you'll ever meet. His family is just like him – really lovely people. In particular, Aiden his youngest at all of 13 months old, and I decided that we're best mates.

We got into Birmingam on Saturday evening and left the following Monday morning. Next time, we'll spend more time Ricky.

Andy's Tips for New Mexico

1.Don't bother with Albuquerque. We never could find the city – instead we found lots of freeways. Maybe Santa Fe is better – but we never got there.
2.Go to Acamo. It's a marvellous and awe inspiring place.
3.Get out of the city – the countryside is better than the city.
4.Go to the Pueblo Museum. if you can, get there on a day when there is dancing.
5.Don't bother with the New Mexico National Hispanic Cultural Centre, unless you want lunch. The restaurant had the best and cheapest mexican food that we had anywhere, but there weren't any displays.
6.Be prepared to be bombarded and disappointed if you go to the Old Town in Albuquerque. It's gorgeous old architecture that has been taken over by folks selling junk – check the labels because even though it'll look like the real deal, most of it is made in China or India.
7.If you must go to the Old Town, buy stuff from the folks selling in the open air. These are usually the artists.

Step to one side in New Mexico

New Mexico is decidedly odd. We always felt a bit in the way there. Not that a anyone was rude or unwelcoming......we were just somehow in the way.

Our hotel was fine, but I suspect that the housekeeping staff felt that they'd get much more done, if only the guests weren't there. Our first room (yes, there was a second room) was a Garden Room. This meant that we had garden outside our ground floor room. It looked lovely. And most of the housekeeping and maintenance staff agreed with us, because they'd be there, right out the side our door, laughing, joking, drinking and smoking most of the time. There went the garden – instead, we had a curtains-drawn-to-keep-out-the-staff room.

But I have to be fair to the staff - sometimes they worked really hard. Usually it was at the beginning of the day. There's be lots of laughing and talking and clatter coming from the laundry room as folks got their housekeeping assignments and loaded up their trolleys. The housekeeping staff began their day around 6am.

We didn't need an alarm clock. The hotel laundry was immediately outside our room. If we tried to come out of our room into the hallway too early in the day, we'd find our door blocked by housekeeping trolleys, and staff.

The best time to get out of our room in the morning was around 8.30. By this time the housekeeping staff were out and about, and the hall was pretty clear. The housekeeping staff figured that this was a good time for breakfast. I had to agree with them- I also thought this was a good time for breakfast. So, if I didn't make it to the dinning room in time, I'd be in line, trying to get around the crowds of chatting and laughing housekeeping folks who like the breakfast choices available to the guests.

The hotel restaurant was different though. There we were made very welcome by Trish the waitress. Ooops. Trish, the server. In the US there aren't waiters and waitresses – everyone is a server. Anyhow, Trish seemed very pleased to see us, and we were very pleased to see her salad bar. So pleased to see us that she told us all about her problems with her 16 year old son. That was useful – it explained why she was ducking off to the side with her mobile phone, yelling into it, or crying. The manager didn't seem to mind though – she was very taken up with some men who came in from the hotel bar and seemed to know her very very well. I'm sure that one of them was responsible for the hickey on her neck.

On our second night in the restaurant, Trish updated us on the progress of her problems with her son and told us about her other lad – the older one, who was in his early 20s and no problem at all. The manager seemed to have an extra hickey or two, and different young blokes from the bar keeping her company. Trish took 10% off our dinner bill, because she liked us.

On our third night in the restaurant, Trish told us that her problem son had finally come home. The manager spent a lot of time coming and going between the restaurant and the bar. There was a woman in a business suit there as well. Trish didn't give us a bill for dinner.

On our fourth night there were new staff. The manager was gone. Trish was gone. The new staff seemed to know what they were doing, were warm and welcoming and professional. I don't know if they had son problems. I don't know if they knew any of the blokes in the bar. They charged us full price for our meals and we left a tip.

The Twighlight Zone

New Mexico is an altogether strange place.

We drove through the Jemez Valley. This is a beautiful valley just outside Albuquerque. After the dryness of most of New Mexico the valley - and the mountains on either side of it were a welcome change and really beautiful. We could see for miles down the valley and back towards Albuquerque. After all the various shades and hues of desert, the mountains, the trees and the creeks running through them were a welcome change.

So we moseyed through the mountains. it's about a 70 mile drive, so that's about 120 kms, each way.

At the end of the mountain drive, we were hungry. It was around midday, and lunch seemed like a good idea. At the end of the mountain road, there's a choice: keep driving into national park, or drive into town. Town seemed good, so we took the turn to Los Alamos.

Los Alamos has history. Research and testing for the first atomic bombs took place here. It still has huge research and development happening and at 10,000 people is the biggest employer in New Mexico.

Coming into town we were stopped. There's a guard booth and gateway. This is just to enter the town. We needed to produce ID and tell the dude on guard duty why we were coming to town.....'we're hungry – we'd like some lunch, please?' He let us through: 'You can go downtown and get lunch'.

It was hard to find downtown. Usually we can find McDonalds, Burger King, Taco Bell, et al really easily – they're hard to miss. Unless you're in Los Alamos. Any takeaway or lunch type places were right off the beaten track and we needed to ask Ken where they were. It was just as well that we had Ken with us – there was no-one on the streets. There were plenty of cars and trucks and buses – including the Atomic Bus Service – but no-one walking. On top of the guard coming into town, it began to feel a bit creepy.

Eventually we found Maccas and got some lunch from the impossibly polite stepford-like young men working there. Then it was onto Sonic for more takeaway.

We couldn't get out of Los Alamos quickly enough. Literally. Leaving town was just the same as entering it – except this time there was a wide row of guard booths across the road, we needed to account for where we'd been and what we'd done, so that we could get out of town.

We drove back towards Albuquerque, taking the long way through the Jemez valley again, hoping to regain the peace and quietness that Los Alamos took away.


Wolves are amazing animals. I thought that they were just big dogs – and boy was I wrong. Wolves are a whole 'nother beast altogether. They look cute as anything – but they're not really. They are handsome in a real wild beast sort of way.

It seems that there are some folks who think that they can keep wolves as pets, or that they can cross breed them with a dog and get a wolf who behaves like a dog. And that doesn't happen.

Eventually, the wolf/wolf-dog stops being a cute little wolf cub and gets dangerous. Maybe he mauls someone. Maybe she just keeps scaring the crap out of her keepers. Either way, it becomes apparent that the wolf can't stay at home anymore, and that's where the Wolf Sanctuary in New Mexico comes in.

The wolves can't be rehabilitated to the wild because so much of their life has been spent with folks who've tried to domesticate them. Unsuccessfully. And they can't remain as pets. The Wolf Sanctuary is a kind of half way house for half way wolves.

They live in pairs in big enclosures. Wolves mate for life, so most of the adult wolves are in pairs. There's the older female wolf who is in an enclosure on her own – her mate died, and she's not taken to any other males who have joined her – she seems happiest on her own.

Some of the wolves have roles, or tasks. There's Raven – he's the really handsome black wolf. Most wolves are scared of people and don't want anything to do with them, becoming aggressive. Not Raven – he quite enjoys people and has a nature that doesn't get too stressed by it all. So Raven's become the ambassador wolf for the Sanctuary. He goes to schools for education programs, and has marched in local parades. he's getting on in years now, and so the folks at the Sanctuary are looking for another wolf who could take on some of Raven's load.

Oh – and there's a confused boarder collie. The story goes that she was brought to the sanctuary as a young dog, and the owner claimed that she was a wolf/dog cross, and tat if th sanctuary didn't take her, he was going to shoot her. The sanctuary had some misgivings, but they took her anyway. She bonded with a grumpy male wolf.....and grew into an adult boarder collie.

The folks at the Sanctuary tried to get her out of her enclosure. You see, dogs and wolves are more different than most folks expect. A dog coming towards me with a wagging tale = happy friendly dog. A wolf coming towards me with a wagging tale = scared wolf. Dogs play with each other. Wolves don't. The sanctuary folks figured that in the same way that wolves are unhappy when treated as dogs, then this dog shouldn't be treated as wolf.

But she doesn't know that. As far as she's concerned, she's a wolf, she has her mate and neither she nor her mate are letting her out of the enclosure. She seems happy enough – even if she does look out of place.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Acamo Pueblo

Acamo Pueblo has been continuously occupied longer than any other town or settlement in the US. The Acamo people have been there since early in the 1100s. The Spanish came along in the 1700s and tried to take over. The Acamo people did the equivalent of smiling-and-waving – they tried to get on with the Spanish, and just went about their business. So when the Spanish told them that they could no longer worship in their own way – in small round buildings with an entryway in the roof – the Acamo people decided to worship in square buildings that looked just like their homes. So that the Spanish didn't notice that there was a ladder to the roof for the entry, they put ladders up to the roofs of all the houses in the settlement – and just continued in their worship. Somewhere along the way, some Spanish catholicism got mixed in with it as well.

Acamo is built on the top of a mesa – that's the top of a hill that looks like it's top has been chopped off to form the flat tabletop. Our guide told us that it was originally built there so that the tribe could see approaching enemies. There are a number of people who live on the mountain, in homes that are passed down from mother to youngest daughter in each family. There's no water or power on the mountain, so that means all water is carted up from the valley. That's not so bad now – there are pick up trucks all over the place – but before trucks and cars and roads were there to do the job, it all had to be carted by hand.

The only way into the settlement – unless you're a member of the tribe – is with a guide. Our guide Fred was a member of tribe. It was really special to see the respect and kindness that people showed to each other as we walked around the village. It seemed real, and not at all put on for the tourists.