Bus Tour Staples

August 26 and 28, 2016

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Hoovar Dam from the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge

There are certain staple items that every Chinese bus tour thinks it needs to cover – a university, a chocolate factory and a shopping outlet mall. I am not being racist, it’s a genuine observation based on my experience.

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I understand the shopping bit. Most people love shopping. People want to buy stuff they may not be able to buy back home. People want to buy gifts to take back. Shopping, I get. What’s with the other two. Why do people need to be bused to a university they don’t go to? I know I’m supposed to be all awed and inspired at these great centres of learning, but one part of me just doesn’t get it. Why exactly am I walking through this campus? What am I supposed to be doing? I find the mandatory chocolate factory tour even more baffling. I like chocolate, but what’s with the tours? This is not Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and they don’t even let you into where plain ‘ole chocolate is really made; that would be a quality control issue.

summer-20168This tour took us U.C. Berkley, a chocolate factory that was shut and to an outlet mall that barely had any shops. There was a cactus garden next to the chocolate factory, but it was quite pointless driving all the way for that. At 9 a.m. they took us to an Asian buffet, with instructions to eat enough to last till the end of the day. This was brunch. There would be no lunch. We decided to take our chances and skipped it, breaking our fast instead on some bakery items we had stashed away. We reached the shopping outlet around lunch time. We were given around two hours to get back to the bus. What are buying, groceries? To be fair, there wasn’t really much to shop there. We spent our time grabbing pizzas at the cubicle sized food court.

Grand Canyon

August 27, 2016,

Grand Canyon – West Rim

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Last time we went to the South Rim. This time, for logistical reasons, we opted to go to the West Rim. The West Rim is privately held by the Hualapai Reservation. Though not as vast as the South Rim, I was more impressed. The shuttle bus makes three stops. The famous glass Skywalk (or infamous toilet seat) over the Canyon is at the second stop. There are no railings or barriers at the West Rim. It is a safety concern, but it also gives you a feel for the unfettered beauty and grandeur of the canyon. The rush you get when you stand on the edge and look down is incomparable. Be careful, for here you can hear l’appel du vide* and it will have you believe that you can soar like the eagle.

* l’appel du vide – call of the void, the crazy urge to jump from a great height

What Happened TO Vegas?

August 26-27, 2016, 

Las Vegas

We are traveling with the family and are on the bus tour that just doesn’t get the whole Vegas nights things, but even if I take those externalities out – what happened to Vegas?

The streets are less loud and the crowds are thinner; the drunk groups of young adults staggering around with oversized drinks have been replaced by families and hand holding couples. Is Vegas getting gentrified? Or is it just a reflection of how the economy is doing?

I vividly remember my first time here. It was electrifying. The strip was buzzing and bursting – jazzy lights, dancing fountains, fake monuments! Colorful characters jostled about, laughing and chattering loudly. It was like stepping into a decadent fantasy fiction.

The glamour seems to be wearing off. What happened?

Monterey Bay

August 25, 2016,

Monterey Bay

summer-20166While we did not go whale watching in Monterey Bay, the when-will-this-end bus tour took us to the aquarium.  We were given instructions on which exhibits to check out, in what order and how to get there.  The best part of this excursion was the feeding. Unlike Seaworld, you don’t get to feed the animals, you instead get to watch them feed. The big guys first, then the little ones. If you are wondering why the big fish don’t just eat the little fish, after all this is no Zootopia – the aquarium throws in lots of feed and fed food is easier to get than chasing after prey. The small fry stays out of the way till the big fry is done eating. Then comes the sardine tornado.   Hundreds of sardine swarm towards the food, like a mini silver tornado moving under water. This is the coolest part of this exhibit.

summer-20165The tour then took us along the scenic 17 mile drive, much of which hugs the gorgeous Pacific coastline.  It’s incredible, when you contrast this with the man-made and manicured beauty of the fabulous houses that line it. The bus took us to Bird Rock and allowed us savour its wild beauty for a few moments.

Should we make that desperate bid for freedom?  Before you know it, it’s too late and we are again trapped in the metal cage and shunted away.

Roaring Camp

August 25, 2016,

Roaring Camp Redwoods

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The one thing I was really looking forward to on this why-did-we-take-this trip, was taking the steam train through the Californian Redwood forest. We have seen and loved the Giant Sequoias, and the Californian Redwoods are supposed to be even bigger than their southern cousins. I’ve seen pictures of my parents driving through one of the tree tunnels, and in my head I see a train chug-chugging through a tree. In that sense, the Roaring Camp train and Redwoods are a disappointment. A gentle fog runs its tendrils through the dense foliage and early morning light dapples through. There is a slight nip in the air. The open wagon of the train is equipped with blankets which we help ourselves too. The conductor cum guide talks about the history of the camp. The train winds through the forest, giving an occasional soft toot and not billowing enough steam to make me happy. The trees tower over us, but are not enormous, not yet atleast. They are still young, and have a long long time to live before they become the giants I was expecting to see. The route is charming, but has no tunnels.  

Given a choice, I think I’d prefer a walk through Muir Woods, where I’d be able to press my left ear to the trunk of a giant tree and listen to secrets from a thousand years ago.

San Francisco

August 24, 2016,

San Francisco

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It’s a cool morning and San Francisco’s famous fog is all around us. The tour covers the usual suspects – the cable car (aka tram), Golden Gate Bridge park, crooked street, palace of fine arts, soup in a sourdough bread bowl at Boudin’s, Grace Cathedral and City Hall. The bus went up the twin peaks, to give us a panoramic view of the city. It even took us on the mandatory cruise. All must-do’s in SFO.

 At the foot of the crooked street, across the road on the left (if you have your back to it) is a tree and at its base is a memorial for a child called Achoo. I don’t know anything about this child or family, but the name is imprinted in my brain. Every time I go to SFO and the crooked street, I go and look at it. I know it is terrible to say something like this about a child long dead, but I do hope Achoo means something beautiful in whichever language, otherwise it is just mean to name a child after a sneeze. You have to take the left (back to crooked street) at the intersection and it is on the right side, at the very beginning of the road. Sweet child, rest in peace.

Summer 20169.JPGSummer is a great time to get married, and no place says take a picture here like a grand staircase. There’s sometime about grand staircases that just makes you feel like royalty – strong, poised and elegant. Sure enough, there was more than one couple getting their pictures taken on the grand stairs of City Hall. The streets of SFO are full of photo-ops, but the Palace of Fine Arts is another great place to pose.

Solvang

August 23, 2016,

Solvang

Have you heard of Solvang? We hadn’t, till the very terrible West Coast bus tour we took the family on halted very briefly here. After stop just long enough for a bio-break and a view of the gleaming white yachts anchored at Santa Barbara, the bus made its way to SFO. The Pacific Coast Highway, or Calif-1 is one of the most scenic coastal routes, with the sparkling ocean on one hand and the rugged mountains on the other.  Along the way, our guide mentioned, we would pass through the heart of California’s “angry-culture”. Not sure if I had heard him correctly, I shot the husband a quizzical look. The husband simply shrugged.  Right before this, the guide had been talking about Native Americans, Spanish missions and Mexico, but before we could form to any conclusion on this strange culture, he went on to add that 80% of America’s grapes come from here. The husband and I had a field day pointing to vineyards and laughing.

summer-20162We stopped for lunch at Solvang. Solvang, is the dream-come-true of three Danish gentlemen, who wanted to set up a village for Danish immigrants in California.  In 1911, they Danish-American Colony corporation bought almost 10,000 acres of prime land in the Santa Ynez Valley and named the new colony Solvang, meaning sunny fields.  Though originally built in the local style, the town got a Danish facelift in the 1940’s. Today, the Danish heritage is visible everywhere, in the half-timbered architecture and bakeries offering a taste of Denmark. The town even has windmills!

In recent years, Solvang has gained popularity as a wine destination as well.

While we found some pretty good vegetarian food at the only/biggest restaurant in town, we did not have enough time to explore.  We missed out on the replica of the Little Mermaid statue, the bust of Hans Christian Andersen, the wine and pastries but the old world charm hangs thick and we did get a taste of that.