I can feel absolute anger and rage building up in my neck as I make my way from photograph to photograph displayed on the walls at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Photographs so graphic and horrific, of men, women and children killed and maimed in the Vietnam War, sprawled from wall to wall over two floors of the museum. I’m shocked beyond belief coming face to face with the reality of this war for the first time. While I had seen films about it back home, in the main, they were American or westernized productions, portraying the story from a very different perspective than that which was facing me here. It occurs to me now that these movies that I had seen had rarely, if ever, had Vietnamese actors starring in them. Looking at the photos on display, taken by photographers from many countries throughout the world who travelled to Vietnam to highlight the horrors of the war to the rest of the world and who in the main were killed or missing in action, I can only describe it as life changing. I had undertaken this trip wanting to learn about other cultures, to educate myself about the world outside of Ireland, and this is exactly what I got here, in bucketfuls! Many of the photos displayed are from photographers’ last rolls of films, taken before they were killed. They have been developed and preserved, and notes they had made about the photos they had taken are cited alongside the pictures. They are a “selective collection” at the same time, I’ve no doubt. I am seeing for the first time the story unfold from the side of the Vietnamese people. I’m trying desperately to rationalize in my mind what I am seeing as I walk around the museum. Trying not to scream out at people of all nationalities around me “what the f**k went on here? Do leaders of the world know about this too? And if so what the f**k has been learned from it?” I manage to take control of my anger and get through about two thirds of the museum before breaking down in tears and leaving, angry and distressed at witnessing the true reality of what human beings are capable of doing to each other. What they were “trained” to do to their fellow human beings! And I ask myself, Why? For what? (For the record, I say the same about any war happening today!)
I believe it’s important to explain in this blog, as graphic as it might seem, what I saw. Conscious of the fact that each side, the North Vietnamese people and the Southern Vietnamese (supported by the USA) have their own version of events. I know that as a visitor to this country that I have no real educated or in-depth knowledge of the events leading up to or after the war. I am merely stating what is on view at this museum, and my reaction to it. I know what is on display is a one-sided viewpoint supported by a now Socialist Government with a slightly Communist approach that portrays the USA military as the enemy and themselves as the outright “winners” of this war! Propaganda is a powerful tool, particularly if it’s presented in the form of a historic museum and where displays and public records documenting the past are not sugar coated, but lay the blame squarely at the feet of the USA. This is how the museum is presented. (To be fair, as we all know there are two sides to every story and there are no attempts to take one side or the other in my blog). There are no winners in this! I do however question the wisdom of the Americans in ever becoming involved to begin with given the horrors they had to endure also as a result of this war. I am sure I won’t be the first or the last to ask this question!
In a nutshell, as most people are aware, and from what I’ve learned from being in Vietnam, the war in the main was between North and South Vietnam. The North wanted a Communist regime governing the country whereas the Southern Vietnamese people, (supported by the USA), wanted a Democratic Government. (The country had previously been split following the French Colonial occupiers pulling out of Vietnam). The Northern Government referred to the Southern Government at that time as “The Puppet Government” (referring to the fact that they believed they were mere “puppets” of the USA and the French). The outcome of the war was that the Northern factions of the Vietnam military succeeded in defeating the Southerners and Americans in April 1975 and reclaimed the southern part as their own. The southern city, previously known as Saigon, then became known as Ho Chi Minh city, named after the leader of the North Vietnamese Communist party. Following the war, the country was governed by a single Government from Northern Vietnam, a Socialist Government, run by a Communist party that still exists to this day.
As I arrived at the Museum, on the face of it from the outside entrance, I expected it to be pretty much like any other museum that I had visited. Oh boy, how naïve I was! War tanks and USA military helicopters and aircraft that had been discarded after the US military fled in defeat, graced the foreground of the site in an almost boastful “we won” fashion . People were happily taking “smiley” selfies beside these tanks and aircraft, which from the small bit I knew about the atrocities of the war before ever entering the main museum, seemed a little distasteful. But in hindsight, I saw those same people inside the museum looking just as shocked and horrified as I was. I’ve no doubt they did not expect to see the horrors unfold before them either once they began the tour.
As you enter the main exhibition area on the ground floor there are photos of Northern Vietnamese Soldiers (who are incidentally referred to as “Patriots”), held in captivity in small, low ‘tiger’ cages covered in barbed wire. There is no room for them to stand and the cages are no bigger than a tiger cage, and aptly named. Within these cages prisoners were tortured and maimed and the list of the various torturing methods are posted on the walls around the cages and near the tiny prison cells where prisoners of war were held. Tortures listed included severe beatings, locking prisoners in oil drums, removing prisoners teeth, finger and toe nails, using radiation type lights to blind them, making prisoners roll on spiked iron grills, burning mouths with acid so they couldn’t eat and eventually died of starvation, burning their genitalia, boiling them in water and burying of prisoners alive. This is just a small example from the lists posted. There are more, too horrifying and numerous to mention here.
And then as you enter the main indoor area of the museum, you are faced with the most horrific photos of men, women and children holding onto each other in fear. Orphaned sisters and brothers no older than about 5 or 6, holding their baby siblings and trying to care for them on their own in the middle of roadways, where parents had been captured or killed. Women and children with guns pointed at their heads, the dead bodies of mothers lying in the huts they called homes, having been raped and beaten, surrounded by their young children who had witnessed the events prior to her death. All photographed within moments of the events happening! Children, who themselves had been shot and wounded with limbs missing. A baby boy no older than a year old sitting screaming in terror on a roadside, abandoned because his family had been driven out in fear at gunpoint. There is no follow-up as to what might have happened to this little mite and I dread to think of it! A mother trying to hold her four children’s heads above water in a filthy river as she tried to get them to safety. An American Soldier, holding up the head and torn torso of a Vietnamese Man he had just butchered. Young men who had been captured being flung from aircrafts to their deaths below! There was nothing these soldiers didn’t do in their torturing of human beings to whoever they saw as their enemy.
One photo of a beautiful young woman holding her baby on her hip caught me right in the gut. She was surrounded by her not much older children, who were clinging to her in fear as they looked down the barrel of a gun pointed at them. The photographer records that he was passing by and saw the scene in front of him and quickly took the photo. He continues “by the time I had passed, I heard the rain of bullets and the thud of each of them falling to the ground”! Young American and Vietnamese soldiers (younger than my own sons) lying in mucky ditches with such fear in their eyes, injured and maimed. Every photo had the same theme. Fear in the eyes of every one of the subjects being photographed. I have often heard of the war in Vietnam being described as “Hell on Earth”, and that is the best description of what was unfolding before my eyes. And the horror was that these were real people, real events, captured live in a moment in time. Most photos were taken only moments before these people were killed.
And then, a wall dedicated to all of the photographers who had taken the photos and who inevitably had been killed or lost in action. Men and women who had come to Vietnam from across the world, to make a difference, to try to bring the attention of the rest of the world to the real atrocities happening here. They were not spared and were tortured and killed in the same fashion as those who they were filming.
Barely holding it together, I moved to the next area of the museum. Within minutes of seeing what was behind these doors I was feeling physically sick and crying uncontrollably and had to leave. I hadn’t ever read or known about the chemical warfare that had gone on during this war. The “Agent Orange” chemical that was used to spray the wooded areas to burn down the trees and shrubs in order to force the North Vietnamese soldiers out of their camouflaged camps worked, but what has been left behind in this beautiful country is an absolute shame on mankind. The effects of the chemicals some forty years later are still evident to this day and graphically displayed for all to see in this museum. Photos of fetuses severely deformed as a result of the side effects of “Agent Orange” have been preserved in jars to show to the world what this war has done. Photos of the deformed bodies of these babies looking out at you from jars as you pass by. Photos of children with deformities I’ve never seen before and are images that only nightmares are made of. Children, who made it through the birth and are suffering to this day from the illnesses caused by the after effects of these chemicals. Young babies, beautiful innocent children and teenagers still suffering as a result of these goddamn war tactics. And the saddest moment of all. When I left the exhibition to gather myself together, I went outside to sit down outside the children’s crèche that’s available on site for parents to leave their children as they visit the museum. A beautiful Vietnamese young boy caught my eye inside, laughing with the children (main photo above). He was sitting at a keyboard playing it for the young children. And as I looked closer at him I saw that he had no eyes. Not even eye sockets. He was laughing happily with his friends, and it was just then that I remembered seeing a photo of him on the wall inside. He was another victim of the war, working at the museum. A beautiful child with his whole life ahead of him. No older than 15. And I couldn’t help thinking what sort of a future might he have. He would probably never be able to marry and have children of his own, given that he too had clearly been effected by the “Agent Orange” chemical and most likely wouldn’t risk having any more children himself where there was such a high risk of possible horrific side effects. His work prospects would be severely limited, and here he was, laughing happily like he hadn’t a care in the world. And I thought, for a fleeting moment, I will never complain about insignificant things in my life again! No doubt that won’t last too long
(Photo: Beautiful Vietnamese boy I saw at the Museum)
Since visiting the museum, I understand that American Soldiers also suffered horrific side effects from this chemical. Many have been compensated by the American Government. The Vietnamese people however have not.
Separately, the Vietnamese people cannot use huge areas of rich farmland because of land mines left over from this war. Landmines that still threaten their safety to this day! A country that is struggling with poverty on all fronts, is confined to restricted areas of the country to provide for its people because to use these lands would risk more lives!
I had planned to visit other historical sites in the city, but cannot bring myself to see anymore. Days later, I am still seeing these victims of war every time I close my eyes. Not only have the people of Vietnam suffered as a result of what I can only describe as greed, or absolute lunacy of war no matter where it happens, but is it any wonder that the Vietnam Vets in the USA suffered severe mental illness on their return to the US after the war? These young army men on both sides were trained to injure and kill other human beings like this? When we were in the States, many of the older homeless men that we met were Vietnam Vets with mental illnesses because they clearly could never overcome what they witnessed here. I get it now! I’m sure there are many articles and blogs written about this long before I have ever touched a keyboard, but lads. We seriously need to get our shit together when it comes to this kind of stuff. The leaders of the world are seeing similar atrocities happening all over the world to this day, and still allowing it to happen!
Vietnam and the USA since 2013 have thankfully begun a process of negotiations and healing, which is great. But this won’t fix the young children that have been so badly effected by the chemical warfare that took place here. It won’t bring back the men, women and children that were lost, both on the Vietnamese and American side. But Jesus, the world needs to learn some hard and fast lessons from this country’s history! With wars still going on today that are just as horrific, where innocent children are victims of a fate similar to what has happened here, (and Syria in particular comes to mind, not to mention all of the other countries), and for what? At the end of the day…we ALL need to ask ourselves….FOR WHAT? FOR BLOODY WHAT?!!!!! In the words of one of our own historically revered Irish patriots, Daniel O’Connell, “no country is worth the spilling of one drop of blood while killing a man in duel”. Wise words indeed!
(Photo of one of the Buddhist statues at the Lama Temple, Beijing, China)
It was 5 years ago when I first visited China. My daughter lived in Beijing and that was as good an excuse as any for me to board a plane and come visit her. On the day I arrived in Beijing Allie, in her wisdom, took me cycling for 9 hours to help me “re-adjust” to the time difference and of course to feed the mosquitos with some new foreign blood. They feasted on me from the time I arrived, until I realized that wearing strawberry flavor lipgloss probably wasn’t the best idea I’d ever had 😱. Mosquitoes are inclined to have a sweet tooth. My lips paid the price. Free Botox basically! 😜
During my stay in 2013 Allie took me to one of the most beautiful parts China. A small rural village in southern China called Yangshuo, situated about 70 Kms from the city of Guilin and the closest thing to Paradise on earth I’d ever seen. If you want to experience the true Chinese culture, this is the place to visit! Back then, we travelled on to Shanghai from Yangshuo where I met her then new boyfriend, Jonny, who is now her husband. They had met on a Russian aircraft carrier ship that had docked in China shortly before my arrival. A party was in full swing on the ship and Jonny naturally spotted my glamorous daughter across the dance floor (biased much? 😂, but I speak the truth). They had never clapped eyes on each other until this particular night. And when he asked her to dance, lo and behold, they discovered that they both hailed from our hometown of Tullamore in Co. Offaly. How mad is that? In a country with over 1.4 billion people, that two Irish people who lived in different cities (Jonny lived in Shanghai and Alison in Beijing) would meet and fall in love and eventually marry and go on to have my beautiful grandson Harry. Now that’s Serendipity at its best!
Anyway, I digress! So, way back then when we travelled around China, I totally fell in love with this place. With its people, its unique culture (well parts of it), the beautiful landscapes, the Temples and Gardens and basically the history associated with it. It fascinates me! Some of its Temples go back to the 1300s, with fabulous tales of Emperors and their Empresses and concubines no less! It’s spectacular to experience and nothing like you might imagine it might be, before you arrive. The media coverage in the western world is not often very complimentary to China and there are many reasons why, however there is an abundance of beauty and wonder about the place that just must be seen to be believed. In a nutshell, you experience what can only be described as “a whole new world” and very different to any other country in the world in terms of its customs and practices. It’s a Communist country of course and one of only a handful of countries remaining to be governed in this way. Governments and people throughout the world have various opinions on Communism generally and I get that. There are ongoing concerns associated with Communism, particularly around human rights which I might touch on later, but for now I’ll reserve judgement on the political side of things. Democracy also has its own set of problems, including human rights issues, however in a very different form I guess.
And so, arriving back in Beijing had a huge level of excitement attached to it for me. Since my earlier trip, I have been constantly raving to Colm (and everyone else who’d listen) about its beauty. And so after a welcoming traditional Chinese meal with some friends in Jinsong, we ventured out the following morning for a walk in a nearby Chinese park to get some much needed rays of sunshine. As I mentioned earlier, there are some very significant differences between Chinese and European culture. Some good, some not so good. One of the differences I struggled with on our first day out, (and still do), was the constant “hocking up” of phlegm and spitting on the street, and indeed in restaurants while eating. It is an everyday occurrence here and possibly the reason for the tradition of taking shoes off at the door of every Chinese home I guess. “Hocking” is as normal here as sneezing back home. Not an eyelid is batted as girls and guys walking along hock up and spit phlegm in every direction. Heading out for breakfast in the mornings, I would be pretty hungry, only to get to the restaurant and having seen all of the hocking going on, decide that I could only handle a cup of boiled water or a coffee. Great for the diet, and it does take a bit of getting used to, particularly when it’s happening at the next table at a restaurant where you’re trying to enjoy a meal. Not for the faint hearted, but on the overall scale of things it’s a small inconvenience and trade off for the experience of seeing the sights of China.
On the day in question, as we strolled around the park, delighted with ourselves to be in Beijing at last, I decided to use the restrooms. Off I toddled into the ladies toilets, to the familiar sight of the toilet bowls positioned at ground level! Apparently this is a much healthier way for our body to rid itself of unwanted waste (ahem) by squatting over a bowl built into the ground. In fairness, it doesn’t present too many problems until you’ve had a few gin and tonics, and then it’s hilarious. You get the picture 😱And it’s also best to carry around your own toilet paper. Oh and that’s not to be flushed but rather placed neatly in a basket beside the toilet after use!! I’m just sayin’ ha ha. Interesting stuff indeed. Forewarned is forearmed 🧐
A very endearing thing happened to me on this day out and indeed on a few other occasions here. While I was at the sinks in the ladies toilet on this particular occasion an elderly woman had obviously spotted me going in to the cubicle and unbeknown to me, followed me and waited for me outside. When I came out, she produced her phone and kept touching my face and signalled that she wanted to have her photo taken with me. The same happened on another day out, when an older woman near the apartment where we were staying in Jinsong (on the outskirts of the city) ran up to me excitedly and asked that I allow her to take a photo of me with her. It occurred to me then that these elderly women, who had no access to social media or in fact any media or news from the outside world, had probably rarely, if ever, seen someone from outside of China. A foreigner, as we grew familiar with being referred to and that amused us no end. We were the only westerners for miles and the warmth and welcome we got from the elderly people living in the area was unbelievable. But also somewhat sad at the same time. Social media is blocked by the Government in China and so such restrictive practice means that the people living here literally exist on a planet of their own, isolated from the rest of the world (unless they are privileged enough to be able to afford to travel outside of the country of course). They have their own Facebook (Weibo) which is only available to those living in China. They have WeeChat, instead of Messenger or WhatsApp. Living with no access to outside media or news, only news that is strictly monitored and edited to reflect only postive news about their own Government, its governance and occurrences generally in China. There is no requirement on the Government for transparency on any level in the same way that there is back home, financial reporting included. Statistics and monetary reporting are sporadic, questionable and cosmetic at best!
On another day we went for a walk around a park after a trip to The Forbidden City in the Centre of Beijing. I was entranced with the sound of choirs singing, out of sight at various parts of the park where we walked. I couldn’t resist trying to find the source of this magnificent music amongst the huge trees and pathways. We made our way towards the chanting and singing to discover, to our amazement, crowds of people gathered together singing the most enchanting songs in harmony and in unison with such passion! It was like witnessing a world class operatic performance right there in the centre of the park. And on further enquiry I discovered that this singing, almost cult like, was a celebration of the love and admiration that the people of China have to this day for their deceased, most famous leader of the Communist party, Mao Tse Tung. It was magical, it was eerie and it was all-consuming. At every corner of the park, another choir had gathered, all singing patriotic songs about Mao, (and quite possibly commissioned by him in writings before his death). These events are apparently supported by the existing Communist Government, and it’s a very surreal experience to witness how the Chinese people revere and idolize this man, in an almost godlike fashion. And remember, the Chinese people in the main have only ever been exposed to positive stories about this man, Mao. Many outside of China would have varied opinions about his reign, some not as charitable as those within China itself, however given that I’m still in Asia and hoping to spend some more time in China, it’s best to avoid this subject for the moment! It’s also noteworthy that the vast majority of Chinese people are unaware of the horrific events of Tiananmen Square that occurred in 1989. Nationwide restrictions on reporting the events that occurred in Beijing on that day are still very much in place and westerners are forbidden to discuss anything associated with that day with the Chinese people. In fact, any discussion in public by Chinese people which might be interpreted as being disloyal to the Government brings with it severe penalties, imprisonment and worse. And yet, on the social media platform anyone can threaten to kill or maim an individual and that activity is not in breach of any law. Our laws thankfully forbid such activities and I’d like to think that if someone publicly threatened to murder another person that the full force of the law would come down on them.
I explain all of the above to give an indication as to the very different environment that exists here by comparison to back home. As a foreigner in this country however, it is probably the safest place to visit and travel around. Crime is practically non-existent as the fear of punishment is much too great and so we have had the luxury of absolute freedom to explore and venture around both Beijing and Shanghai with the comfort and security of knowing we are totally safe. And yet there is a whole “pang of conscience” bit going on for us, given that we are learning more day by day about the workings of the State, and yet we still chose to visit and holiday here. However, like I said earlier; we are here because of the beautiful country, the people, the learning experience and are trying to do so in a non-judgemental and respectful way, of a culture that is so very different from our own. The Chinese people themselves are kind and caring in the extreme. They are excited to be meeting with “foreigners” and cannot do enough to make us feel welcome in their country.
So, as we settled in, one of our first challenges on our “to do list” after our arrival was the “must do” climb of The Great Wall. We headed off early on the morning to tackle it, and took a cable car to the top of the wall to begin the challenge. The temperatures were nearing 32 degrees celsius. We mapped out our plan of where we would walk, a total of 2kms, which sounds like a simple task, but in such hot temperatures, loathe though I am to admit it, it was torturous for me at certain parts. In contrast, it didn’t knock a feather out of Colm. I blame the fact that I am an ex-smoker and I believe no matter how long ago it was that I gave up, the effects are very much still there. I tried to walk the same distance during my last visit to Beijing and failed miserably, and this time I was determined not to give in. It took the guts of two hours, (probably the longest two hours of my life) but I did it. The scenery is spectacular as you climb higher and higher, and as we walked we met so many people from all over the world who had also travelled to do the climb. The key to doing it is to bring lots of water to drink along the way. Dehydration can happen really quickly, so it’s essential that you keep hydrated no matter what the weather. The mango ice pop that I treated myself to at the top was so worth the wait!
(Climbing the Great Wall – the struggle was real!)
Another great outing that we did was to the world renowned Beijing Acrobatic Show in a quaint theater in the centre of Beijing. As a spectator it was both jaw-dropping and a “heart in your mouth” experience as the acrobats performed dangerous stunts to perfection. The standard of this acrobatic performance is world class and flawless and so worth a visit. When the Chinese do performance, they do it to perfection and this is just one example of this.
Being back in China also presented the perfect opportunity to take another trip back to Yangshuo where Colm could at last see the place that stole my heart all those years ago. We booked a flight to Guilin and headed for the most unique Retreat Centre on the outskirts of Yangshuo called “The Giggling Tree” where I had stayed with Allie all those years ago. A visit to this part of the world is so affordable, with our 5 day stay at the Giggling Tree (with its own pool and restaurant/bar) with food, drink, taxi-fares, entertainment and tickets for shows and bamboo rafting included for us both. It worked out at less than €700 in total. The Giggling Tree arranges all tickets for shows, all taxis to take you around the area, and everything you can ever need is provided.
When we arrived, a notice greeted us on the wall in the reception area to explain that we would probably not get a peaceful night’s sleep, as there had been a death in the neighbourhoood. A local man from one of the nearby houses had passed away earlier that morning. We could hear what I can only describe as bagpipes playing Chinese laments, very loudly! And the Chinese equivalent of Irish keeners soon joined the chorus of bagpipes. Sure we were nearly in tears ourselves at that stage and we didn’t even know the poor divil that had passed! The Chinese tradition in Yangshuo and in the southern part of China generally is to have a 24 hour lament from the time of death until the departed is removed for burial. Family members within this 24 hour period are set the task of travelling to the local range of karst mountains to pick a burial spot for the body. Once chosen, the family members prepare the burial ground. It’s a magnificent tradition, and as we travelled through the mountains in the following days, headstones with beautiful flowers and trees were visible throughout the mountains where all the local dead are buried. There is no undertaker, no planning permission, no religious involvement, only the age old tradition of families bringing their loved one on a float with a flower covered coffin through the town to the mountains beyond to be buried. And while it was wonderful to witness the goings on for this particular funeral, being woken at 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. to the sound of fireworks and bagpipes and wailers was a bit hair raising. Yet again, however, we had decided to travel here, to their village, and the culture of these people must be respected on every level. We took it all in our stride and were happy to learn of the local customs. And sure so what if we were a small bit inconvenienced with tiredness the following day. It was worth it!
(Photo: Bamboo rafting along the Yulong River, Yangshuo, Southern China)
Our next stop was to do some highly recommended bamboo boat rafting on the Yulong River. Oh man! What an absolute blast, and another “must do” when visiting this part of the world. Basically, the local Chinese men are employed to take tourists down the river on a bamboo raft that is steered by them with nothing but a huge bamboo stick. Two to a raft, and the trip is out of this world. As you travel down the river, you experience the surreal scenery of the karst mountains that flank the Yulong River and the peaceful calmness of the area as you gently make your way along. The only interruption is the sound of the birds and the excited squealing that’s unavoidable as the raft drops down the small weirs along the way. It’s a journey of about an hour and a half, and we did it early on a Saturday morning after a good hearty breakfast at the Giggling Tree. A quick stop back for lunch and a swim at the pool, and then it was about getting ready for the most spectacular event that this town has to offer. The Fisherman’s Light Show! With tickets prebooked and a taxi ready to collect us to bring us the short distance to this magnificent venue in the Centre of Yangshuo, I was beside myself with excitement at the thought of seeing this performance again, and even more so to see Colm’s reaction to it. Our tickets cost the equivalent of just over €60 and were situated in the VIP area of the auditorium for that price. Now trying to explain the enormity of this event is difficult. Suffice to say that the guy who produced the introductory performance for the Beijing Olympic Games is responsible for the production of this magnificent musical performance that literally takes place once darkness falls, outdoors, on the Yulong River, with the mountains lit up as the backdrop/stage. The orchestra begins and suddenly, out of nowhere, hundreds of Chinese fishermen make their way out onto the river, with lanterns lit, on their bamboo rafts. They line up along the river and perform a synchronized movement with fishing nets illuminated with red light to the Chinese music echoing from every corner of the venue. It is spectacular to watch. Colm’s reaction from the moment the mountains lit up and the fishermen sailed out from every corner of the river….”Holy F**K” 😱😂. Like me, (and everyone else who has been to this performance), he was blown away by it. And on it went, with lines of performers (600 in total) with illuminated costumes performing various synchronized dances on the river. A large half moon then sailed out, representing an old Chinese romantic legend of a beautiful woman dancing naked on the moon, with her Chinese lover transfixed with her beauty looking on from the ground below. The performance once had a real naked Chinese woman dancing on the yellow lit moon, however, following objections over the years to her performing on a live show naked, she now sports a full neutral color body stocking to appease those complainers. I can’t help wondering what the gender breakdown of the complainants were? Ha ha. The show takes place twice every night. People who know me back home have heard me raving about this show for the past 5 years, and I kid you not, if you ever travel to these parts, make sure not to miss it! The Fisherman’s Light Show…you heard it here, you’ve been warned! 🤪
A noticeable cultural difference in this part of the world, is the role of women in society. As we travelled around, elderly women were bent over in rice fields in sweltering heat, from the small hours of the morning until late at night, tending to the rice plants. I also witnessed women high up on buildings mixing cement in the same sweltering heat that I could barely walk in. Women are vulnerable here, and it is evident that they are the backbone of the community. Men work hard also, but I witnessed groups of men sitting around in the sweltering heat playing cards or board games while the women continued the arduous task of farming and on those construction sites. Women participate in the whole process of manual labour to a greater degree than I have ever seen anywhere else in the world, albeit I have yet to visit other countries along this journey. It was quite shocking if I’m honest, but again, that’s the way of life here and has been for centuries. Education is minimal apparently, and toil and strife is the order of the day for most families, who live in relative poverty by comparison to families in other parts of China and the western world. But happiness is also evident amongst the community. They are content with their lives here, and living in the most beautiful part of our planet in relative calm and simplicity I guess has a lot to do with it.
After a few more relaxing days in Yangshuo, we headed back to Beijing to see another bit of this beautiful city . And so, on our return; next on the list was a visit to the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Lama Temples, and the beautiful surroundings of the Summer Palace. We took a boat out onto the Lake at the Palace and sailed along with not a care in the world other than the heat we were trying to contend with. It was so beautiful and brought back memories of the last time I took a boat out on this same lake with Alison. Our boat back then was a diesel powered engine one that we had all to ourselves. A bit bigger than a paddle boat really. Alison took to the role of “captain of the ship” admirably. Even after the bottle of wine that we brought on board, and drank; she didn’t create an unwanted ripple on the lake , until just on the horizon the sun began to set over the Great Wall and we were hypnotized into staying to watch it go down, come hell or high water! By the time it had gone out of view our time was well and truly up for returning the boat and the guards at the Summer Palace were closing up the gates for the night. Suddenly, the owner of the boat was whizzing towards us in his high speed boat, (well, higher speed than ours ) screaming at us in Chinese. Naturally he was upset that we were still on the lake in possession of his boat. I was all ready to offer an apology when next I heard Alison shouting back at him in Chinese! I thought, “what on earth is going on here?” In English, Alison told me to say nothing, but look like a damsel in distress. Now, I hadn’t a clue what was going on but this was just right up my street, and of course I did what she asked, probably a little bit exaggerated, but nonetheless, needs must as they say. (Apparently there were guards on the lake that could arrest us if this guy tried to make out that we were trying to steal his boat so my apology would probably fall on deaf ears anyway!). The guy on the speed boat, immediately calmed down and began tying a rope from his boat to ours to drag us back to shore. Once we got there Alison told me to get off the boat and run as fast as our legs could carry us. And we did, holding our stomachs laughing as we did. Apparently she had shouted in Chinese at the guy on the speedboat that our boat had run out of diesel in the middle of the lake, and that our lives had been put at risk due to his inability to ensure customer safety by making sure there was enough fuel in the boat to begin with. And that she was going to report him if he didn’t take us back to shore immediately! He hadn’t thought in his panic to check our boat for fuel when we were out there and by the time he would discover that there was probably enough diesel left in it for us to sail the Chinese sea and back again, sure we were well out of reach. 😂😂😂. Our trip to the Summer Palace on this occasion was a little less eventful, with no run ins with local law enforcement thankfully! 🙏
Our trips to the Forbidden City and the Lama Temple were jaw-dropping! Colm was loving every day that unfolded with something new as much as I was. Colourful Chinese Temples at every turn, with the world’s largest Buddhist statue situated in the grounds of the Lama Temples near the Dongchemen area of Beijing. Fabulous to see, but also difficult to cope with the temperatures that had risen to over 40 Celsius at this stage. I struggled badly when walking in the mid-day heat on some of these outings. But I got it done nonetheless, albeit looking like something the cat had dragged in on many an evening after walking for miles.
We took a 4 hour train journey to Shanghai early on a Thursday morning, and while it is in the same country as Beijing and Yangshuo , there is no comparison to seeing the sprawling metropolis of a prosperous city, with skyscrapers as far as the eye could see. It is certainly a beautiful city to visit and we ate out in some top class restaurants near the French Quarter of the city where we were staying and ate like royalty at very little cost. The cost of living generally in China is low. A four-course meal with drinks for two will set you back in some places for as little as €50. We often had to do a double take on the bill when it arrived, to make sure that a mistake hadn’t been made. Shanghai is a modern city with streets of designer shops and restaurants. To stand on one side of the Huangpu River where the old part of the city overlooks the newer and famous “Bund” is a spectacular vision. The lighting up of these buildings every night, in particular the well-known “Oriental Pearl Tower” is a must see when in Shanghai. It also has a diversity in its huge population that few cities in China have. It is up there with New York and Paris for sure, but for me, it doesn’t have the same quaintness and culture associated with it as Beijing and other Chinese cities have. If I landed in Shanghai and didn’t know I was in China, I would be hard pressed to figure out that I was actually in the heart of such a beautiful country. Given that historically it has been a port city and open to outside trade, it is very evident that Shanghai is one of the few wealthy cities in China.
(Photo: The Bund, Shanghai, China)
Reminiscing yet again about what a beautiful place Yangshuo was after we left, I found myself googling “English teaching jobs in Yangshuo”. To my delight, the private college in Yangshuo had job vacancies. And so we applied and waited with bated breath to see if we would qualify. And we did! We subsequently got called for interview, which we did over a Skype call with the head of the college. And folks, within a few days we both received job offers to work there during the Summer months! And so, we’re going back! I’m beside myself with excitement! We’ve signed our contracts and we start work after our next stop off in Vietnam. We spend the next three weeks in Vietnam and then return to Yangshuo where we’ll spend a glorious summer teaching young children how to speak English! We couldn’t be happier, and I can’t help feeling that all those trips to the Buddhist Temples have paid off 😂. It’s all happening for us and I’m feeling so grateful and blessed! It will mean having to cut short our trip to Vietnam by a couple of weeks, but we can return at some point as we go along. As my late mother used to say “Never look a gift horse in the mouth”!
Next stop Vietnam…I wonder what awaits us there? 😱😱😱
Our flight to Tokyo left Los Angeles International airport at approximately 12.45 p.m. on Thursday 10th May. We arrived in Narita airport Tokyo at 4.20 p.m the next evening, Friday 11th May, more than a full day later! We literally flew over the renowned “date line” as we crossed the Pacific Ocean between the USA and Japan. The time difference was a total of 16 hours (with a 12 hour flight time) ahead of US Pacific Time! At this stage my poor body was becoming confused with the whole time difference between countries, as it does become quite complex trying to calculate the whole variation of time between each country when you’re travelling across the world. On this journey I have been lucky enough to have nothing but positive experiences in the main, but this is the exception to that. I had never experienced anything as bad as the jet lag and readjustment to the 16 hour time difference as I did when travelling to Tokyo! The only way I can describe it for those who haven’t had the displeasure of such an experience is that when you wake in the morning time, it’s like waking up after a full heavy anesthetic following surgery and the grogginess you feel for a day or so after that? Multiply that by ten and that’s it! Trying to lift my head off the pillow was impossible…I’d wake, try to get up and fall back to sleep immediately, only to repeat the process again an hour later. My body clock was also expecting to be fed at 4 a.m. Japanese time, which of course is lunchtime back in the USA. Eating crackers at 4 a.m. to qualm the hunger pains just enough to get another few hours sleep wasn’t something I had factored into the trip at all!
Of course, stupidly, time differences were never considered when booking the flights. We tended to focus on the logistics of the trip, i.e. accommodation, transport, etc. and not other just as important stuff like jet lag. So remember guys, if you’re planning on travelling outside of the Greenwich Mean Time Zone, you really need to think about the impact time difference is going to have on you in the overall context of the time you will be spending in the country. It took me the best part of 48 hours to feel energized enough to get out and about and explore the wonderful city of Tokyo. Given that we only had 7 days here, it is a substantial deficit in the context of the time we had left to explore a huge city of over 37 million people (just think, over 7 times greater than the population of Ireland in one city alone!). I know there are tips and advice that you can read up on on how to deal with time differences and jet lag. Lesson learned from my perspective. I didn’t, I should have, and I certainly will going forward. (That sounds like something from a political party manifesto!)
The city of Tokyo again, has its own idiosyncrasies which are not comparable to anywhere else we’ve been. What immediately hits you when boarding the trains and subways is the fact that everyone, men and women, are all dressed formally in black, navy or grey suits in the main! Wall to wall suits, briefcases and “man bags”. Yes, every man travelling around the city carries a “man bag” pretty much similar to the larger ones that us women carry around. Pristine white shirts with cuff linked sleeves, designer cut suits finished off with shiny black shoes. And the women are pretty much the same. Designer suits and bags… all looking like something from a business catalogue. Not one track suit bottom or a pair of runners to be seen. It’s unreal!
You see, the Japanese work culture is very different to anywhere else really. Work is the priority … for almost everyone!. Leisure is not something that features at the top of the priority list and this is evident with the lack of leisure facilities (other than high end shops and restaurants) in the city, and elsewhere in Japan I am told. The Japanese are workaholics for sure. In a recent article from a magazine about working in Japan, an American lady offering advice to anyone considering working here wrote “In Japan it’s very normal to work late into the wee hours, no matter the industry. Employees often work 14 hour days, with one Japanese man confessing that he put in over 100 hours of overtime into his job—each month. In the rare auld times (the flourishing era of the 80’s and 90s) this overtime was actually paid, but now they just call it ‘service zangyou,’ or unpaid overtime. Basically, employees clock out at 5 p.m., but stay until midnight because it’s bad etiquette to leave before your superior. They stay to keep the ‘wa,’ or harmony of the office. Japan is a very collective society, so they like to stick together and work as a team. Leaving before your superior, or even your senpai (seniors aka people that worked there longer/are older than you), is awkward. I mean, if Tanaka-san leaves at 5 pm everyday but everyone else works until 10, then Tanaka-san is, essentially, a selfish bastard and doesn’t care about his fellow man. Screw Tanaka-san. The only one who can get away with leaving early is the foreign English teacher, because s/he’s not a “real” member of the team—but that’s a story for another day.
Plus, Japan isn’t merit based so even if you work hard and produce results you won’t be rewarded. Raises and promotions only happen through hierarchy and commitment to the company—in other words, you’ll get a real raise after you work there for 10-20 years. This is why Japanese employees seldom switch companies and often spend their entire life working at the same organization”. Public Service Ireland how are ya ha ha. Another interesting fact about working in a company in Japan is that where I have experience of extremely efficient work meetings where agendas are clearly set and a dedicated time given to a meeting (except when I go on talking forever as one of my wonderful work colleagues reminds me after every meeting, in a hysterical falling around the floor laughing kind of way might I add, which is quite funny), in Japan a meeting can go on for hours and hours and they set out to reach an absolute consensus before they can wrap up each meeting. In Japan, consensus is more important for Japanese management than reaching certain conclusions.
On a more serious note however, as a result of this work culture, the suicide rate amongst young men in Japan is quite high. According to statistics, the leading cause of death of males between the ages of 22 and 44 is as a result of suicide. While some reasons are cited as causes for this, e.g. divorce, money problems etc., many of the deaths are as a result of fatigue from working long hours (locally called Karoshi) or where men (and women) are made redundant from a company that they have worked with for years. In recent years the Government in Japan has conducted some pretty high profile studies and drawn up a White Paper to address the growing suicide problem. It has also invested in research to examine causes and invested money into suicide prevention programmes in an effort to reverse the growing numbers of men taking their lives. Separately, women between the ages of 15-34 also have a high suicide rate. Japan is very much a “Patriarchal” society where women’s rights and laws around domestic violence etc. have a lot of catching up to do with the rest of the world. While the will is there to progress these rights, it will be many years apparently before we see real progress for women here. I make this comparison to the likes of how women are treated in Iceland where we started out on our journey. There is no comparison between the equal treatment and protection of women in Iceland and the situation in Japan. Albeit the same could be said of Ireland given the current roaring debate in Ireland on the Repealing of the 8th Amendment – many people around the world that I have spoken to on this issue find it hard to believe that a woman does not have a choice on the issue of abortion in Ireland! – A debate for another day.
To get a full real life feel of how big the work culture is in Japan, you just need to stand at the subway station overlooking the famous pedestrian intersection at the Shibuya crossing in Tokyo on any given day. The sight is eerie as the traffic lights change and pedestrians spill out in an outstanding orderly fashion, like thousands of ants scrambling to cross the various roads at the intersection to get to the other side. And no-one bumps into any another person as they cross, like clockwork, almost robotic like! It’s a sight to behold and to me, totally depicts the orderliness of Japanese society.
Another thing that hit me travelling around Tokyo, was the silence at peak hours on the trains and subways. It is totally strange by any standards. No one speaks on their mobile phones. Earphones are worn by everyone if they’re looking at music or videos on their phones. A respectful silence for every person is maintained throughout hours of travel on these trains and subways. The noise is absolutely minimal, save a child might board the train with parents. But even then if the child speaks they are shushed to be quiet to ensure that everyone on board has a calm and uninterrupted travel experience. And the underground subway system is the main means of travel around Tokyo. It’s complex in the extreme and involves a lot of changing of trains when travelling from A to B. If you are planning on a trip to Tokyo or Japan it would be wise to do a bit of research on the whole subway system before arriving here cold. In fact, i believe that part of the school curriculum for kids back home should be figuring out the multitude of public transport systems around the main cities in the world. It makes sense! On the plus side, the trains are so so efficient. Longest waiting time would be in the region of one to two minutes max. Efficiency at it’s best and ten out of ten for public transport on this stint!
As a race, these people are extremely respectful to one another. At the end of every conversation with a Japanese person, before leaving your company, they bow their head with hands in prayer to say thank you and goodbye. Even the ticket collectors and train attendants on the train bow to the people sitting in the carriages as they go from carriage to carriage. I felt very lucky to have witnessed the wonderful kindness, respect and dignity that these people conduct themselves with towards one another. The Japanese culture prioritizes the needs of society above the needs of oneself. Children are reared to respect this position, in that the needs of the wider group of society must take top priority. And while this teamwork mindset is good in the context of successful business and the economy, my thinking is that an individual may neglect their own needs at the behest of a society that demands so much from them. And here again, the suicide rate bears testament to this I believe.
The crime rate in Japan is practically non-existent and the joke about the police force is that they make up crimes to justify their existence! In fact, the whole of the Japanese society could exist without a police force of any great significance if truth be known.
While we were hopping from subway to subway exploring, we came across Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist Temple, Senso-Ji in the centre of Tokyo and were pleasantly surprised to see many beautiful Japanese women dressed in the traditional Kimono. Women have to attend special classes to learn how to put on these wonderfully colourful kimonos such is the complexity of wearing such beautiful silk garments. While the practice of wearing these kimonos is now pretty much restricted to official occasions, we did see women of the older generation wearing them as they walked around Tokyo. I was tempted to purchase one, but I’d have to throw out half of the clothes I’ve brought in order to fit it into my luggage. Not an option this time around I’m afraid.
Another amazing experience was hopping on the famous “bullet train”! I had read an article before arriving in Japan about a driver of one of these trains making a public apology for departing 20 seconds EARLIER than scheduled. I was counting the seconds to departure time as we sat waiting, and I’m not telling a word of a lie! Bang on the dot the train sped out of the station, picking up huge speed within minutes. Think Star Trek, and that’s the feeling when you board this amazing piece of engineering! What an experience and a must for visiting this wonderful city.
Finally, on one of the last days there, we found a good old “Irish Pub” as you do when you’re abroad. We were ecstatic! Visions of the good old Irish Breakfast were rolling around in our heads…a few Irish accents if we were lucky, and a bit of craic surely to gawwd! And we climbed the stairs to the establishment in scorching heat …in heightened anticipation. We opened the door, waiting for waft of bacon and eggs to float up our nostrils…. Only to be greeted by a roomful of Japanese men and women eating Japanese food (not that this was a bad thing, but when we were expecting our local Irish fare…well ya get the picture ). We dragged our tongues along the floor to a table and ordered Japanese curry with rice and a sparkling water. We secretly wanted to grab the poor Japanese guy behind the bar by the neck and shout “what’s the meaning of this? Phonies…the whole bloody lotta ya!…Where’s the Irish guy?” All Irish posters, Guinness signs, Paddy’s Day paraphernalia piled up around us as we sat there…sulking at the most un-Irish Irish pub we had ever been in 😜. And we left, not in the least bit amused, and even worse, having no-one who could speak our language who would lend us an ear for our whining and moaning…I hate dah!
So now, we’ve left Japan, (after a week of re-adjusting) and are settling into the city that stole my heart away almost 5 years ago when I came to visit my daughter Alison who had been living and working here for many years. Beijing, China. One of the reasons for this trip around Asia was so that I could come back to this beautiful place again, to travel around this uniquely beautiful old old city and country. We will be staying here (and travelling around China) for the next month and boy am I excited and so looking forward to sharing this part of my journey with you all x
Next on the Menu is a trip to the Chinese
(Photo: Shopping Centre and Hotel in Santa Fe)
We left beautiful San Diego early on Monday morning and boarded the plane for our three hour flight eastbound to Albuquerque in New Mexico. Now flying to Albuquerque from San Diego involves some flight time over the hot desert and when a plane lands with desert heat rising below it, it can create turbulence of a very different kind. And on this occasion, it certainly did. My stomach was the first to realize it! Once we landed, I needed to quickly get to a chemist for stomach calming tablets to prevent me leaving my mark on the beautiful city of Albuquerque! No alcohol involved, I swear! 😂
Arriving in Albuquerque we unfortunately did not see any hot dogs or jumping frogs as the song had told us we might! We boarded a bus to the train station to take us to Santa Fe, almost 8000 feet above sea level. Travelling from Albuquerque to Santa Fe is pretty much like waking up in the middle of one of those old cowboy and Indian movies we all watched every Sunday afternoon back home when we were kids. Billy the Kid has strong connections with this city and is referred to by the tour guides daily! The land as far as the eye can see is desert and cactus and dry clumps of grass scattered sporadically across the terrain.
We had been advised to avoid anything alcoholic for the first two days following our arrival, and to drink ridiculous quantities of water to allow our bodies to readjust to the change in altitude. And I was thinkin…”sure we’ll be grand! Stop the fussing…its no big deal, sure I’ll have a sip of water and I’ll be fine”. Until the following morning when I woke up with a splitting headache, my tongue in my mouth, a mere extension of desert, and this wasn’t even brought on by the pleasures of alcohol! This was due to the rise in altitude that I had thought was only a bit of a drama going on. I should have listened! And so poor Colm was sent to the supermarket to gather as much water as he could carry back to me while I did the Cleopatra in the bed with the eyes rolling and the arms flailing (as I do) until I was hydrated enough to get out of my bed to recover from this unimaginable illness that had been bestowed on me as a result of (in my head) a climb that was the equivalent to climbing Mount Everest …which in fairness is not too far away from the altitude climb that we did when we arrived to reach our accommodation… Ahemmmm! (And I’m not one to exaggerate as you know!) So a word of advice! If you visit Santa Fe, hydrate, hydrate, hydrate before you arrive, when you arrive, and when you leave. It’s the difference between you feeling constantly hungover (without alcohol) and feeling well ..in a nutshell basically.
And so we settled in nicely to our wonderful accommodation which was part of an old traditional New Mexican adobe house only twenty minutes walk away from the Centre of Santa Fe. Now, Santa Fe is difficult to explain … it really has to be seen to be believed! It is probably one of the most unusual, unique cities I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. Its history is extremely colourful and complex. To give a quick synopsis of the history, Santa Fe is the capital city of the state of New Mexico. Its name is Spanish for “Holy Faith” and is called after St. Francis of Assisi. It’s full and proper title is La Villa Real de Santa Fe de San Francisco de Assisi, basically meaning the Royal Town of the Holy Faith. It is the oldest city in the United States and you can actually visit the oldest house in the USA. The style of architecture here is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. You would be forgiven for thinking you had landed in the middle of a Spanish city with the Pueblo style buildings made from burnt orange terra-cotta soil. Churches are plentiful and religion is very much a huge part of daily life here. One such church that we visited was the Loretto Chapel in the centre of the city. It’s a small catholic church with a gallery for choral performances and once owned by the Loretto Nuns. As you enter the church, there before you is a spiral staircase like no other in the world. It is called the “Miraculous Staircase” because it rises 20 feet to the choir gallery making two full turns without the support of a newel or centre pole. The wood used to build the staircase has never been identified, only that it is non-native to New Mexico. The story or legend goes way back to a time when the Loretto sisters needed to have access to the choir gallery. They did a novena for nine days straight to the patron saint of carpenters, St. Joseph. On the last day of the novena a mysterious stranger appeared and offered to build them a staircase. He interacted with nobody during his time working on the stairs and left without revealing his identify to the Loretto sisters or charging them for the job. The sisters believed it was St. Joseph himself who appeared to build the staircase and left, such was the wonder of the carpentry work done on the stairs. Now whether you believe in miracles of this sort or not, I have to say, the staircase is pretty impressive. Although I’m wondering if this happened today, would questions not be asked of the nuns as to where this individual might be? They were the only ones to interact with him apparently and then he just disappeared? Call me cynical, but surely a full blown investigation as to a missing person might have been called for back then? Anyway, sure it’s a magnificent story and worth a visit to see one of Santa Fe’s biggest tourist attraction at the very least.
(Photo: The Miraculous Staircase at the Loretto Chapel, Santa Fe)
The population of Santa Fe is roughly 93,000 and is made up mainly of renowned artists of all descriptions. It is a thriving Centre of Arts and Culture and has a huge number of art galleries and museums. One such art gallery that created a huge impression on me was the Georgia O’Keeffe art collection on display just off the main square in Santa Fe. Her paintings are heavily influenced by the unique scenery of the deserts around Santa Fe and this gallery is a must see for anyone visiting the city.
An exciting turn of events happened shortly after we arrived. My daughter Alison decided to pay a surprise visit to Santa Fe to spend time with us on our final leg of our stay in the USA. I was ecstatic as you can imagine! She arrived on the Saturday night following our arrival the previous Monday. And so we headed out for a really special day at the most famous art centre in the city called “Meow Wolf”. Now to try to describe this Centre is a huge challenge in itself. Suffice to say there is no other experience like it anywhere else in the world and the locals tell you this about the centre when you ask them what exactly it’s all about. It was designed by a 35 year old Vince Kadlubek and his partners (including Game of Thrones creator and Santa Fe resident George R.R. Martin). It’s basically a company of accomplished artists from all disciplines of the arts who have worked together to design this magical and multidimensional mystery house and playground with different realms throughout the building and secret passages leading from room to room. The uncertainty of what we were about to experience added to the excitement of the trip, and boy we were not disappointed! On arrival, you basically walk into a set constructed to look like a standard American house. Nothing overly impressive until you walk inside the house and into the kitchen area. You open the fridge in the kitchen and walk inside and lo and behold you are in a different place filled with lights and a dreamlike universe with little pathways and interactive activities. The same in the Dining Room. The fireplace is like something from the Harry Potter movie. You walk into the fireplace and through to another area filled with amazing activities. Upstairs, the children’s bedrooms look like pretty standard bedrooms until you open wardrobes and walk through into what can only be described as a beautiful three dimensional “other” universe. It is a fantastic art experience that I can only explain as being a child’s (and adult’s) paradise. Being transported to a different realm with each step you take is jaw dropping! At one point I turned around to find Alison climbing into the washing machine in the kitchen to travel to a different part of the house…laughing and shouting “Mum, don’t put me on a hot wash” … ha ha. A fun-filled day of laughter and wonderful experiences to look back on for sure!
Something I didn’t realize until my visit was that New Mexico existed even before Mexico itself. It was occupied by the beautiful tribes of Native American Indians way back, until the Spanish arrived and claimed it as theirs, forcing the Native American Indians to give up their traditions and practices and indeed their very own mother tongue. The local museum tells stories about Indians having their mouths washed in all sorts of painful and disturbing practices if they were caught speaking their own native tongue. The Native Americans were also forced to convert to Catholicism and deny their own native Indian tribal beliefs. Sad but true! The last invasion of New Mexico was by the United States of America hundreds of years ago and the State is now recognized as part of the USA and not Mexico (which confused me somewhat when I arrived first). Although there is a very Mexican feel to the place in parts and there is a large Mexican population living in the city and its environs.
On my first trip into the centre of Santa Fe, I was absolutely blown away by the presence of real Native American Indians selling their wares on the fringes of the plaza. I was dumbstruck by their beauty! Their beautiful sleek black hair, dark sallow flawless skin, chiseled facial features and dark dark pools for eyes. They are a race of people that I have always admired for their dignified and gentle manner (although I do appreciate that history may reflect otherwise), and I certainly witnessed this here first hand during my time in Santa Fe. They sit silently every day along the plaza displaying their wares while potential customers walk by admiring and purchasing their carefully handcrafted jewellery made from the local turquoise stone, pottery and rugs. Unlike other similar markets where I have experienced sellers heckling their audience to buy something, these people don’t engage in this practice at all. They sit in gentle and dignified silence until asked a question by someone interested in purchasing one of their pieces. There are huge numbers of Native American Indians wanting to sell their wares along this plaza and having spoken to one of the women, she explained that they operate a lottery system within their group of sellers to ensure that, each day, places along the plaza are distributed fairly to all of the people wishing to display and sell their handmade pieces. You can’t get fairer than that I guess!
The art galleries in Santa Fe contain pieces of art made by these wonderful Native American Indians, and through their art on display they have etched permanent messages to the world about the sadness and oppression that they and their ancestors have faced throughout history. Paintings and sculptures about them having been overthrown and forced to live on reservations in the middle of this desert. On our train journey to Santa Fe a huge man of Native American Indian extraction began chatting to us. For a man his size, he had a gentle manner and explained that he was living on an Indian Reservation a few miles outside of Santa Fe but had recently moved into the city to stay with his niece in Santa Fe as he had got some work nearer to the city. He also told us stories about how his tribe was forced to speak Spanish instead of their native tongue. After our conversation I couldn’t help feel that maybe these Indian people had more in common with Irish people than I ever realized.
(Photo: A Native American Indian in the Plaza at Santa Fe)
We were also fortunate enough to be in Santa Fe for the huge Mexican celebration of Cinco De Mayo which is basically celebrating the Mexican Army’s victory over the French in Mexico way back on the 5th May in 1862. We came across the annual celebrations on Saturday 5th of May in a nearby park. And we sat on the grass in the glorious sunshine and were treated to a day of Mexican music and dance with the Mexican community in their full traditional costumes celebrating their annual festival. Beautiful ladies danced and performed in colourful dresses on stage with young male dance partners dressed as Matadors. Spectacular to watch and an education in itself to see them perform. Oh how I love to see how people of different cultures still celebrate their uniqueness in such a wonderfully diverse society.
Something else that Santa Fe is famous for is its breathtaking sunsets. The altitude and thin air lends itself to a spectacular combination of nature when the sun begins to set over the mountains. And so on Alison’s last night before she returned to Chicago we climbed a steep hill on the outskirts of the city where we were told we would get the most impressive view of the setting sun. Out of breath on reaching the summit, I was thinking to myself “this better be worth it”! Climbing hills at that altitude in such high temperatures and humidity is not for the faint hearted. But we did it and brought with us a bottle of wine to share and celebrate our first Santa Fe sunset experience. Perched high on the hill we waited, and waited. It was a cloudy evening and we were not anticipating anything spectacular as a result. How wrong we were. With every minute that the sun began to drop in the sky, the hue of colours before us was indescribable. Bursts of yellows and orange, pink and blues unfolded minute by minute across the sky. The sunset in all its glory must be an artist’s dream, to sit on this hill and paint what we were witnessing. We took hundreds of photos, but not one would justifiably display this wonder of nature we were witnessing, try as we might to capture it. The last time Alison and I watched a beautiful sunset with a glass of wine was on my visit to her in China five years ago when we took a boat out on the lake at the Summer Palace in Beijing. On that occasion we overstayed our time on the lake by far in order to wait for the setting of the sun over the Great Wall of China. Shortly after the sunset we were almost arrested for not returning the boat on time, but thankfully Alison’s quick thinking and her ability to speak fluent Chinese to the guy who was sent out to bring us back in off the lake saved the day. She began to berate the poor Chinese guy who was sent out to find us, telling him that the reason we hadn’t returned the boat on time was because it had run out of diesel. Now he wasn’t going to start checking the diesel tank on the boat in the middle of the lake and so attached a rope to our boat and towed us in. I guess by the time we had disembarked and run as fast as we could out the main gates, he realized that there was in fact plenty of diesel left and this was Alison’s way of giving us some time to flee. I reared her well! 🤪
(The sun setting over Santa Fe, New Mexico)
Following a girlie night with just me and Allie at Alison’s apartment and a healthy breakfast the next morning, we said our goodbyes as she headed back to Albuquerque for her flight back to Chicago. She will no doubt join us again at a later stage of our trip hopefully.
And so after almost two weeks we packed up and left in the small wee hours of the morning, waving goodbye to our wonderful hosts Jennipher and Michelle who were so welcoming and treated us like part of their family while we were there. We headed for our flight back to San Diego and then on to Los Angeles to catch our next flight which brings us to Tokyo in Japan for a week and then onwards to Beijing for a month long stay in China.
This will be the most challenging part of our trip given the fact that we are now entering countries where English is not the first language. We don’t speak Japanese or Chinese and so now the fun begins. Let’s see how this one fares out ! 😱😱😱
See ye again soon for the start of the Asian adventures 👀
Celebrating with the Mexican Community in Santa Fe., New Mexico and watching these fantastic traditional dancers. Video below.
And so we left Los Angeles and travelled 23kms south by bus to our next destination, the renowned Venice Beach and Santa Monica in Southern California. Venice Beach is home to stars such as Hulk Hogan, Julia Roberts, Nicolas Cage, Angelica Huston etc. It’s where Jim Morrison and the Doors started out, and the Beachboys, to name but a few of the many famous musicians to burst onto the world stage from here. It derived its name from Venice of Italy back in 1905 when an American tobacco millionaire Abbot Kinney founded it as a beach resort town, and adult playground. Its oceanfront was built as a circus-like fairground and the surrounding areas has lots of canals resembling those in Venice, Italy. They even had gondolas floating along the canals way back in the day. A walk along the canals is a totally unique experience. The houses are magnificent in the extreme and again, only those in the exceptionally high salary bracket could ever dream of living here.
From the moment you arrive at this spectacular place you can not only see, but you can feel the whole culture of arts and music around you. It is like no other place we’ve visited so far, and it’s pure and authentic Hippy! That’s the single most accurate word to describe the place. Hippydom for miles and miles! The boardwalk is full of colourful people on skateboards, scooters, bikes, and things with wheels on that I didn’t even recognize. There’s pretty much a huge party buzz going on from morning til night with miles and miles of spotless sandy beaches as far as the eye can see. And folks, sunshine! Glorious, daylong sun! Oh the luxury of being able to go for long walks on the beach without a brolly. Although a couple of the days that we ventured out we did have to take warm cardigans as the wind can whip up quite a bit and out of the blue, but those days were few and far between.
Our accommodation was within spitting distance of the beach and so each day was spent lazing in the sunshine on the beach, reading and chilling and doing what is the most interesting sport here. People watching! And boy do you see all sorts gracing these boardwalks day and night. There are artists and musicians, rappers, pottery makers, men and women botoxed from their a**es to their elbows and one of the most amazing sights as you stroll along is an elderly homeless man with his baby grand piano and his little dog. He sits and plays piano all day, and when I say he plays. This guy is an absolute genius! His classical music pieces capture you the minute you approach and it’s pretty difficult to break free from the magic of his spell. I just couldn’t comprehend that this guy who sleeps under his piano when the sun goes down each day is homeless. There is quite a high number of homeless people here at Venice Beach. Many are homeless by choice, some are wannabe musicians and actors/artists who probably came to Hollywood hoping to make it big and somehow didn’t, and others are war veterans from the Vietnam war. How sad to think that these men who fought for their country are now homeless. This is not the only place that these guys emerge. They can be found amongst the homeless communities throughout the States.
On a lighter note, we found ourselves in knots of laughter too each day as we walked along the boardwalk. Homeless guys with wooden placards offering “Shitty Advice for a dollar”. Others with huge placards saying “Need Money for Weed”. You gotta respect their honesty! 😂. You see, cannabis is also legal here. To the point that as soon as you turn the corner off the side street to walk along the main boardwalk the smell of cannabis hits you like a tonne of bricks! I swear my appetite increased during the time we were there from passively smoking the stuff! I had the munchies the whole time without even touching it. 😂
We decided on one of the first days that we arrived to take a stroll down the beach to Santa Monica. Now you might remember that Santa Monica is the last stop that Tom Hanks made during his famous run across the States in the movie Forest Gump? It is also the last stop of the famous “Route 66”. We had seen the start of the route on our trip to Chicago and it was cool to see the last stop too. We had quite a distance to walk in the heat and so when we arrived we found ourselves a nice green patch of grass to sit and watch the world go by. The patch of grass that we picked was right in front of the famous “Muscle Beach”. Yes, I kid you not! There is a section of the beach where men and women alike go to exercise and build up their six packs. Now bear in mind how we felt, sitting on the little patch of grass, pale skinned, with red noses (resembling drug addicts to the locals no doubt) and the only six packs we’ve seen for a long time are the ones chilling in the fridge back in our Airbnb. Oh the joys of being Irish really hit us hard at that moment. To the point that when a group of photographers began taking shoots of a beautiful couple who were exercising beside us and who were clearly models, we decided to move out of the way in case our white skin was causing a glare on the camera. 😂😂😂
Our socializing was done in Santa Monica and there are fantastic comedy theaters in the city. We ventured into one such place on a Saturday evening and had a night where we actually felt like we did have six packs from laughing! Of course once the comedians on stage heard we were from Ireland, the skit started. It was totally entertaining and top class comedians that hopefully will some day make the cut and get on the big shows on TV. That’s their plan anyway.
We also ventured back into Los Angeles (which was near enough to do a quick bus trip back) and visiting the La Brea Tar Pits and museum. A very different type of museum where on a daily basis they do research on the remains of animals that were preserved by the tar pits that are actually on site and bubbling with tar as you stroll around. There are skeletons of mammals and animals of every description dating back thousands of years whose bones have been preserved from a time when they wandered into these tar pools and became stuck and perished way back then. Well worth a visit if you are in the LA area!
Back at base and on one of our walks around Venice Beach I commented to Colm that there appeared to be a Chinese Community within the Venice Beach area and that it appeared that it was the Asian people setting up their own community on a smaller scale to that which we had seen in Los Angeles. As the days went on I kept seeing these signs along alleyways etc that led me to believe that the Chinese were living in a separate quarter to the rest of the Venice Beach residents. After a few days of chatting to Colm about this as we walked along, he eventually asked me what signs I was talking about that pointed to these Chinese people living separately within community. So, I pointed out the sign in front of us that read “Ped Xing” (to me a Chinese word?). Well apparently not! 😂 Now, back home we would have a sign for a pedestrian crossing with people walking on the sign. Not here. It’s abbreviated, and an easy mistake to make really. So after picking Colm up off the ground from laughing we continued on our merry way. 😂😂😂
And so after ten glorious days in Venice Beach, we boarded the train in LA for San Diego, our final and most southern stop in California before we head for New Mexico. Our new Airbnb had its own heated swimming pool with sun beds and jacuzzi for us to work on building up our tans…. At last, our white skins would be no more! Our six packs would come in time 😂. With only four days to go we got to work immediately and out with the towels and lotions and tossing and turning to make sure there were no spots untouched by this wonderful round ball of sun. We would be tanned! Come hell or high water…we were not leaving the States looking gaunt and pale. And we didn’t. By the end of the day, when we got back to our room, and looked at each other! Two words…..Lobster Red! Not a wink of sleep was got that night..and the groans were from pain and nothing else 😂
But we made it the following morning to San Diego Zoo, and while I guess there are some who I would agree with that have issues around animals being held in captivity in Zoos, this one is a little bit different to your average Zoo and rated as the best in the world in the context of how the animals are treated. On arrival, the first thing you see is a Cheetah and a Dog sharing the same pen. Yes, it’s hard to believe, but both have been reared together since they were young pups and are best friends. The Cheetah and the Dog are walked outside of their pen regularly and the dog sets the mood of the Cheetah with his ability to interact with people without feeling threatened. The domestic animal and wild Cheetah happily stroll around on a leash without any stress or strain and enjoy the whole experience, much to the amusement of the spectators looking on. Most of the animals at the Zoo are categorized as “endangered species” and keeping them at the Zoo is actually doing more good than harm in protecting their future. From Koala Bears, to Grizzly Bears, to Panda Bears, to hilarious Baboons running around on a huge allotment playing games with one another. And also fighting! When we arrived at the viewing point of the Baboon area, we noticed a female Baboon picking at the male Baboon’s huge hairy mane, as they do when they are mating. Baby Baboons and young ones were running around the male and female and were obviously part of the one pack. Suddenly, another male Baboon approaches the male having his hair groomed. The new male Baboon is obviously trying to win the attention of the female, and is aggressively snarling at her male partner. Within an instant, the male partner runs at the new male, and then quickly distracts him and gathers the female and all the young ones and leads them to a lower ground behind a walled part of the grounds. He then returns to fight off the new male who’s encroaching on his territory. After a pretty aggressive approach the new male runs off, defeated! The female Baboon approaches her male partner and he embraces her lovingly as if to say “it’s ok now, he’s gone”, and they go back to the routine hair grooming! The reason I tell this story is that I thought, “how lovely that the male, before engaging in a full blown fight with the other male Baboon, made sure that his woman and the little ones were protected and hidden”. I was so glad he won and that the female and her kids were protected and safe as a result of his actions. The animal kingdom is just awesome! (American accent kicking in lads !).
San Diego is a city full of unexpected wonderful surprises. On a beautiful warm sunny morning, we headed into the city and on the recommendation of our hostess at our Airbnb took a ferry to the exquisitely beautiful island of Coronado. Now I had no knowledge of this island before we headed out there other than the fact that there was a well renowned hotel along the beach that was a must to visit, and that it was the location of the making of the movie with Marilyn Monroe “Some Like it Hot”. On arrival to the island you would be forgiven for thinking you had arrived slap bang into the middle of the movie set of “Pleasantville”. The houses are worth 7 figure sums of money. The auctioneers window displays houses for anything from $1m to $25m dollars. These are homes to people such as retired high ranking army officials and people who are pretty much multi-millionaires. Yachts adorn the coastline of the island and you would travel far and wide on this planet to see the equivalent of the wealth displayed here. The gardens of each and every property are immaculately maintained, with not a leaf to be seen out of place. I’d live there in the morning, but sure I wouldn’t fit in 😂😂😂. I’d be neurotic trying to keep the place that clean and tidy. Other than that sure I would ! @@@????!!! Ahemmm. We arrived at the Hotel Del Coronado having walked the width of the little island (which took only 30 minutes). When we arrived, again, a surreal experience. I can see why all of the Presidents of America holidayed at this hotel at one time or another, the most recent being the Obama’s. Trump has yet to visit I believe 😂. Again, it’s somewhere that’s worth a visit for a day trip. To stay for one night there would cost a couple the best part of $1,000. We had a light lunch (eye roll 👀)
We spent our last evening with our wonderful hostess at our Airbnb, Rachel, who kindly offered to take us to see the sun setting at the Sunset Cliffs and for a walk along Ocean Beach in California before we left the following morning for Santa Fe, New Mexico. We travelled out with Rachel to huge cliffs with the waves of the Pacific Ocean crashing against them. Now, it’s at times like this, when you stand at the side of a cliff, that you realize how small you are as a human being in the context of this vast expanse of ocean and natural terrain of gigantic cliffs around you. It’s a pretty humbling setting, and then to top it all, to see the sun in all its glory slowly lower in the sky and set on the horizon of this beautiful ocean….Wow! Another lifelong memory created right there! Taking photos of it does not do it an ounce of justice. Some things just cannot be replicated with the same result as seeing it with the naked eye.
I am also pleasantly surprised at how much the people all along the west coast of the States (and indeed every part of the USA that we’ve been) have a fondness for the Irish. I don’t believe that we realize back home how well liked we are as a nation. I feel very proud at the reputation that we have obviously maintained throughout the years all over the world. It’s noticeable from the moment we arrive at some of the airports/borders etc. travelling all over this wonderful country. As soon as we show our passports, we’re waved through with a friendly smile and an almost “sure we won’t be bothering you harmless folk at all” approach. We’ve experienced the same as we travel all over the States on public transport. As soon as people hear our accents they begin a full-blown conversation with us and before our journey is over, the whole bus or train carriage are involved in the chat. It’s just soo fabulous!
We are now on the final stint of our tour of the USA, and I have to say that we have met the most wonderful, warm friendly people who have received us with open arms and such kindness and hospitality that it’s hard to quantify in writing. Some of these people that we have met along the way I know will be life-long friends and again, that is what this journey for us is also about. Meeting such amazing people as we go. We read almost every day in newspapers and watch the news on TV about the tragedies and horrors that are unfolding in the world every day, and here also in the States. Well, let me tell you that there is more good in this country that is never documented or reported and we have been very lucky and blessed to have experienced it tenfold during our time here.
On Monday morning last, we boarded a flight for Albuquerque, New Mexico, leaving behind us the fantastic west coast of the USA. It’s been our first experience of visiting this part of the States, and following this trip, it certainly won’t be our last!
Next stop, is the wonders of the desert city of Santa Fe, New Mexico! It’s 8,000 ft above sea level and will take a couple of days to readjust to the thin air at such a height. I cannot wait to see what this place brings. See you again soon with all the gossip on this new part of our adventure!
We left Sacramento on a rainy Friday morning and headed by train for San Jose in Silicon Valley California. We had penciled in a whistle stop trip here on our itinerary before heading for the sunnier climate of Los Angeles and Venice Beach. Our stop offs have been for relatively short periods from Seattle down to San Jose as our Visas have a 90 day restriction and to date we have spent the majority of this time in pretty cold weather. We intend taking in the last few weeks of our trip in the USA lapping up the glorious sunshine in Southern California and New Mexico.
Arriving at our Airbnb we were delighted to see that it had a huge clear blue swimming pool, a jacuzzi and sun loungers (in case we got tired of the sight seeing of course!). And so first things first, we ventured out into the city for a snoop. And lo and behold, as we walked into the centre of the city, out of nowhere, walking towards us was none other than a Stormtrooper from Star Wars!! Sure who else would ya expect to see on the streets of San Jose And then, there were more! Seriously…all the various different characters from comic strips and movies appeared behind him on the street! What the heck??!!! It was like we’d landed on a movie set! We had inadvertently walked into the Silicon Valley Comic Con! Surrounding us were so many different versions of Superman, Superwoman, Batman, Catwoman, Wolverine, Legoman, Spider-Man, and every character from Comics/Movies that you can imagine. We got chatting the various cartoon and movie characters who were only too happy to pose with us for photographs in their costumes. Now it’s not every day that ya get to chat to all these dudes :-
First impressions of the city of San Jose is that it’s immaculately clean, pretty and with the warm temperatures and clear blue skies, it was just what we needed. Also, they really have got the whole public transport system right. In fact, travelling across the States using public transport has been incredibly easy. I’m constantly blown away by the efficiency of how you can get from A to B in a relatively short period of time. There’s little or no waiting around and the linking of transport services is like nothing I’ve ever experienced in terms of top class public service! Bottom line here is that you don’t really need a car to travel (unless you want to venture off the beaten track). In fact, it is probably much faster and cheaper to reach your destination using public transport than by car. The key to this is figuring out the transport systems/buses/subways etc. and Bob’s your uncle. You’re sorted! Another point worth mentioning is the standard of Airbnb’s here. We have had nothing but positive experiences at every Airbnb that we’ve stayed at. The hosts at each place have been wonderful and the quality of accommodation is right up there with the some of the best accommodation I’ve been lucky enough to experience. If you’re looking for a way to travel without incurring huge costs, Airbnb is definitely the way to go. Just read the reviews and do a bit of research on the Airbnb site before you book. It really does save you an arm and a leg when travelling. We certainly would not be able to do this trip without it.
And so, before we left San Jose, we met up with Colm’s friend Ralph and his wife Maria who kindly took us for a drive to see the playground on the coast, Santa Cruz. Then for dinner in one of the best Italian Restaurants for miles around! The day was typically warm and sunny as we headed out along the coast. I was ecstatic at the thought of standing by the Pacific Ocean and seeing it in all its glory for the first time in my life! And I was hoping that if the weather held out (as it’s inclined to do on this side of the world ) that I might even get to paddle in it. So, with fingers and toes crossed we pulled into the parking bay at the Santa Cruz pier, we took in the whole carnival rides that looked like a kaleidoscope of colors and the squeals of excitement that added to the holiday atmosphere that spilled out across the pier. The sweet smell of candy floss and sugar coated popcorn filled my head with childhood memories of visiting the old Butlins Summer Resort, or Tramore and Bettystown back home in Ireland. And I was trying to recall if the now closed resort of Butlins (which was my all time favourite place to go) had been replaced with similar ones for the next generation of Irish children to enjoy. I don’t believe there has been any like it I’m sad to say. I guess with the unpredictable summer climate back home it’s difficult to sustain such a resort for any length of time. What a pity! And so, having walked through the main entrance of the carnival, there in front of me lay the immense, wild Pacific Ocean with huge foaming waves crashing to the shore. And without further ado, off came my shoes and in I went (as far as my ankles ) for my first time ever paddle in the Pacific! And yep, it was pretty cold, but no colder than our very own Atlantic Ocean on a good day. But lads, to stand there looking out at the vastness of this impressively breathtaking part of our planet is something that will remain with me forever.
The one thing that’s really irritating about visiting San Jose, and I mean REALLY irritating, is that once you arrive you can’t bloody stop singing that song…”Do you know the way to San Jose”….I’m still singing it even though I left there over a frigging week ago! 😂😱😱😱
From San Jose we headed for a two-day stay in San Francisco. In the glorious sunshine we walked along the famous Pier 39, where we spotted the sea-lions gathered on wooden floats in the harbour. They are comical to watch. Over 100 sea lions, playing and fighting with each other and basking in the sunshine. Each sea-lion is territorial over its own little place on the float and dare another one jump up out of the water to move in on another’s space. That’s when the rows start. Barking at one another and pushing each other back into the water. But if you do visit this part of the Pier you need to make sure that you haven’t eaten. The smell from the sea-lions is a bit stomach churning and not for the faint hearted. Worth it though and I wouldn’t miss the whole experience to be honest because of this. Once your stomach has recovered there are plenty of cool restaurants to catch a bite to eat at, which we did before taking the pre-booked tour to Alcatraz! There’s a reason that we had to pre-book this tour and that is because it is probably the best tour that we have been on this side of the States. It is so popular and such a fantastic trip that we were even lucky to have secured two tickets almost three weeks before we headed out. And in fact this is one of the main reasons that we travelled to San Francisco.
On the face of it, as you leave the Pier for Alcatraz, the view of the prison on the island is amazing. But it only reveals itself when you disembark from the ferry and start the island tour with a guide who meets you as you arrive onto the island. The guide is a man (a park ranger in fact) who has worked on Alcatraz for 30 years and is on first name terms with some of the prison’s now released inmates. If ever I saw someone made for their job, this guy is it. It is clear that even after 30 years doing the tours, he is as committed and enthusiastic as he was when he started working there in the island’s book shop at the tender age of 14 years old. So much so that following the stories of the numerous unsuccessful attempted escapes from Alcatraz prison way back in the 1930’s right through until the 1960’s ….he himself trained to swim the treacherous waters surrounding the island, and succeeded in doing it. He does say that it took him months of training to do it, and that having done the swim, he is doubtful that any prisoner swam as far as San Francisco to freedom. The stories of the attempts to escape of prisoners is jaw dropping. We are all too familiar with the movie “Escape from Alcatraz” where three guys dig out a section of a wall in their cells with a spoon and reach the water’s edge and attempt to swim across to San Fran. Well, rumours are still circulating that one of the three guys is still alive and survived the swim. His family have come forward to say that he wants to make himself known, only to be told by the authorities that he is still a wanted man in terms of the law and will have to be taken back into custody if he shows up. And so the mystery remains…is he alive? Who knows. He’d be in his 80’s now if he was so it is plausible I guess. Another intriguing story of an attempted escape was where a prisoner who worked in the laundry room of the prison, over a period of about a year, gathered pieces of the guards uniforms that he was responsible for cleaning. After a year he had snook enough pieces of material and paraphernalia from the guards clothing that he made himself a uniform. His plan was that he would change into the guards uniform and board the ship that brought them from San Francisco to the island. And so the morning came for him to execute his plan. He quickly changed into his carefully made uniform and walked to the platform of the ship where other guards saluted him as he boarded (not realizing he was a prisoner of course). The ship left the dock of Alcatraz, with him onboard thinking he at last would see the sights of San Francisco and escape before the prison officers had realized he was gone. Unfortunately, he had mistakenly boarded the boat that was heading to another remote island, Angel Island, (and not San Fran! Oh jeeez!) just a short way away from Alcatraz which was home to a US Army base. The ship was travelling there to pick up more laundry!! Needless to say, he quickly realized what had happened and at that point the prison officers on Alcatraz discovered his empty cell just in time to notify the guards on the boat docking at Angel Island. The poor guy was caught and repatriated to Alcatraz to solitary confinement for a significant period of time. Can you just imagine…after all that work he had put in, all the planning…and here he was …caught and recaptured…jeez what a bummer. I have to admit, I did giggle though as the Ranger told us the story.
Oh, and did you know that the prisoners who stayed at Alcatraz before it closed in the 1960’s were the very few inmates who had the luxury of hot water showers? A thoughtful justice system? Ehhh…No. It was to make sure that they never got so used to cold water that they would be prepared for the ice cold waters surrounding the island. Imagine!
We spent the best part of a full day on the island and I would have stayed longer if we didn’t have to get the last ferry off the island. It was up there with the best a tour can offer and even had one of the last of the living inmates, Bill Baker (released from prison only 7 years ago) signing his autobiography at the bookstore. So lads, I would absolutely recommend that if you’re visiting this part of the world that you take in this tour. Fantastic isn’t the word for it. And then nothing like ending a fabulous day with some great company in the form of meeting up with friends Brian and Sherry from San Fran who we hooked up with for food and drinks and spent a wonderful evening back at their lovely home where we met their fluffy bundles of love, their two black and white long-haired cats. The following morning we headed out by Ferry to another quaint part of San Fran and that was to Sausalito to meet up with an absolute sweetheart of a friend of a friend, Anastasia. Anastasia is a native of Sausalito and took us around the town to see the lovely sights of this unique part of the area. On the ferry back we bumped into two Irish civil servants that I happened to have mutual friends in common with from my time working in Dublin. What a small small world…even this far away from home in a country with such a huge population that this happens. As it does…part of being Irish eh?
The following day we boarded the Amtrak Coastal Starlight train again and headed south for Los Angeles. The 12 hour trip along this route is quite frankly spectacular and probably one of the most beautiful parts of the train journey that we have done thus far. The train climbs up through magnificent mountain ranges and at one point twists and turns like a snake for miles until it reaches the coastline of the Pacific Ocean as it makes its way to its final destination of Los Angeles. We were glued to our seats in the viewing carriage of the train (which is basically a carriage with glass ceilings and walls so you can take in this incredibly beautiful coastline) and it’s most definitely a once in a lifetime experience to travel this route. The journey by train at first glance when booking it seems time consuming, but it certainly does not feel like it when you’re sitting in total comfort looking out at and experiencing the whole west coast of the United States as you travel. It is so worth skipping the flights and doing it by train for this alone!
It was late when we arrived into L.A. and we took a cab to our hotel (as we were only staying for two nights we thought it easier to pick up a relatively cheap but cheerful hotel before heading for Venice Beach). Our hotel was in Korea Town, a part of L.A. that seems to only cater for people from this Asian background. This is quite common in L.A. While it has an extremely diverse population, each nationality seems to have its own separate community and integration isn’t really evident in the context of people from different nationalities living together in the same space. We decided the following morning that as we were only doing a quick stop in LA we would have to venture out to Hollywood (which was pretty much on our doorstep) and see how “the other half” live. We weren’t disappointed. Oh holy mother of divine lord … lads, I’m not joking you when I say that what we read in magazines is only the half of it! I mean, how on earth can people afford to live like this? Streets paved with gold is an understatement! We took the bus around the city and everyone that had sunglasses on we were jumping up thinking it was a celebrity. And then we copped on and bought some cool sunglasses and walked around as though we were, watching people on the buses looking at us trying to see who we were…and if we were celebrities too. Ha haaa… That’s what it’s like here, I swear. Gas crack indeed! We got to walk the Hollywood Hall of Fame, Hollywood Boulevard, Beverly Hills and see where all the rich and famous people wine and dine. We passed the hotel where Whitney Houston passed away, which was actually quite moving. The Hilton hotel stands alongside the most prestigious hotels in this area and to be honest, is not overly impressive as far as the other hotels go and it’s quite sad to think that this is where this poor tormented woman spent her final hours, alone. Amongst the richest in society, amongst the most famous people on the planet! Her song, the Greatest Love of All is very poignant when I think about the life that she was exposed to as a result of her huge talent and fame.
And so we leave the wonderful and awesome lights and sights of L.A. and Hollywood for Venice Beach and Santa Monica…which is a whole blog onto itself. Oh My Gawwwwdddd….I’m still trying to get my head around this place since we arrived. It basically is exactly as it says on the tin! 😂😂😂
Be back soon on that one… man! 😂😂😂🌴🌴🌴🏄♀️🧘♀️🧘♀️🧘♀️
(Photo: Car driving along street in Portland, Oregon)
It was difficult leaving Chicago for Seattle. Leaving li’l Harry and Alison and Jonny behind, not to mention seeing Cathal off on his return trip to Ireland. It was inevitably going to be just that, and so by the time we reached Seattle I wasn’t much fun to be honest. I’m not sure if that melancholy mood that I was in when we arrived colored my view of the city, and while I really enjoyed the whole hippy vibe going on in the the markets, I was, if I’m perfectly honest, not wholly impressed. Now given that we were less than a week in Seattle, it might be unfair for me to reach such a conclusion, but nah, I was just as happy to be boarding the train for Portland after our stay there. One word of advice to anyone visiting Seattle – stay away from the Space Needle! It’s pretty much the main attraction advertised in the city and a total rip off. In my humble opinion, it’s a big mistake to keep it open and charge tourists while huge construction work is going on there. Now I get that you might kinda feel that if you don’t do the famous Space Needle that you’ve missed out on a major part of Seattle. Well, even if you do the tour, you still miss out! So, save yourself $22 and buy some hippy items from the markets in Pike Place which is a wonderful experience and in total contrast to the Space Needle. You see, the trip to the top of the Space Needle is in an elevator where a nice tour guide tells you all about the construction work that’s taking place as the elevator ascends, just so you feel that you haven’t been ripped off I guess. That same tour guide abandons ship once you leave the elevator to make your way to the viewing deck. There are no guides or information boards or leaflets explaining to you what you are seeing as you look out through the small six foot by six foot space that remains as the viewing deck, alongside all of the construction scaffolding. The most interesting thing I saw when I was up there was one of the construction guys suctioning a huge piece of glass on a suction machine…the glass, not the guy girls 😂. I swear…I might as well have been looking out across Galway Bay for all the information that was available to tell me about what views I was looking at from 520 feet up.
Every cloud has a silver lining however and on the last night of our stay in Seattle, we happened upon some really fantastic people at a Brewery called Perihelion. A quirky bar where we met two “guys”, one of whom was from California and who stayed on after the friend had left. We hung out together for the evening doing as you do in a Brewery, some beer tasting. As it turned out, this person was one of the most interesting and brave individuals I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. “He” you see, is becoming a “She” with medical rather than surgical intervention. She has struggled for many years to reach the point where she now, at 22 years old (with the maturity of a much older woman might I add) is making the necessary changes to be the person she truly feels she was born to be. The result of this is that sitting before me was a beautiful looking woman, albeit, born a man. She explained that she felt she was a female trapped inside a male body from birth. We hit it off straight away and she was a breath of fresh air! I was so delighted to be in the company of a sincere, intelligent, courageous and honest woman, (which are the kind of women I hang out with anyway), but you know what I mean! How lucky was I to have had such an encounter? So you see the trip to Seattle, Washington wasn’t in vain after all.
Other than that, the only other item worth a mention is that the original Starbucks is based right beside the fantastic hippy markets at Pike Place. The queues outside for a regular cup of coffee however really don’t justify the wait, unless of course you are an absolute huge fan of Starbucks coffee and have a thing about seeing your name on your cup. I personally popped around the corner to yet another Starbucks (there’s tonnes of them in Seattle) and bought one which was in my cold paws in less than 5 minutes. I did however take a photo of the outside of the original shop, just to have on record that I did indeed see it. Sure you’d have to when you’ve travelled that far weshhht. 👩🌾
And so, on the morning of Thursday 29th March, we packed up our bags and left Seattle on the Amtrak Coast Starlight train for the start of our wonderful trip down the west coast of the USA. The city of Portland, (some four hours of a train journey away) was our next stop. The train ride down was not so much breathtaking as rather interesting and I guess, reflective of life that goes on between Seattle and Portland. And that is mostly to do with the automobile industry! There were, what seemed like hundreds of car graveyards, piles of scrunched up cars in mounds being fed onto conveyor belts and subsequently spat out in smaller piles of metal shards. There were trailer parks with trucks made from all different car and truck parts, some with huge wheels that looked totally out of proportion to the body of the vehicle. Now I’m sure there’s a very legitimate reason for this of which I am totally ignorant, but to someone who knows very little about cars, these patchwork pick up trucks looked hilarious!
With absolutely no clue as to what to expect of this city of Portland, Oregon, we arrived at our destination to beautiful warm sunshine! At last! After a quick bite to eat we made our way to our Airbnb accommodation which was literally only a few stops away by tram from the city, and then for a stroll down one of the main streets nearby. And as we walked, people were smiling and happy and greeting us with waving hands and some “high fives”. I was thinking to myself…Jeez… these are the friendliest bunch we have encountered yet and they don’t even know us?!!! What on earth? Until we discovered that in fact while they are naturally a very warm and welcoming bunch of people in any event, that cannabis is entirely legal and that 50% and more of the population smoke/eat it for recreation purposes. So the high fives and the aromas we were encountering as we strolled along explained the chilled out happy individuals we were meeting along the way! (I have to admit that given that I had stopped smoking cigarettes over three years ago, and was too afraid to try it out for fear of going back on the fags again, I might have been tempted).
Portland, my friends, was everything and more that we wanted from this journey down the west coast. It really has to be experienced to be believed. There is a mix of a cool hippy vibe and a 1950’s/60’s and rock and roll vibe rolled into one. I friggin loved loved loved it! The motto of the city is “Keep Portland Weird”! I think that explains it in a nutshell. People are quirky and unique and there’s a whole sense of fun about the place. It is up there as one of the top 5 cities in the world for the best place to live and where residents are the happiest and it doesn’t surprise me one bit. I would move lock stock and barrel to live here in the morning if I could. I can’t put my finger on just one thing that stands out that gives this city such uniqueness. It’s a whole combination of things I believe. The down-to-earth, warm, quirky, arty people who chose to live there. The bright arty street graffiti that has been painted on almost every wall; or the reaction of people when they realized we were tourists from Ireland and the enthusiasm with which they welcomed us. The yoga class that the host of the Airbnb invited me to attend as she was teaching it on the morning after we arrived; or the tour of the submarine at the local museum of Science and Industry, the list goes on and on. It is a city full of wonder and excitement and fun. The only downside of our trip was that we didn’t book to stay longer. It is one of those places that you visit where you wish everyone you knew and loved had an opportunity to experience. So folks…if you’re thinking about visiting the west coast of the USA, you absolutely must include this city on your itinerary.
Sadly our time in Portland came to an end too quickly. We boarded the Amtrak Starlight Coastal train again five days later and headed for Sacramento, California. The train journey was a long one. We boarded at just after 2 p.m. on Monday and didn’t arrive in Sacramento until Tuesday morning at 6.00 a.m. Having breakfast in a diner in Sacramento at just after 6.00 a.m. was a small bit strange and we were pretty tired having only slept for a few hours along the way. The train journey was spectacular as we climbed the Cascade Mountains between Portland and Sacramento. Hours of beautiful jaw-dropping scenery that we watched from the viewing car of this huge train that slithered along the tracks through the mountains like a giant cobra. We climbed so high into the mountains, there was miles of snow without so much as a footprint from any living creature evident. We milked the last piece of daylight out of the viewing car before heading to the dining car for dinner and then attempted miserably to get a few hours shuteye.
The stop in Sacramento for us was purely to break the long train journey and get some time in the sun by a pool. So a brief stop on our way to our Airbnb at the fabulous old city of Sacramento was as much as we got to do during our stay here. The old city consists of wooden buildings, preserved from long ago, and saloons that we are all familiar with seeing in the old cowboy movies. Sitting on the bench outside one of the saloons I had visions of cowboys with stirrups and fringes involved in a brawl being thrown out onto the cobbled roadside through swinging saloon doors. Horse drawn wagons full of children dressed in the old-style costumes adorned the streets and it was just fabulous to witness. A real sense of being in America during the whole Cowboy and Indian era. I would have loved an old rocking chair on the wooden decking that we were sitting on. Instead of a sign saying “Annie get your gun” that there’d be one saying “Granny on the Run” 😂.
And on to our Airbnb where we were greeted by the most wonderful hosts, Vivian and Brian. Stepping from our cozy room which was a small annex to their main house, out into what I can only describe as a “fairy garden”, full of trees with hanging colored ribbons and twinkling lights. A fabulous swimming pool catches our eyes immediately. Floral garden furniture with a pit fire in the centre of the garden. And the coolest thing ever. A “Love Shack” they had built many years ago at the back of the garden! Vivian is an artist and Brian is also involved in the arts. Two real life true hippies with so much warmth for us and all of their guests. This is what the whole Airbnb experience is also about for us. Meeting all these fantastic different people as we go. We spent such wonderful evenings with Vivian and Brian around a log fire that Brian had kindly built for us by the pool. We stank of smoke when heading into our beds but we didn’t care. It was just wonderful! What a fabulous experience and we have vowed to keep in touch with each other and hopefully we can host them when they take their trip to Ireland and we eventually return home. The rain came on the day we left Brian and Vivian for San Jose. It kinda felt like that too, a bit sad to be saying goodbye but exciting all the same as we continued our southward journey to San Jose in Southern California. The train journey to San Jose took just over three hours. Uneventful to begin with until a few stops into the journey a petite gentle beautiful Japanese woman boarded the train and asked if she could sit in the vacant seat beside us. I of course explained that it was free and so she sat in and began chatting as the train took off again. Before we knew it, she and I were engrossed in conversation, sharing our respective stories with each other. She, Naomi J. Williams was a successful writer/novelist who had her first novel published called “Landfall” and was working on her second. Such an interesting lady and I naturally had no idea how famous she was until she disembarked from the train and tweeted:-
Thank you Naomi J. Williams for your wonderful company on that train journey down south. 😘
And so we are now in San Jose, where the weather is fabulously warm and sunny. Our accommodation at this Airbnb is great and has its own pool, sauna and gym. We are settling in well as you can imagine! We have had short bursts in the places we’ve visited to date along the west coast and haven’t really “peeled the onion” fully so to speak in these cities so far. The reason for this is that we wanted to get to the Southern California area as soon as possible to get the most of the warmer weather within the time restrictions on our Visas. Our stays at each place from hereonin will be longer. But let me save the San Jose, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Venice Beach piece for the next blog! Things are about to heat up for sure….we’ve bought the sun cream, we have already got our white bits, and lets just say there’s no doubting where we come from when we lie by the pool 😂😂😂. Although we have been tempted to respond to questions like “where are you folks from?” with “What d’ya mean? We’re locals!” 😂😂😂
And onwards we go! 😀