Sunday, July 19, 2015

Back In Southern California! - Part 2

After going to the Grand Canyon and Vegas, Diana and I were happy to be leaving the California-Arizona-Nevada desert and going "home" to Oceanside again.

You really can't beat San Diego, and Oceanside in particular, for the scenery and weather! The view north from the Oceanside Pier:

We stayed with my long-time friends Chuck and Gail for the last four or five nights in California. I've know these guys for over 20 years and it was so comforting to hang out again. Even though I haven't seen them for like four years, it took seconds to connect.

Mandatory Beach Break Cafe breakfast with Chuck and Gail (so nice to be back):

Our last few days were a whirlwind of activity. I sold off, donated, or threw out what was left in storage and was happy to leave the unlocked and empty unit behind. As I mentioned in part one of Back In Southern California, cleaning out made me realize yet again that I don't really want to accumulate things ever again. The bitter sweetness of no longer having as much stuff and the realization of what all that stuff originally cost is a complicated feeling for me to this day.

Anyway, it wasn't all heavy. I was happy to play tourist with Diana in my old, long-time hometown. This even included, believe it or not, attending Sunday-morning mass at Oceanside's San Luis Rey Mission with Chuck and Gail.

We have lots of luck when it comes to seeing the pope. The coolest part of going to the mission that day was running into Frank and taking selfies! Of course we invited him to come visit us in Barcelona.

On our last night in California, a bunch of friends met us for dinner in a local Carlsbad place where we caught up over margaritas. So many friends who absolutely need to come visit us in Barcelona before the wind one day carries us somewhere else!!!

The day we left, Dave came over to say goodbye and took Diana for a quick motorcycle ride through the local hills. Diana was all smiles as I think she was a Harley rider in a past life. Actually, I think that if we lived in California, you'd find her with her own ride!

Sadly, but full with happy memories, we packed the rental car and made the drive to LAX for our flight to Barcelona.

Spontaneously on the way, I called another long-time friend, John, who lives and works right near the airport, to see if he could meet us. John was the other gringo in the team when I moved down to southern Mexico almost twenty years ago. He said yes and about 30 minutes later, we were catching up at Starbucks in the departures area. We haven't seen each other for maybe ten years. It was a nice bonus to the end our California visit.

Thanks to Dave, Chuck, and Gail for opening your houses for Diana and me. Thanks to all the friends we were able to meet up with during our brief stay. Sorry to those with whom our schedules didn't mesh. Next time for sure.

And finally, if you haven't visited us, it's time. Get your butt in plane and do it.

Thanks again California (and Mexico) and see you soon.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Las Vegas And Hoover Dam

The next stop on our "California" adventure was Las Vegas. We left the Grand Canyon early in the afternoon with the goal of getting to Vegas by around 6pm as we had plans for later that evening.

We stopped off at a random exit to get gas and I told Diana about how the small road we were driving on was the original Route 66. You've probably heard of how Route 66 was the road people would use to get from the Midwest (Chicago, for example) out to Santa Monica, California back before the freeway system was built. It was the lifeblood for countless small towns along the way because it provided jobs at restaurants, gas stations, motels, and road-side attractions. There's not really much left today except for things like the giant thermometer in Barstow, California, which we passed on our way out, and the giant (note a theme?) dinosaurs near Palm Springs.

Gettin' our kicks on Route 66...

Like the Grand Canyon, one of the places that I've always heard of but had never seen was the Hoover Dam. This giant dam is part-reservoir, part-hydroelectric plant built in a canyon on the Colorado River, which marks the border between Arizona and Nevada. The Colorado is the same river that created the Grand Canyon.

Looking down the face of the Hoover Dam:

Our route from the Grand Canyon to Vegas took us over the bridge in the photo below. The Hoover Dam, named for a United States president, is, umm, really big. It's hard to appreciate the scale looking at the photo above but, in the one below, those white spots in the lower-right-hand corner are cars.

I always thought the Hoover dam was far from Vegas. Maybe back in the day it was but now it's basically in the suburbs like 30 minutes via car from the Strip. Like I said, the scale was impressive. What was scary, though, is the lack of water in the reservoir. The southwestern U.S. is in the middle of a giant, multi-year drought and is verrry dry. I remember right when I arrived in California back in the early 90s, I had just missed a big drought. Well, this one's even bigger and shows no signs of ending.

The white ring in the photo below is how high the water in the reservoir should be. Although, if you look down the face of the dam, you remember how deep the water really is, but still, not a good trend...

We made it to Vegas around 7pm and checked in to the place we were staying. Something that's really annoying about Vegas (and maybe at other places too - I'm not sure) is the dreaded 'Resort Fee', which all the hotels there seem to charge.

Resort fees are mandatory $20-plus (U.S.) per-person usage charges you pay on check in supposedly for things like the pool, WIFI, and so on. It's ridiculous; kinda' like buying an airplane ticket and the airline passing a hat to pay for the fuel when you check in. It's a scam IMO and seems to be a way for them to make rooms appear cheap until you arrive tired with your bags from the airport only to have to pay a couple hundred extra for your stay.

Anyway, I found a place called the Jockey Club, which is sandwiched between the Bellagio, Paris, and the ultra-hip (although I'm not sure why) Cosmopolitan. I think it's a time-share place that rents rooms when the owners aren't around. The benefit is that there are no resort fees and the apartments have a full kitchen and living room not to mention the awesome, mid-Strip location. The price was good especially when you add the like $40-60 per-night extra we would have paid for the resort fees. So, in summary, if you're going to Vegas, keep your eye out for crappy fees.

Paris, or at least the Las Vegas version, at night:

Diana wanted to see Cirque du Soleil while in town so we chose the 'Michael Jackson One' show at Mandalay Bay. We didn't really want to pay too much so we bought the two cheapest tickets in the theater, which were still $75 per person. They were in very last row over on the right side but, since the theater isn't very big, were actually pretty good.

We took our seats, which were near the women who are taking photos just behind Diana in the photo below. About five minutes before the show started, an usher came up to us and asked if we wanted to move to better seats. I may have quoted my dad when I asked "Is the Pope Catholic?" She took us down past where the ladies with the white and black shirts are standing (farther down), which, if I remember correctly, cost like $200 each! Score!

Cirque de Soleil shows are impressive to say the least. I'm not much for live theater but they do a good job. I saw 'O', which is Cirque de Soleil's water-themed Vegas show, a few years ago and that was a fun time. The Michael Jackson theme seemed a bit contrived but it was still full of those classic-CdS tidbits that you watch and just think, who comes up with this stuff?

I think my favorite part was when they did Billy Jean and the room was completely dark. There were probably like five dancers on stage dressed in black so you couldn't see them but each one had LED lights on their costumes. As they danced, the lights would turn on and off, which created a very cool effect. The best part was how the dancers' lights were synchronized between them so that they appeared to "jump" across the stage. Although difficult to describe, it was definitely memorable.

The next morning, I created a monster by introducing Diana to the Bloody Mary breakfast at the nearby Cosmopolitan. What could be better than a big-ole' made-in-USA breakfast? That's right, breakfast with cocktails! Let's just say, especially for a non-teetotaler, Diana was a fan!

After breakfast, we continued our strangely European vacation first over at the Venetian (note those gondolas and canals are indoors)...

...and then over at Cesar's Palace. It was just like being back in Rome...well, except for the fire, water, music, light, and animatronics shows under an artificial, indoor 24-hour "daylight" show each hour? Yeah, welcome to Vegas, right?

Who knew there was so much Europe in the desert southwest of the United States?

But, just when we may have forgotten where we were, we visited the Hershey and M&Ms' stores. Let's just say that they sell real, umm, American-sized items...

Yummy! My sister and I could go into sugar shock together with ginormous boxes of one of our favorite candies!

For our second and final evening in town, we decided to go to Fremont Street, which is the Zappos' sponsored version of old-fashioned Vegas. Fremont is the downtown street that runs between some of the oldest casinos in Vegas. They've covered it with a giant LED-light-show roof, added in some zip lines, and tried to create a more-family-friendly version of Vegas.

Other than the music-and-light show and the odd sensation of having people fly overhead Superman style (no, we didn't try it), the highlight of the evening was when Diana ran into one of her childhood heroes, Mr. T!

Before heading back to San Diego the next morning, we took the opportunity to sample the Bloody Mary breakfast over at the Bellagio. Breakfast was good but I think the Bloody Marys (or, is it Maries? The spell checker doesn't like either.) at like $14 or more each, were a bit pricey and small for my taste but, whatever, we were in Vegas baby.

Back when we were in Dubai, I told Diana Vegas was similar in some ways. Both are too hot for humans to be able to survive without air conditioning. Lots of luxury stores and shopping. There's that desert setting. And, of course, the supersized roads and buildings. Vegas may win out for me on account of the Bloody Marys but, either way, both are an adventure worth having!

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Grand Canyon

Diana and I came back from Mexico and headed out to the Grand Canyon the next morning. I had never been there, which surprises a lot of folks. Come on, I haven't been everywhere...yet!

We did try to go a few years ago but didn't make it due to my MINI having a total-system electrical failure. Funny thing is I miss driving that car but I absolutely don't miss its crappy reliability. Actually, I really don't miss owning a car at all other than occasionally wanting to go out for a drive on some curvy mountain road...but that's a story for another day.

On the way out of town we stopped and visited an old work mate (...note to self, my English is starting to sound a bit U.K.) and his family who live a bit north of San Diego. He's a United States born of Mexican heritage and his wife is from Kyoto, Japan. They made us a delicious breakfast and we hung out for about a couple of hours. The best thing was that my friend surprised us as we left with a big-ole bag of snacks for our drive. Woohoo! Thanks guys. We'll pay you back when you're here in Barcelona, which, as I write this, is in a couple of days. See you soon!

Anyway, what can I say about the Grand Canyon? Hmm... Well, it's like a seven-hour drive from San Diego and pictures just don't do it justice. There's no airbnb options within a reasonable distance so I checked out nearby hotels, which, for the most part, are about a half-hour-or-so down the road. But, buried at the bottom of one of the pages of the Grand Canyon National Park website, they list two hotels that are...wait...inside the park. What? Inside the park? And within a short walking distance from the rim? And, at a great price? Booked!

We spent two days at the grand canyon and couldn't get enough of the views:

...which seem to change by the hour. Note that the photo above and the one below were taken on a very short distance away from each other and about an hour apart. Look at the difference in colors.

Like I said, photos don't do it justice. Can you tell from the photo below that the other side is almost seven miles away from the very-contented Colombian world traveler?

The hotel was basic but clean and cheap. It was nice to be able to walk over to the rim. The downside is that there's not a lot of food choices inside the park but we made due with supermarket food for breakfast and lunch and ate out each of the two nights.

If you've never gone, I'd highly recommend adding it to your list.

Along the south rim, which is where we spent all our time, there's a bus that takes you to different lookout points. We stopped at each one, and, really, they're all basically the same (but definitely worthwhile). We didn't walk down into the canyon as they scare you with stories of death if you decide to go and we were feeling somewhat lazy after traveling half-way around the world, going down to Mexico, and taking like eight or nine hours to drive to the park. :)

Yes, the photo below looks like I'm trying out for a part in Star Trek and, yes, it's real. No green screens here!

I don't know why I've added the photo below. It really does suck when trying to show what's going on the the big G.C. but, I gotta' bunch and figure maybe it'll get you to go one day if you haven't already. Note the Colorado river as a little silver curve about a mile below (towards the center of the picture):

The photo above was taken about an hour-or-so before sunset and the one below from basically the same spot just as the sun was going down behind another part of the south rim. You can see the river towards the right side.

We took the bus out to one of the suggested sunset-viewing locations and waited as the temperature and sun dropped. There were a couple hundred others around so I was a bit worried about being able to get onto one of the buses back to the visitor's center but the government's got you covered. They had a crap load of buses that started rolling like ten seconds after the sun disappeared. Impressive operation. You can tell they've done it before.

I've been pretty lucky to have been to so many places and seen so many things. The Grand Canyon's definitely one of the greats along with places like Tibet, and Kyoto and Nara in Japan, and, of course, Chiquinquira!

Diana on top of the world appreciating that thing we call life. What have you done recently that's made you as happy as she is in this photo? Get on it. There's no do-over.