As all things must, my adventures are gradually drawing to a close.
It feels surreal for me to say, but where once I’d look at the calendar and think jesus, I’m not even half-way done, now I look at the calendar and see, like the boulder that chased Indy from the tomb, there are significantly more months behind me than in front.
My travels feel, looking back now, like a miniature lifetime: with a multitude (71 to be exact) of temporary homes, immeasurable hours of commuting, unspeakably numerous new experiences, and precisely 260 new pals (I keep a pretty extensive list of names).
It should pose no great surprise then (although the level of coincidence is enough to inspire a non-believer to believe in fate) to learn that this miniature life has featured its fair amount of recurring characters.
There were Jules and Al in India, who put me up in Dehli and Suzhou respectively. Emily, Patrick, Matt, Marieke & Kat who punctuated my Korean ventures frequently and joyously. Canadian Cheryl made more than one appearance in Peru too, before setting Siobhan and I up with a bed to lay our heads in Cuenca, Ecuador. Faiçal cropped up thrice throughout South America – each time in a different country – as did the mysterious Swiss/English couple, who I met in no less than two different hostels, on three different busses, and in three different countries, but who remain noted in my journal as ‘that swiss/english couple’. And of course there was Luke, the Canadian douchebag who first entered this blog under the guise of just another traveller, and has wormed his way up – through meeting in China, travelling with me through South America, joining me in Mexico City, and soon to host me in New York and Toronto – to the status of ‘my fondest admirer’.
Short my travels are not of stories like these. I have been either very lucky, very crafty, very clingy or very amicable then in making such a wonderful international network of buddies who would, could, have and will help me out when I’m in their area. To a fairly full degree this is simply the nature of the backpacker. Whether you travel for a week or a year, you find yourself in the same tumultuous raft as everybody else, so when someone comes to you still in that raft – even once you’ve made it back to dry land – you know where they’re at, and you’ll always lend a hand.
I now find myself within sight of dry land. The bonnie braes and glens, cavernous and starlit lochs, tall pines and snow-capped mountains of Caledonia seem almost within reach and yet, my dinghy has sprung a leak. In actual fact, it’s sprung several leaks. I’ve lost an oar; my lifejacket won’t inflate; the food’s turning and to cap it off I’m almost outta smokes. In other words, travelling for ten months has taken its toll – on my wallet, my shoes, my stamina (mental & physical), and my wallet (I know I wrote it twice).
Home may not be altogether too far off, practically round the bend relatively speaking, but with no job and the purse strings growing ever tighter, I landed in the Land of the Brave, Home of the Free (*cough*cough*) with a mantra in mind:
It was time to call in the favours.
At the time of writing, as I sit propped up in a double bed, gazing out the breezy window onto San Deigo greenery, with a room and bathroom to myself and not a care in the world, it would seem my dinghy has been upgraded to a top of the line yacht. I daren’t jump the gun and proclaim myself saved from shark infested waters too soon, given my track record, but I’d say I’m as safe as can be for now.
And here’s how it happened; here’s how I played my hand of cards saved up all this time, and found the best pit-stop team imaginable to patch the holes, lend me an oar, fill my belly, my lungs, and *wait for it* my heart. *D’awwww*.
Arriving in Los Angeles first was a risky call. The City of Angels – home of the Fresh Prince, Hollywood, every hip-hop album or movie you’ve ever seen – is not known for its affordability. And in a country not known for its backpacker scene, that could have proven fatal to the bank account.
Thankfully, I knew a guy.
I first met Josh in La Paz, Bolivia, when, still on it from the night before, he and his buddy Luke had joined me and my buddy Luke on the downhill biking of the Death Road. Despite initially thinking what a mental case he was for doing it not-exactly-sober (shall we say), by the end of the day the four of us were craicing on brand new. We exchanged facebooks the following day, and continued on our ways.
Putting up a plea for a free couch on the West Coast a week or two before arriving in the States though, and Josh was the first to reply, offering me his pad to crash at in Los Angeles. In the end however, he did much more for me than just that: day one he picked me up from the airport and toured me round the city, taking me first to Venice Beach (as crazy and exciting as you imagine it to be), and then for my first Chipotle, before grabbing us some beers (like everything here, grossly oversized, but it’s beer so yay!) and taking me for a round at the local golf club. From then till I left, Josh’s hosting manners proved at once intensely generous and intensely tiring. We barely stopped partying, eating fast food at various LA must-go-to’s, and zipping from sight to sight around the city in his beat up motor. It all felt grungy, but with a flashy twist – like we were living the good life, but putting on a trashy show. Though this, I feel, is the core of LA.
Josh and his pals treated me like a prince, buying me many a round when I simply couldn’t afford a drink, or Mary, Josh’s roomie, getting us Maccy D’s for breakfast. I remain indebted to Josh for destroying my liver and seeing I had the best time possible in that most iconic and iconically self-obsessed of cities.
After a few quick Facebook back and forths, Michael (basically a cooler, less dumb and/or goofy version of Luke) and I arranged to hook up for a day of museums, wine, and food. As Michael described himself: “I’m a great date”. Picking me up in his Maserati (*drools*) we spent a very lovely afternoon at the Getty Center, perched on the hills overlooking LA and the Valley. It was a welcome reprieve from Josh’s chaotic style of partying, and gave my body and mind a chance to recuperate. After which we took a drive up the PCH (Pacific Coastal Highway) toward Malibu for seafood dinner and drinks in a restaurant I was not dressed for, overhanging the water. Michael is a stupidly intelligent guy, and we had myriad interesting and insightful conversations before I retired, citing the earache I’m still stuck with (#travellife).
Next day he took me out again, this time for a morning drive along the PCH and then up into the mountains along Steve McQueen and James Dean’s infamous Mulholland Drive. This time though it was me behind the wheel of a car they only ever made 180 of, with a kind of power and accelaration I’d never been in charge of before. It was fucking excellent. Following breakfast at a small bikers’ diner down in the valley (American food is generally overly exaggerated and huge, but their diner breakfasts are the shit), he dropped me back at Josh’s and bidded me auf wiedersehn. Bar treating Mike to breakfast, I didn’t pay for a thing; he knew where I was at and was more than happy to look after his lil bro’s pal for a couple days. And I think that’s just plain heroic.
Los Angeles came and went, and I was more than ready to move on to the more genuine, homely, culturally richer city of San Francisco. The method of getting there though, was to change dramatically from my original plan, thanks again, to the favour card.
On the plane from Mexico City to Los Angeles I bumped into, or rather was tapped on the shoulder by, Kieran: a big, bearded Dundonian fae the upper-east coast of my home country, Scotland. We passed pleasantries as we got onto the plane, and then met each other again heading towards baggage claim. After chatting merrily for a while about our travels, home, and almost never ever meeting other Scots on the road, it transpired that we were both leaving Los Angeles on the 26th. Furthermore, it turned out that Kieran and his pal (who I’d meet soon enough) had rented a car for a big cross country American roadtrip and would I like to join him for the drive up to San Fran?
Fucking right I’d like to join.
Not knowing it then, Kieran and his pal from home, Clare, would be the pair to help drag my sinking dinghy out of the rapids and into smoother waters. They would indeed become good friends, though I’d never have guessed it from the moment he tapped my shoulder to ask if the Scottish flag on my bag meant I was indeed Scottish.
America is a land built for automobiles, and where a gallon of gas might only cost you $2 (40-50p a litre of petrol), a bus ticket will quickly skin you upwards of $40. Moreover, the public transport system in America is hugely limited. If you wanted, for example, to visit the Golden Gate Bridge, Johnny Cash’s infamous San Quentin State Prison, or Yosemite National Park, you can simply forget it if you don’t have access to a car. Busses will not be going and/or stopping there.
It is entirely thanks to Kieran and Clare then (or perhaps to my infectiously lovely personality which I used to lure myself into their goodbooks) that I ultimately managed to see a whole heap more of the West Coast than I otherwise might have done on my ever-diminishing budget.
The drive up the coast to San Francisco was, without doubt, one of my favourite days of the trip. Everyone I’d spoke to about my American plans had scoffed at my idea of taking the bus inland up to San Francisco. The only way to do that trip, they assured me, was along the PCH (Pacific Coastal Highway). Hell, they were so right. That road is West Coast Americana in an asphalt nutshell. Blaring Phantom Planet’s California and any other titles inclusive of the state’s name, we roared our way from dusk till dawn along winding roads clinging to the cliff faces of the coast. We stopped frequently, in small mission towns still retaining that old-America feel, at gas stations and fast food places for refreshment, a hundred times at various stunning view points, and once even to cast our gaze across a beach full of gigantic sea lions. It was with tired eyes and happy hearts that we rolled into the city of San Francisco.
We spent roughly three days in San Fran, breakfasting in world famous diners, drinking in (not so Irish) Irish bars, revelling in the art and historic Beat culture, and cruising to Fisherman’s Wharf on the city’s old tram system. It didn’t take me long to fall in love with that place.
I had originally planned to return south after San Francisco, given my budget and a desire to indulge in the free bed promised me in San Diego (more on that in a sec). However, all I’d ever really wanted from the American leg of my travels was a good ol’ fashioned roadtrip, and here were two bonnie Scots offering me a seat in their car bound east as far as I should like. A quick bit reshuffling of plans, and I’d signed up to travel with them as far as Las Vegas, Nevada.
Thusly we spent two days tearing once more along the road. Day one we travelled up the PCH due north again, across the Golden Gate, past San Quentin, before turning east, through Stockton to indulge Kieran’s desire to set eyes on UFC fighter Nate Diaz’s mural there, stopping at a Walmart for Kieran and my first time marvelling at the diversity of products on offer (inc. of course some lovely firearms…), arriving finally, around 11pm, at our little motel two hours outside of Yosemite.
I should point out now, that without even considering my feeble offer of payment, Kieran and Clare put me up for free in both Yosemite and Las Vegas, sneaking me past reception to the room on both occassions. That night in the first motel we set about the beers, donuts and $1 microwaveable burritos, played cards, and then settled in for a short five hour nap before setting off again.
Day two of driving was a long one, even for me who for obvious insurance reasons could not help out in the driving. Nevertheless, so too was it an incredible day. We spent a large portion of it cruising and hiking about Yosemite National Park, a truly stunning part of the world, which begged us questions of how geology and scenery as behemothic and beautiful as this could possibly exist. Many parts of the park bared a striking resemblance to the Scottish Highlands, thus you need only leave it to the Scots to be blaring pipe music and the Corries from open car windows, teary eyed and sweetly homesick.
After Yosemite, it was with a deep and thorough sigh that we realised, three hours deep in the park as we were, we’d not be arriving in Vegas till 2am after an eight and change hour drive. Between the combined magnificence of Clare and Kieran, and my sleep deprived conversations with KT regarding aliens, Scientology, collective consciousness, Trump, and the Mayans; added to by a midnight stop for breakfast-dinner at a 24/7 Denny’s, and a sprinkling of the most gorgeous night sky Nevadan desert has to offer, we finally rolled in to Sin City in the wee hours, sneaked me once again into their plush twin room at Circus Circus, and promptly passed out.
Las Vegas… the less said of Las Vegas the better. I think I described it in an earlier post as ‘the point at which the earth will fold in on itself, pre-implosion, come the apocalypse’, and ‘a perfect parable for all that is wrong with humankind’. Let’s just say, it wasn’t for me. Still, I learned long ago on this trip not to let my surroundings get me down. Thus, with excellent company to keep me laughing and making the most of it all, I embraced as fully as I could the ridiculously flashy, plastic tourism of it all. We got our photo’s taken by the LV sign, took a daunder doon the Strip, and even got tattooed in an old walk-in shop downtown (well, Kieran and Clare did, I’ll wait till I’ve got some actual disposable cash to decorate myself with a matching ‘101’).
My last night with the wolfpack, and my last night in Vegas, was spent getting thoroughly blootered in the room on the remainder of our thirty-pack of (really shitty) beers, before hitting the hotel casino to throw some dollars the way of the grave.
I’ll not soon forget the fun I had on my mini American roadtrip with that gruesome twosome; they helped me realise a small part of a long held dream. Nor will I forget the generosity they showed me. I’ll return the favour with a pint or two back up in the Dee, don’t yous worry.
Fuck Donald Trump. I like white people, but I don’t like you.
Back down south it was then, this time to San Diego (aka Whale’s Vagina amiright), and to call in the final of my West Coast favours.
As much as I have kept on about this being my first time to the States, the truth in that statement is somewhat fallible. In actual fact, my first (and only other) visit to the States was made at 18 months old. Guess I’ve had that traveller’s blood in me for a while, eh. When I was but a wean my folks took me out, with my Uncle, Papa and Nana to visit my Nana’s brother Tony at his pad in Del Mar, a beach town just north of SD. It was to this retreat, therefore, that I now retreated.
Having just arrived back from his own holidays, Tony offered (granted I asked first but shhh) to put me up for my last few days in his part of the world. Once again however he proved, as all the others mentioned here and throughout my trip have proved, that more often than not the kindness of people can stretch much further than us cynics tend to imagine.
I spent a very tranquil, very much needed four days of rest and recuperation at his house, enjoying all the things that comes with an actual house (making a cheese sandwich with stuff from the fridge, cereal and toast and coffee for breakfast, a hot shower when you want it, rippin’ fast wifi, and a comfy bed with no snorers above or below you to keep you awake).
Tony showed me around and made me feel very comfortable, he took me out for a couple meals (I tried Thai food for the first time, fuck yes!) and even went so far as to lend me his car for the duration of my stay. This meant I was able to pop down for afternoons at the beach, take a daytrip to San Diego, and head out for a treat yoself lunch at the best burger joint in Cali: In-n-Out.
After the mad rush of LA and the excessively long days of the wolfpack’s roadtrip, chilling at Tony’s was exactly what I needed.
Tomorrow I fly to New York, to meet up once again with my hardened travel/thunder buddy Luke. There we have a whole host of recommendations for the city as provided by pals we’ve made along the way.
After NYC it’s a bus up to Toronto to spend more time with the man himself, though this time at his family home in King City. There he has sworn me a free bed, food, and all the trash-TV I can handle. At this stage in the trip, where I find myself yawning more often, my bones wearier than usual, my temperament less… raring to go, that is truly all I could ever ask for. When I tell him how grateful I am for the kindness he, his bro, and his mum are showing and have shown me, he is incredulous, asks indeed what friends are for if not to help you out when you find yourself in a rut. I suppose he’s quite right, but even so, the fact that this safety net sits below my tight rope is a greater assurance of happiness than he can I’m sure imagine.
My final card to play comes in the form of an old pal, a best bud of mine from my Glasgow Uni days, Katie, who now resides in Boston given she’s the cleverest of cookies and has a full scholarship to MIT.
Not only did Katie also cover me for our Air B’n’B accommodation in Mexico City (I’ll be paying her back with my first payslip back home), but she’s also offered to host me in Boston for my final few days in North America before my flight Edinburghwards.
To you too, young warrior, a hearty thanks
Now a final quick addition. Don’t think for a second that I am not minutely and acutely aware of my position of priviledge. I know my background, my family, my luck and wealth in being able to take off on the trip in which I embarked all those months ago. I know this. Nevertheless, the fact remains that I ran plain out of money, and were it not for the kindness and goodwill of so, so, so many people – from family back home and old friends, to strangers, loose connections, and freshly made travelling companions – then I’m not entirely too sure exactly what I’d be doing, or where, or how, right now. Hell, my wee sis even offered me her summer savings. (Which, stop shaking your heads, I did not accept). I am blessedly surrounded by the best of the best.
Thus, to all those who have helped me along my way, be it by a shared cigarette, a friendly word, a bit of cash or a place to lay my head for the night: thank you. You have made one wee Scottish lad very happy in the continuance of the best year of his life.
With love, as always, C x