California [weeks 5 - 8]

I've squeezed together four weeks of photos into a single post because, as our time in California has drawn to a close, I haven't bothered taking many pictures nor thought much about this blog. This will be my last update from Santa Barbara, a place I now firmly associate with comfort, stability and overconsumption thanks to the endless hospitality of Sam's family. I can't thank them enough for everything they've done for me. It goes without saying I feel sad and slightly nervous about leaving this warm pouch of security for the strange, unknown land we're hoping to occupy for the next few months, but also quite excited. 

Tomorrow, we fly to Taiwan with the intention of staying there for a few weeks, followed by several months travelling around Southeast Asia. In trademark unprepared fashion, we haven't booked or planned anything beyond our flight into Taipei itself and have very little idea about what to expect when we arrive. As usual, I will attempt to blog about our experiences every week, beginning this Sunday. Wish us luck, I think this time we might actually need it...

The main reason we ended up staying in California longer than the month we originally planned was because, after a dental check up, it was determined that Sam needed her wisdom teeth removed. One perk of America's private healthcare system are waiting rooms like this, where lavish rugs and comfortable leather sofas replace the plastic chairs and stacks of 2009 issues of Woman's Own most Brits are accustomed to with the NHS.

As it turned out, the procedure was a failure and only one of four wisdom teeth could be removed. The anesthetic didn't work properly and a partially-conscious Sam was disruptive enough for the surgeon to abort halfway through. Adding to her trauma, we enjoyed Thai takeaway for dinner while she was forced to endure her prescribed diet of crushed ice lollies.

Santa Barbara life continued at the same relaxed pace while the hole in Sam's mouth healed, with occasional outings to the beach...

...and to the local nature preserve, where Lucy helped preserve nature.

Sam's aunt visited Santa Barbara for a few days from Michigan, an opportunity to briefly escape the insane weather they've been subjected to recently. I didn't take any proper photos together (sorry Lauri) but did get this bad one during a visit to Stearns Wharf.

Our second proper outing since Oakland took the form of a triangular road trip to San Diego and Joshua Tree National Park. San Diego is a major city wedged in the bottom-left corner of the country, bounded by the Pacific Ocean on one side and Mexico on another.

For our first evening, we met up with locals Jared and Fiona. I first met Jared in San Francisco three years ago and we've vaguely kept in touch on facebook ever since. To help showcase San Diego's famous craft beer scene, they took us to an excellent little pub for dinner, followed by another bar, apparently the one in which they originally met. I got quite drunk on delicious IPA and had a great time.

The next morning we set off for Balboa Park, a giant public space housing the city zoo, several museums, gardens, and other cultural artifacts such as the Spreckels Organ, described grandly as "one of the largest pipe organs in the world". I wanted to blast the theme from "Rugrats" but the organ itself was locked away behind shutters, which seemed like a waste.

Almost all the museums charged an entrance fee exceeding five dollars, which, given our chronic cheapness, was enough to steer us toward the limited number of free options.

This included the Botanical Building, where hundreds of plants were assembled from all over the world.

Our favourite plant was the tiny pineapple plant.

Lunch was Thai again, a powerful spiritual experience I will likely never forget. If you're ever in San Diego, I strongly encourage you to visit Bahn Thai.

San Diego is home to a giant US Navy base. It was interesting to watch the various helicopters, warships and submarines float in and out of the bay and imagine what they're up to.

Also watching their movements were thousands of war dead buried in the Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, which overlooks the bay.

We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the Sunset Cliffs area, where devoted surfers negotiate the sandy slopes to join others clustered around different breaks on the horizon. The actual sunset was sadly blocked by a blanket of cloud.

That evening we ate dinner at one of many "hole in the wall" Mexican joints dotted around California, especially prevalent this close to the border. This dirt cheap, authentic brand of Mexican food doesn't exist in the UK but needs to badly.

The following day we set off towards Joshua Tree National Park, a three hour drive inland. Joshua Tree is the convergence of two separate desserts, a vast wilderness punctuated by lots of cool rock formations surrounded by the bizarrely-shaped yucca trees which lend the park its name. I won't bother with captions but here are some photos for your clicking pleasure.

Returning home the next day, we stopped off at the bluffs overlooking Carpinteria seal colony.

Lotta seals.

The Rincon Classic is a well known surf competition held just down the coast from Santa Barbara. The tide was particularly high when we arrived, forcing the many spectators to migrate uncomfortably onto the rocks.

It was fun to watch professionals surf, a sport I know absolutely nothing about yet can easily appreciate the massive talent and testicle size involved.

Sam's brother recently moved out of the family home, leaving his room in need of redecorating. We helped out, one of a pathetically small number of constructive things we have achieved since arriving here almost two months ago.

I apologise for how boringly food-centric this blog has become recently, but I need to document tonight's "Last Supper" somehow. Quite possibly Kris's finest work yet, on the menu was grilled "tri-tip" steak (a cut seemingly unique to cows from within California) with chimichurri sauce, fresh crescent rolls, salad, and the best macaroni cheese I have ever tasted. The whole thing was so good I feel physically sick thinking about it.

I will conclude this update with an image of Lucy exhibiting the degree of rapture (bordering on psychosis) she experiences every single time she is given an opportunity to leave the house, a lasting memory of my time here in beautiful Santa Barbara.

California [week 4]

We stumbled drunkenly into 2015 during a visit to Oakland, the lively sprawl across the bay from San Francisco. We were there visiting Sam's friends Eileen and Chelsea, who kindly allowed us to squat in their cosy student apartment for nearly a week.

San Francisco is a nine hour slog northwards from Santa Barbara by public transport. Our journey was broken in two, beginning with a couple of very pleasant hours aboard the Pacific Surfliner train...

...followed by many deeply unpleasant hours inside a mostly static bus.

Eileen was working the morning after we arrived, so we did some sightseeing ourselves. Berkeley Marina was a short bus ride away.

Its pier used to function as a terminus for ferries sailing to and from San Francisco before the construction of the various bridges that nowadays intersect the bay. More recently, the pier is used for fishing and marriage proposals, both of which we witnessed during our stroll to the end.

Back at the flat that evening, we celebrated New Years Eve like everyone else in the world, by drinking heavily.

We braved the (actual) freezing weather to return to the pier at midnight and watch the fireworks across the water in San Francisco. These were not front-row seats but the colour and general shape of each firework was clearly discernible, even if the sound of them exploding didn't quite reach us.

Eileen and Chelsea made us breakfast the following morning, a delicious treat. Eileen is amongst the most vocal proponents of this blog so she'll be happy to finally be included with this photograph of her raising a fork for no good reason. I love you Eileen, thanks for your continued support.

Later that day, we visited the so-called "Albany Bulb", a former offshore landfill connected to the mainland via a narrow strip. Over the years, trash and construction debris has given way to trees and a homeless population which was evicted as recently as June last year. There's a documentary about their plight here.

Graffiti on broken concrete and twisted metal defines the landscape. It's fun to walk around, like a big, slightly dangerous playground for adults who aren't afraid of tetanus.

That evening we met up with Vanessa and Jon at Suppenküche, an amazing German restaurant in San Francisco personally endorsed by our mutual friend Owen Johnston. Vanessa had become friends with Owen while working in Bangkok, and Jon studied with her. We had an awesome time and I gained two football stickers during the course of the evening.

Which might require some explanation. When Owen visited Vanessa in San Francisco earlier in 2014, he distributed a number of Panini World Cup Football Stickers across the city, knowing I would be around later to collect them. He produced the above clues to assist my search.

The next day, we met up with Sam's family who were also visiting San Francisco for the weekend.

We had lunch at Umami Burger for the singular reason that, judging by the logo in one of the clues, I expected to find a football sticker hidden there. A happy byproduct of this decision was some absolutely phenomenal burgers.

The corner depicted in the clue was immediately visible as we entered the restaurant and sure enough, Víctor Bernárdez was tucked away underneath looking exactly as stern as I'd hoped.

The next sticker - depicted by the clue featuring a heart sculpture with a plane painted on it - was close to Umami though much harder to find. We asked several people on the street if they recognized the heart sculpture, including an elderly postman, but no one cooperated. Eventually Sam spotted it behind some greenery.

Weathering had fused Cesc Fabregas to the underside of the sculpture and when I tried to peel him off, he began to tear. Out of respect for Cesc, I made the difficult decision to leave him behind.

After lunch we visited the cable car museum. These eight giant electric motors drive the network of steel cables which move below the surrounding streets. Unpowered cars grip and release the constantly moving cable to accelerate and decelerate as necessary. It's the most elaborate, expensive system of transport which the motorcar should have displaced years ago but somehow hasn't.

San Francisco's crazy gradients make for some cool photo opportunities.

The Musée Mécanique is a collection of antique, coin-operated arcade machines. Some are better than others and you never quite know what effect your 25 cents will have. In the case of "The Opium Den", it causes the figures to convulse erratically while skeletons appear and disappear in the surrounding windows, which is probably close to the experience of taking real opium.

The clue for the fifth and final sticker referenced a particular bench near the giant Christmas tree outside Macy's. My heart sank when we discovered the benches had since been blockaded by metal barriers and guarded by an evil man.

We hopped the barriers and quickly set about frisking each bench, eventually pinpointing Toni Kroos just as the security guard approached to tell us off. It was a Kroos call.