Saturday, 29 August 2009

The 'Odd'yssey (Part 12)

After we returned home from Hoover Dam (it was 3:30pm when we got back inside) we had time to grab a quick late lunch in the buffet then went up to our room for a nap. Our intention was to try and see one of the shows on the strip in the evening. Meg really wanted to see Bette Midler but couldn't justify the $125 per ticket so we were leaning toward 'Menopause - the Musical' however when Wayne woke up his objective was to get to one of the half price ticket booths to see if it might not be possible to get cheaper tickets. Leaving Meg to get a bit more rest he wandered off along the strip trying to avoid the heat (it was 108°F) by staying in the air conditioning as much as possible.

It wasn't a long trip to the nearest half price booth but it was long enough for a number of shows to have already taken place. We were both stunned to realise that in a city that never sleeps (Las Vegas has been trying to take that title from New York City) people really like to see shows starting at 5:30pm. This meant we had missed out on the opportunity to see 'Menopause' (possibly the title was an indication as to why that show had been on early) but also a number of others. It was clear that, unless we wanted to see something specifically 'adult' that we would struggle to make any show. One option was Rita Rudner (the comedienne) which also involved having the opportunity to meet her and have a photo op. however the cost being cut to $85 each didn't seem cheap enough, so he headed back to confer with Meg.

As he headed through the Luxor toward their room Wayne took note of a lady and two men leaving an adjoining room. The lady was walking away counting some money, while the men were busily adjusting their clothing. Consequently, when he entered the room he asked Meg if she had heard some noises. Rather than being next door, there had been lots of banging in the room above. In fact, while she had been in the shower as well as the banging, the bathroom light had stopped working. As they sat and chatted about what they could do instead of seeing a show, Meg reflected that the shower noise upstairs was taking a long time and, shortly later, that the noise seemed to be even closer. Walking into their bathroom Wayne discovered a veritable waterfall descending from the light fitting in the ceiling.

Meg jumped on the telephone to reception and about 15 minutes later a security man was knocking on the door. Over the next hour and a half we gave statements, had photos taken of our bathroom, made and received more phone calls and waited to find out what was going to happen. When we questioned the security man he wouldn't tell us anything at all about what had happened on the floor above. When it got to 9:30pm we still didn't know what was going to happen but we needed to head to the restaurant in order to have dinner before it closed. After we finished eating, Wayne stayed downstairs to watch some baseball while Meg went back to make a phone call to the reception one more time.

The outcome of our experience was that the Luxor gave us a different room. Rather than being on the second floor, we moved to the top floor into a suite with views out over the strip. This new suite had multiple rooms; a large bedroom with a big window looking out over the city; a huge bathroom complete with jacuzzi; an enormous lounge room with a television, dining table, large bar, and big television; and a foyer with a separate, guest bathroom. Sadly, we were only going to be there for one night but it was a beautiful room. We were also to receive compensation for the cosmetics that had been damaged by the downpour and Meg's woollen coat (which she had kept out ready for our 7 hour lay over in Auckland on the way home) was dry cleaned in a very short space of time. Best of all for us, we were given a late check out from the room so that we didn't have to carry our luggage around for a few hours before our flight out.

The next morning we had determined would be a relatively relaxed one as we made good use of the new room. Strangely, at 9am the maid made her first appearance wanting to clean the room. We let her know that we would be checking out around 4pm and that it would be good if she came back to clean then. A couple of hours later we received a call to go down to reception to receive the compensation money for Meg's cosmetics, so we made a trip down the strip to find some replacement cosmetics. Not long after we returned, so did the maid, this time she started cleaning despite our request that she wait until we had gone. When she started to vacuum in front of the television while Wayne was trying to watch the baseball (again) it got a little beyond a joke.

Despite a request to the bell desk to send someone to collect our luggage at 3:45pm so that we could make the airport shuttle at 4:05pm no one turned up until 4:15pm (although the maid had made a couple of further visits) however once again the hotel showed some class and paid for a taxi to the airport for us. It didn't take long to check our luggage and we were able to move through security and up to the gate ready to board our flight to Los Angeles. The free wi-fi broadband got a bit of a workout as we checked emails and tried to inform people of where we were going to be and when, not entirely sure how much time we would have to make the connection with the Air New Zealand flight at Los Angeles.

Boarding the airplane was easy; however we started to worry a little when we had been sitting in our seats for quite a while without much sign of movement. After about 15 minutes two last passengers boarded the plane and we imagined the sort of announcements that must have been made in the terminal prior to that. However, almost immediately we received a message from the pilot saying that there were a few technical problems happening with the plane and that there would be a delay. Neither of us were overly surprised by this, having long got past the expectation that things would go smoothly when we travel.

It took a while, but eventually the plane started to reverse, with the pilot having made some comments about problems with the GPS. However, the terrible grinding noises that came from underneath the plane while we were reversing were a bit worrying and led to some comments that maybe the handbrake had been left on. We taxied out to the runway but it soon became clear that there was still something wrong with the aircraft. Another announcement from the cockpit confirmed that we would not be flying out on this airplane and, given the noises that it was making and the description that the steering on the front wheel had gone.

Exiting the plane we were asked to queue in order to make arrangements for what was going to happen next. Those people for whom Los Angeles was to have been the final destination were given first option to board another flight and around 53 people took them up on that option. For the rest of us, who were making connections to another destination, there was some considerable frustration as it took a long time to sort various options out. This led to one passenger screaming at the person who was trying to help her and throwing items at him. Others were trying to gouge as much as they could out of the airline, with some people refusing to take the flight options being presented to them unless they were upgraded to first class and paid for their trouble.

Around midnight we were told that we would be given a night in another hotel. Northwest had also booked us onto the equivalent flight the following day, although they couldn't contact Air New Zealand to guarantee that we would have seats on the flights to New Zealand and on to Australia. Heading out to the car park, we narrowly avoided being filmed by a television show taking place outside the airport and boarded a shuttle to the Hampton Inn and Suites, a hotel which is located opposite the south-eastern corner of McCarran-Las Vegas International Airport. After check in, we hit the 7/11 to grab some food (we had thought to eat at LAX or on the airplane) before heading back to the room. At this time Wayne decided to try and sleep while Meg made as many phone calls as she could to try and guarantee the flights with Air New Zealand. After being told that we would have to pay as much as $300 each to change our flights she eventually retired to bed.

The following morning we went down for our complimentary breakfast and then determined to catch the hotel shuttle back to the airport to see if we could find out what was going on in person. We had been unable to retrieve our suitcases the night before which made the trip in relatively easy and then it was off to the Northwest Counter to see what could be done. The two women that assisted us were absolutely marvellous. They not only booked us on to an earlier flight to Los Angeles (with U.S. Airways) to ease any worries that we might have had about connections, but they also contacted Air New Zealand and made sure that we were booked on to a flight out of L.A. and a somewhat earlier one to Brisbane, so that our time on the ground in Auckland would not be too bad.

Checking in with U.S. Airways was (relatively) pain free, as was going through customs and making the flight from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. There was so much turbulence on the flight that the stewards barely got to serve drinks and we commenced our descent in to the city. A walk from Terminal 1 to Terminal 2 got us to the Air New Zealand desk and after some too-ing and fro-ing they eventually decided that they would let us on to the plane without taking any money, although there were some questions about Wayne's ticket which would later come back to haunt us.

We then set up camp in the Boarding area near our gate, where we could use the internet with the payment of a small fee (it wasn't free like it is at Las Vegas and some of the other airports which we have been to) grab some food and try to relax. It was fascinating watching some of the characters who passed through LAX and eventually we were able to board Air New Zealand Flight 5. This came not long after an interesting experience where we heard our names called over the loudspeaker and asked to report to another Gate. As it turns out we suspect that it was just to make sure that we were at the airport after the dramas of the previous day (because they didn't have anything to tell us when Meg got there). It was nice to be back on a 747-400 where there was a bit more leg room. As we sat we encountered a lovely girl from Richmond, Virginia who was moving to Torquay in Victoria to work as a nanny. As someone who really wanted to travel she enjoyed hearing some of our stories. 'Hi, Annie', if you are reading this on our blog.

Coming in to land at Auckland Airport was very impressive as it was not yet light and the lights of the city were visible as we circled around before making our final approach. There was some high cloud but otherwise it was relatively fine as we disembarked from the aircraft and accompanied Annie up to a more distant gate where she was shortly to board her flight to Melbourne. We had a few hours up our sleeves so took the opportunity to use the bathroom, pick up a couple of souvenirs, use the internet (again for a fee), take photos of the airport and surrounds, and make sure we were well hydrated.

Eventually the call came to proceed to Gate 2 ready to board the plane and it was at this point that we found out that things hadn't gone as smoothly as we might have liked when the flights were transferred. While Wayne had managed to board the plane in Los Angeles without any difficulty, he was stopped at the gate and removed to one side. Meg was told that everything was fine with her ticket and that she could proceed on to the plane. Wayne told her 'Goodbye' and that he would see her when he finally made it to Brisbane, however, after a few phone calls by the staff on duty everything was settled to their satisfaction and our anxieties were relieved. Only one more leg to go and we would be finally back in Australia.

Once again Meg was able to get some sleep and even Wayne drifted off during the trip across to Brisbane. Both of them were awake once it was made clear that we had begun our descent to make sure they caught their first glimpse of Australia in 19 months. As is usually the case the flight into Brisbane was fairly spectacular, with the plane circling around to make the final approach from the south, then flying up alongside the Brisbane River past the city and out to the airport. This gave us the opportunity to see many familiar places and it was a beautiful day. Touch down was quite smooth and the only real wait was to see our luggage (which we hadn't seen since Thursday) before we headed out to be met by Meg's mother and brother, Aaron (aka Gus).

While it had taken a long time (given that it was now Sunday afternoon) we were quite pleased to be back on familiar soil. There is only one question that remains; given that we finally boarded our flight from Los Angeles on Friday evening, and we landed in Auckland 14 hours later on Sunday morning, we seem to have misplaced Saturday. We have checked all the usual places that we lose things (ie: behind the lounge, at the bottom of the suitcase etc) but to no avail. If you have seen our Saturday please let us know because we could surely use it to try and catch up on some sleep.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The 'Odd'yssey (Part 11)

Once we had arrived in Albuquerque we had completed our first lap of the world having been here on our honeymoon and then travelling to Phoenix - Los Angeles - Brisbane - Sydney - Melbourne - Hong Kong - London - Minnesota - Houston then driving across to Albuquerque. Tuesday morning, then, was the beginning of our second lap of the world as Christine dropped Sam and Jessie at school before driving us to the airport. On the way we saw four hot air balloons in the sky down in the south and were reminded by that, and by the mountains in the east, of all the things we love about this city. It was sad saying ‘Goodbye’ to Christine again, but we look forward to seeing her, Ian and the children when they come to visit us in Qatar.

This morning our first flight was to Salt Lake City in Utah. There is something beautiful about flying over the desert in this part of the world. There are so many colours in the earth and rocks, yet so little vegetation. Valleys, crevices, hills and mountains stand out vividly from the landscape, while the occasional rivers and creeks form little tracks of green through the reds and yellows. Looking at some of the old westerns directed by people like John Ford you can see where the beautiful scenery comes from.

As you draw near to the city through the air you get a sense of the size of the Great Salt Lake. It is the largest salt lake in the western hemisphere and the 4th largest terminal lake in the world. All up it comprises 1700 square miles (4 400 square kilometres) although this varies according to weather conditions. Apparently it is the largest remnant of a pluvial lake which, in prehistoric times, covered most of western Utah and was called Lake Bonneville. As we came in to land it extended as far as the eye could see in a couple of directions.

Salt Lake City is the largest city in Utah but only the 125th largest in the United States. Explorers of America’s inland had discovered the Great Salt Lake early in the 19th century and recorded the details. Having fled Nauvoo, Illinois because of the federal government attitude toward their embracing of polygamy, the leaders of the Mormon church had read descriptions of the lake and decided to found a city there, which they did in 1847. Even today, Salt Lake City is the home to the Headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons official name) and approximately 53% of the population identified themselves as believers. Most recently the city was home to the 2002 Winter Olympics, although there were serious issues raised as to the bidding process and corruption. From the air it looks impressively modern.

Because Las Vegas is in the very south of Nevada it is close to the borders with Utah, Arizona and California. Most of our flight from Salt Lake City to Las Vegas was on the Utah side of the border with Nevada, again the scenery was spectacular. There is very little housing, just the occasional farm which stands out from the surrounding landscape because of the irrigation of the fields, which is in large circles. It was only as we were getting close that we started to see larger towns, particularly as we crossed the border at Mesquite and followed Route 15 the rest of the way.

We found out later that Las Vegas has reached the limits at which it can be built up with the natural boundaries created by various mountain ranges and national conservation areas. As we crested the mountain range the vista of the city opened up in front of us. Other than the strip and the buildings in ‘old’ Las Vegas there are height restrictions imposed upon houses because the county wants people to be able to see the strip from wherever in Las Vegas they are.

Driving from McCarran International Airport to our hotel, the Luxor, we could see the black glass of its distinctive pyramid virtually the entire way. The enormity of the space is hard to describe outside of resorting to the bare statistics. While the building is incredibly impressive we were stunned at the length of the line for check in. Because we had all of our luggage back with us again Wayne stood with the bags while Meg went and queued. After a substantial wait we got our keys and a porter with a trolley to help us get up to our room.

It had been fascinating standing (whether in the queue or to one side) and watching the different people walking around the hotel/casino. Because there was a swimming pool on the main level people were walking through the foyer wearing only swimming costumes (it is somewhat disconcerting to see someone at Starbucks in the middle of a casino in only a bikini). There was also a parade of newly weds wearing very formal gear, some of whom had been married in Vegas, others who had arrived for their honeymoons from elsewhere. Because the foyer contained reception, shops, restaurants and the various gambling facilities, it was also an eye opening experience to see how many people had brought their children (of all ages from brand new babes upwards). More than once we were asked to move our children away from a Blackjack table or some poker machines, which was odd, especially given that at least on one occasion the children were African-American.

Like the rest of the hotel, our deluxe room was covered in Egyptian themed decorations, including a bedspread covered with hieroglyphics. The walls had faux stone paintings affixed in various places deliberately constructed with breaks to make them look more authentic. What was most amazing was opening the curtains on the sloping outer wall and feeling the heat coming through the glass (it was just over 100°F outside). Sadly, the view from our window wasn’t the best but we were very tired so we lay down on our bed for a while, which turned into a couple of hours.

By the time we woke up it was dark outside but we decided to go for a walk along the strip nonetheless. When we got outside the Luxor we discovered that it was still remarkably warm, with the temperature having only slipped down into the mid-90’s, which was a shock after having been inside the air conditioned hotel for a few hours. We had expected the lights to be amazing and we weren’t disappointed. We could see from the Mandalay Bay behind us up to Caesars Palace and the Mirage without too much difficulty and certain places particularly lit up the sky. One of these was our own hotel which has a light shooting straight up from the top of the pyramid. According to the information prominently displayed inside the xenon light is bright enough to read a newspaper by 10 miles into space.

Walking the strip in the early evening was fascinating. Having crossed from outside the Excalibur to New York, New York, and then over to the MGM Grand we decided to stroll at street level. There seemed to be two types of tourists on the strip at this time: those who were casually dressed to cope with the heat, who seemed to be as fascinated as we were by the sights, smells and sounds; and those who were all dressed up, on their way to the latest shows or nightclubs. On the other hand the locals were universally small business people touting their wares or other people (despite walking along holding hands it was amazing how many people still tried to shove business cards with pictures of naked women and their phone numbers into Wayne’s available hand).

Apart from the hotel/casinos much of what you find on the Las Vegas strip tended to be either fast food emporiums, souvenir shops or specialty boutiques (we went into the M&M store but not into the Coca Cola Shop). The one exception to this was the odd booth which sold ‘cut price’ tickets to some of the shows along the strip. While we were there we could have seen Bette Midler, Barry Manilow, Wayne Newton, Cher, Donny and Marie, Human Nature, Smokey Robinson, tributes and look alikes to Michael Jackson-Neil Diamond-Frank Sinatra, the New Rat Pack, Menopause the Musical, 6 different variants from Cirque De Soleil, and any number of different comedians or magic acts.

We walked quite a way before realising that walking the entire length of the strip was not only going to take a number of hours but, by the time we had finished, we would be absolutely exhausted. Instead we decided to take a trip on the monorail which goes from the MGM Grand down to the Sahara and Stratosphere at the other end of the strip. This is much like the monorail in Sydney in that it doesn’t run past all of the major attractions, but off to one side. However, given that the traffic heading north along the strip on this evening was virtually at a standstill (in the first hour of walking the bus that we had passed when we first began never managed to get in front of us, although twice it pulled up alongside) this was easily the fastest way to get to the other end. It also gave us the opportunity to chat to a couple of ladies from southern Washington State who were here on holiday themselves, and who had accidentally boarded the north bound rather than the south bound train.

After completing the entire length of the monorail back to the MGM Grand we needed to have some food and give our feet a rest, so we wandered back to the Luxor and to one of the restaurants there. Because it was quite late (it was now 11:30pm) there was only a limited amount of choice about where to go but we were able to sit down and have some pizza and foccacia before heading up to our room for some sleep. Even at this time it was astonishing to see the number of children who were up watching their parents gamble or running around while waiting for them to finish.

Wednesday morning we had pre-booked an excursion to Hoover Dam over the internet (which did save us a considerable amount of money) so we woke up early and headed down to get some breakfast. The Luxor had a buffet restaurant which we were able to buy a ticket for which would let us eat as many times as we wished during a 24 hour period which ended up being considerably cheaper than eating elsewhere. Having arrived as the restaurant opened we finished just in time to make our shuttle which took us across to the office from which the bus would leave.

Our bus driver was named Camille, she was originally from New York and she epitomised (possibly deliberately on her part, it was hard to tell) the archetypal New Yorker, which everyone on the bus really enjoyed. As well as being a phenomenally good driver (particularly at the end of the day when we were all being dropped at our hotels she was able to manoeuvre the bus into places most of us would not have been able to) she was also very knowledgeable about Las Vegas and its history, as well as all of the information relating to Hoover Dam that we could have wanted to know. She had a fabulously humorous way of communicating it and interacted well with the passengers who wished to talk to her (unsurprisingly, she got on particularly well with us). If you are ever in Las Vegas, book a tour with Greys Line and ask for Camille to see either Hoover Dam or the Southern Edge of the Grand Canyon (she drives both tours).

We began by driving south through Henderson and the southern parts of Las Vegas, before heading down through Boulder City to the Hoover Dam, on the border of Nevada and Arizona. Boulder City was originally constructed as the town to house all of the workers who were being employed on the dam project (it was originally named ). The dam was constructed between 1931 and 1935, during the worst of the Great Depression and there were concerns about what the men would do with their money, so Boulder City had lots of restrictions about what could and could not be built there. Consequently, many of the original buildings still remain and it is considered a historical site. On the southern side of the town there are some amazing houses overlooking Lake Mead (which formed behind the Hoover Dam) belonging to Debbie Reynolds and Sharia.

Hoover Dam is a concrete arch-gravity dam in the Black Canyon of the Colorado River operated by the Bureau of Reclamation of the U.S. Department of the Interior. It came about because of water issues taking place between the states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming early in the 20th Century. In the 1920’s Herbert Hoover, who was later to become President, was the federal government representative at a meeting between the states to try and negotiate how to deal, in particular, with the Colorado River. The resolution of the meeting was that the river was to be divided into 2 sections; each would be further negotiated by the states which bordered those two sections.

The Boulder Canyon Project was too big to be taken on by any one company and on March 11, 1931 the Six Companies Inc. was awarded the contract. This first involved building tunnels to divert the river so that the dam could be built on dry land. Concrete began to be placed into the dam on June 6, 1933 and with some clever thinking to deal with problems it was finished two years ahead of schedule and under budget in 1935. It is 1244 ft (379m) in length and 726.4 ft (221m) high and the concrete is enough to build a two lane highway from San Francisco to New York. As well as controlling the flooding which had previously been part of the river, the hydroelectric power produced provides electricity to six different states.

It was such an impressive engineering project that the planners and builders recognised that people would be interested in seeing it from the beginning. Viewing platforms were built not just for seeing the outside of the dam but on the inside to see the hydro electrics, accessible by tunnels and elevators. There are all sorts of memorials and markers including one to the 112 confirmed deaths that took place among the workers and another to the dog who was the workers mascot but was killed later on. The tours and videos are very informative, as is all the information provided on boards and plaques.

From the dam itself we journeyed up to the top of the hill to overlook Lake Mead. The Lake was named for Dr. Elwood Mead, the Bureau of Reclamations first commissioner and, therefore, leader of the project. His writing of water codes had an impact upon Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand, as well as the U.S.A. What was particularly noticeable about the lake was how much the water level was down from normal. As well as there being a very distinct mark along the Black Canyon (although the project was originally intended for the Boulder Canyon, the Black Canyon was better for a dam site) it was obvious that the water level in the lake was significantly lower because the docks for boats had been moved further down into the lake.

On the way back to the city we stopped in at Henderson (a separate town that is now essentially a suburb) to the Ethel M Chocolates Factory. The factory is named for the mother of the two men who founded the company that produces Mars Bars and M&Ms. She was their inspiration, and the factory is to commemorate an older method of chocolate making, as well as to inform about the history of chocolate. As you would expect, there was a shop at the end of the tour where you could buy chocolates of all shapes sizes and tastes. There was also a M&M themed shop at the beginning of the tour which sold clothing, toys, curios and all sorts of other things with M&M related images.

Outside of the factory was a cactus garden with all sorts of cacti from all over the world. There were cacti from the Baja California region that we had toured on our honeymoon as well as other variants from all sorts of other places. Amongst the plants there were also a number of different species of bird and at least one lizard that we were able to see. It was fascinating to see the different shapes and sizes as well as the trees. Many of the names were excellent descriptions of the plants to which they belonged. While unexpected in a tour that was ostensibly of Hoover Dam, it was fascinating to see both the factory and the garden.

The final part of the trip involved dropping each of us back at our hotels, which also gave Camille the opportunity to take us into ‘old’ Las Vegas. This was obviously a cheaper version of the strip but still included some fascinating sites. Among these were the Golden Nugget and the overhead display lights. We also had the opportunity to see many of the chapels at which visitors to Las Vegas can be married covering more movies and television shows than we care to remember. Our final leg took us part the Worlds Largest Gift Shop and the World Market Center. All in all it had been a very worthwhile time.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The 'Odd'yssey (Part 10)

This is our second trip to Albuquerque, the first being part of our honeymoon back in late November, 2007. It is probably not the first place people think about visiting when they are coming to the United States. Obviously, the fact that Christine, Ian, Sam and Jessie live here is our main reason for visiting. However Albuquerque is a really beautiful part of the world in its own right. Now that we have been here, even without friends to visit, we would come back again and recommend it to others. While Bugs Bunny might have said 'I knew I shoulda turned left at Albuquerque' we are quite happy to stop for a while.

Albuquerque was founded back in 1706 as a Spanish colonial outpost and named after the Spanish town, Alburquerque (the spelling of the New Mexican version is the Portuguese rather than the Spanish). It is on the Rio Grande between two mountain ranges on a flat plain. During the Civil War it was occupied by the Confederates in February of 1862, which led to the Battle of Albuquerque on April 8, 1862. When the railways came through they went to the east of the old town and consequently modern Albuquerque has both an old and a new town area.

On our last visit we went to the old town which looks just as you might imagine an old Spanish influenced Mexican town should. Pueblo style houses, cacti, sombreros and cowboy boots were all a feature. Old town also features the American International Rattlesnake Museum, the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History, the Explora Science Centre and Children’s Museum of Albuquerque, and the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. One of the stones found in the area is turquoise and this was a feature of lots of the jewellery available in the souvenir shops and well as having a museum of its own. Despite Wayne’s excitement, Meg banned him from buying either a cowboy hat or the beautiful snakeskin cowboy boots that he saw.

Just to the north and east of the city are the Sandia Mountains which are part of what makes Albuquerque so attractive. The old native name for the area simply means ‘where water slides down the arroyo (dry river bed)’, whereas ‘Sandia’ is the Spanish for ‘watermelon’. One theory as to why is the colour of the earth (which is very red) with the deep green of the fir trees that line the curved ridges. Another theory is that the Spanish settlers saw the cucumbers grown by the natives and mistook them for watermelons. From the west (which is where Christine and Ian live) the mountains provide a great frame for the modern city.

On Saturday, Ian took Wayne and Samuel up to the top of Sandia Crest which is 10 678 feet (3 255m) above sea level. It is possible to do this using what is the world’s longest tramway which is 2.7 miles (4.3 klm) long and ascends 4 000 feet (1 200m) in about 15 minutes. Instead they took the Sandia Crest Scenic Byway which begins to the west of the city and takes almost 14 miles (22klm) to reach the top. Along the way we passed numerous cyclists who had decided to spend a Saturday morning torturing themselves and at the top it was noticeable how gingerly some of them were walking.

Some of the views from the peak were absolutely stunning as we went for a hike of just over a mile to an old stone cottage on one of the ridges. The forest we walked through was comprised of fir, spruce and aspen and is inhabited by bears, species of deer, various smaller mammals, and mountain lions (although we only saw squirrels). As well as being able to see down into Albuquerque and across to the Manzano Mountains in the south west, there were also views back to the east toward Texas. One of the most amazing sights at the top was the bird feeders at the café/souvenir shop which were surrounded by tiny emerald green hummingbirds. Having never really seen hummingbirds in the wild before, Wayne was stunned by how many there were and how they hovered and drank the sugar mixture through tiny holes.

It is really clear when you are standing on the mountain that Albuquerque is in a valley lying between two mountain ranges with the river running through the centre. From the top we could see the Boca Negra, which is quite close to where the Wightman’s live and which has the Petroglyph National Monument. While Albuquerque is America’s 34th largest city (with about 522 000 people) and Rio Rancho on the north west is one of the fastest growing areas in the country, the greater Metropolitan area is ranked much lower because of the limits imposed by the geography of the mountains surrounding.

One of the impacts of this is that Albuquerque is one of the hot air ballooning capitals of the world. Every year the first week in October sees the International Balloon Festival with people travelling from all over the world. In fact, if you have ever seen television footage of a large number of hot air balloons in the one place, or posters of the same, there is a good chance that it was taken in Albuquerque. Consequently, it is also the site of the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum which is where we went with David and the children on Sunday morning.

While we both had some knowledge about how balloons had impacted upon history we were amazed by some of the things that we found out. For example, there was a significant exhibition of how the jet stream was discovered. During World War II the Japanese launched thousands of balloons with bombs attached which were designed to float to the height of the jet stream travel across to the United States and then drop their load. While a large number of these balloons did make the journey and cause both forest fires and deaths there was a conscious decision made not to publicise this so that the Japanese would not be encouraged by their success. That many of the balloons for this were made by schoolchildren was also a revelation.

Other ballooning feats, from the first manned balloon flights a few hundred years ago, to the use of zeppelins in war ad during the 1920’s and 1930’s, to the more recent attempts by people like Steve Fossett to fly around the world in a balloon, all were heavily featured. There were also many interactive displays to enable the visitor to simulate taking off and landing in a hot air balloon, constructing a hot air balloon, basket weaving, and steering balloons in the air, among other things. The museum shop was also full of educational stuff about the impact of weather, balloons, and some of the historical material. Because Wayne collects lapel pins we had a look at some of the hundreds of balloon related pins, and we found one of the festival pins which had an Australian flag as part of the design. We took this to the desk, only to discover that because it was a collectable pin from one of the balloon festivals it was priced at $70. We went home without it.

On our way home from the ballooning museum we noticed that one of the major streets in Albuquerque was named Unser. Ian let us know that, as we had suspected, it was named for the famous racing car driver Al Unser. He was the second of three men who have won the Indianapolis 500 Race four times. Both he and his son Al Unser Junior have been inducted in to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and are from Albuquerque. We took a detour to take in the Unser Racing Museum and drive past where the Unser’s had previously lived, which is down in the Rio Grande section of Albuquerque. Being on the river it is one of the greenest parts of the city and the region, most of which is largely desert.

Because the Wightman’s house is on the outskirts of the city area, there is a region of desert over their back fence. At night there are coyotes, rabbits and all sorts of other animals roaming, particularly at night. This morning we saw a coyote loping down toward the road and this evening an armadillo was walking across a rock in a local front garden. Wayne spotted a prairie dog earlier in the week and there have been all sorts of birds in the sky around us. Some of the land is protected Reservation land, with the Sandia Pueblo in the north and the Isleta Pueblo in the South. It is possible to learn a lot about Native American lifestyles, arts and crafts, and to travel out to historical towns such as Placitas which Wayne, Samuel and Ian went through on the way home from the top of Sandia.

One of the biggest features of New Mexico is some of the pictures that are prominently repeated. The state flag has an impression of a sun, while other images of human figures and animals are used in decoration everywhere. These are the petroglyphs which are cave and rock carvings (as opposed to pictographs which are drawings on to a surface). While many cultures have had them, in North America it is particularly in the states bordering Mexico which seem to have them most abundantly. All sorts of meaning are speculated for them but much of this is guesswork, given that many of these drawings date back thousands of years.

On our last full day in Albuquerque we spent part of it down at the Kirtland Airforce Base in the south of the city, which is where Ian works. The base was opened in 1939 and is home to the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center, the National Nuclear Security Administration and Sandia National Laboratories just to name a few. One edge of it is also the Albuquerque International Sunport, Albuquerque’s local airport from which we will be flying out on Tuesday. It was fascinating to see the size of the base, which is as big as many towns; the huge number of different types of aircraft (both airplanes and helicopters); the base housing which provides short term accommodation for members of the military stationed in Albuquerque; and the facilities available on the base, which include everything from gyms, sports fields, childcare centres, schools, shopping centres and a McDonalds. The base was named in honour of one of the American militaries earliest aviation pioneers, Col. Roy C. Kirtland, who obtained pilot certification way back in 1911.

Another reason to come back to Albuquerque is as a base for further exploration into the state of New Mexico and further afield. While almost 50% of the state’s population lives in the Albuquerque region there are other famous towns such as Roswell, Truth and Consequences, Alamogardo, Santa Fe and Carlsbad which are all worth visiting. It is also a central point from which to head down to El Paso in Texas, across into Arizona, north to Colorado, east to Amarillo and other parts of Texas. Being New Mexico, there is also the option to travel south to Chihuahua in Mexico, just across the border.

As you might have ascertained we have loved visiting here. Provided Christine, Ian and the kids are here we will be back. Even if they move there is a very good chance that we would come back again anyway. Indeed, if we had won the lottery drawn on Saturday night, Meg even had a house picked out which she would have bought for next time we visit.

Friday, 14 August 2009

The 'Odd'yssey (Part 9)

Yesterday was our first full day in Albuquerque, New Mexico after a couple of weeks spent travelling in and near Texas. Consequently, we were very appreciative of the opportunity to sleep in a bed that we were going to be in for more than 1 or 2 nights. It was also nice not to be sharing a room with one other adult and two children. We lay in bed until after Ian (Christine’s husband) had gone to work and Chris had taken the children to day care. It was a very relaxing start to the day, made even nicer by some filtered coffee and the chance to watch the morning news while waiting for the washing to finish.

Meg and Chris had decided to go and look at some display homes (Christine for ideas for her own home, Meg because…well, does she really need a reason?). They dropped Wayne off at ‘the Lab’ and headed out to an area called Loma Colorado, which is slightly misnamed because it is in Rio Rancho, New Mexico and the state of Colorado is a significant distance north of there. Unfortunately, they didn’t make it there very quickly because, as they were on their way, Chris received a phone call from Day Care to say that Jessie had a rash and that they needed to come and pick her up (it was later revealed that Jessie had been running around outside just before this, and the Doctor identified it as a heat rash, but it never hurts to be too careful).

After Jessie was collected, the trip out to Rio Rancho (it is in the northern part of the city of Albuquerque) was completed, and some of the houses were able to be inspected. Albuquerque has a very interesting mix of house styles. Most of the area makes use of the natural earth tones of the region, so flying over the city means a patchwork of browns, reds, pinks and greens which looks particularly lovely from the air. Many of the houses in the area are of the ‘adobe’ or ‘pueblo revival’ style which might be familiar to any of you who have seen westerns set in Mexico. We are always fascinated to drive around the city and see the contrast between these; more typical American house styles; and a harder edged mix between the two.

The houses that Meg and Chris got to inspect were of the more typical western style with a sloping roof having been built by Pulte Homes. There were many to look at which featured some very up to date mod-cons and some lovely architecture. Both came away (somewhat earlier than expected because of concern for Jessie) with a couple of houses that they particularly liked and some excellent ideas for interior designs. Meg, in particular, was enamoured of a couple of houses but as she thought through their strengths and weaknesses decided on the Santa Cruz (if you are interested in seeing it, just follow the hyperlink). Now all we need to do is find a few hundred thousand US Dollars and we will be able to buy it.

Meanwhile, Wayne was still at ‘the Lab’ which is the nickname given to the Baseball Stadium in Albuquerque that plays host to the Albuquerque Isotopes. The Isotopes play in the league, which is just below the Major League level, called AAA (or Triple A). Interestingly, the team in Albuquerque used to be known as ‘the Dukes’, however that team moved to Portland, Oregon in 2001 and changed their name to ‘the Beavers’. In 2003 the ‘Calgary Cannons’ moved their team to New Mexico and a decision had to be made about what to call them. In a Simpsons’ episode from 2001 called ‘Hungry Hungry Homer’, Homer Simpson discovers that his beloved Springfield Isotopes are to be moved to Albuquerque and fights to prevent that from happening. Because of this, the new Albuquerque team decided to call themselves the ‘Isotopes’ (which is also apt because New Mexico plays host to a number of significant facilities dealing with nuclear technology).

Back in 2004 a gentleman called Morgan Spurlock made a documentary about the impact of fast food on the human body called ‘Super Size Me’. If you haven’t seen it, Meg and Wayne recommend that you do, because it is very, very funny. It is also very disturbing and you might find that you do not wish to eat McDonalds (or any other fast food) for a considerable time afterwards. In 2008 he released another film, ‘Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?’ which takes a look at both sides of the war against terrorism. As well, he has made a reality television series called ‘30 Days’ in which a person spends 30 days immersing themselves in a life markedly different from what they are used to (being in prison, a devout Christian living in a Muslim family, a homophobe staying with a homosexual person, etc.).

As it turns out, because ‘the Simpsons’ is celebrating 20 years in production, Fox had commissioned Morgan to produce a documentary looking at the impact of ‘the Simpsons’ on American (and world) culture. One part of the documentary involved going to an Albuquerque Isotopes baseball game and interviewing people in the crowd about their feelings about the show. It will come as no surprise to those of you reading this (because otherwise why would we have gone to all this trouble to communicate this information) that yesterday also happened to be the day when this part of the documentary was to be filmed. It was, however, sheer coincidence that Wayne was to be there on this day, it was just the only day that the Isotopes were playing in town while we were in Albuquerque.

Because it is not Major League Baseball, tickets were considerably cheaper than at the other two games we had been to during this trip, and Wayne was able to get a great seat behind home plate which allowed him to see the whole field and get a good view of all the action. Before the game began, however, he ventured into the Isotopes shop to look at the various merchandise available. If you were truly a fanatical fan you could kit out your house, your car, your wife, your children (including tiny babies), your pets, your golf clubs and an enormous variety of other things, let alone yourself, in gear with the Isotopes logo on it. While Wayne was in there, Morgan and the camera crew came in and Wayne found himself in the background of a shot while they were purchasing Isotopes gear. He was very excited at the thought of being on US television for a second time (he and Meg were in the audience for a taping of the show ‘Deal or No Deal’ while on their honeymoon back in 2007).

The game itself was a very exciting one, against the Tacoma Rainiers, and Wayne enjoyed his excellent viewing position for the first inning and a half. However, as the temperature started to climb into the 90’s it became very hot, so he decided to retreat back under the cover of the grand stand. This gave him the opportunity to explore the rest of the stadium, as well as to chat to a number of people who all expressed astonishment that an Australian would be among them watching (relatively knowledgably) a game of baseball. As the game progressed into the sixth inning, the shade from the grandstand moved over Wayne’s ticketed seat, so he moved back down to watch the last couple of innings in the comfort of his seat.

By the bottom of the seventh the game was very close and tension was high when Wayne found himself being asked by one of the documentary crew (who incidentally grew up in Perth, before moving to the United States) if he would consent to being interviewed for the documentary. Being something of a Simpson’s fan (as well as a fan of ‘Super Size Me’) Wayne jumped at the opportunity, although it was a bit of a wrench to drag himself away from a game which was so close. Being interviewed by Morgan was good fun, he expressed amazement at the amount of travel we have done in the last few years and asked numerous questions about the impact that Wayne perceived ‘the Simpsons’ had had upon Australia. Wayne was even persuaded to sing the song from the episode ‘Homer at the Bat’ and talk about the impact that the show had personally had upon him. Because of events on the field there were breaks in the filming and Morgan told Wayne about some of his own experiences in the places that we have been.

During one of the breaks, Meg rang Wayne on the mobile, so Wayne took the opportunity to put Morgan on so that he could ask Meg some questions as well. All in all, Wayne couldn’t speak more highly of what a ‘good bloke’ Morgan Spurlock is. He noted that, before and after the interview Morgan was constantly being asked to sign autographs and have pictures taken. A local radio DJ organised to interview him about his impressions of Albuquerque and he was really gracious with everyone that he dealt with. Having flown in specifically for the game, he and the crew were off to the airport almost immediately after (Wayne was the final interview for the day) to fly back to New York. The documentary is to be aired in January and no doubt, in the editing process, much (if not all) of Wayne’s involvement might be taken out. Nonetheless, it was still a really positive experience, as was the fact that the Isotopes scored two runs in the bottom of the eighth inning and were able to close out the ninth for a win, Isotopes 8 Rainiers 6.

After the game, Chris and Meg picked Wayne up from the stadium and were able to travel back to the Day Care centre in time to pick up Samuel and head home. Later, Chris had to take Jessie to the Doctor (once you have left sick you really need a Dr’s certificate in order to be readmitted) so Wayne and Meg got to chat to Samuel about robots and watch ‘Curious George’ with him. All in all, it was a very positive day, reinforcing Meg and Wayne’s feelings about Albuquerque as a whole.