Riyadh to Csongrad, Hungary

Driving in Saudi Arabia is bad enough, but riding in a taxi takes it to a whole new level.  An Indian in a Toyota Fortuner picked me up from my villa at midnight to take me to the airport.  Usually I sleep during car rides but in Saudi it is impossible.  I close my eyes but each speed bump we cruise over knocks my head against the roof, the seatbelt doing nothing to hold me down.  At intersections we squeeze as far forward as possible, even if it means going to the far right of the road to get one car length ahead just to make a left turn.  As soon as the traffic light turns green my driver lays on his horn even though there are twenty cars ahead of us.  It goes on like this for for forty white knuckle minutes.  I am not sure if people in Saudi have no planing ahead ability or if they just enjoy driving in this style.

At the Riyadh airport I purchase a large box of dates for my in-laws and wait near the gate for my Lufthansa A-330 to Munich.  I try to relax and read but find it impossible due to every single person watching videos, listening to music, or talking on their smartphones.  So I get up and walk circles around the terminal until boarding.  Up to this point I have only experienced the stupid secondary search on flights to the USA but it appears Germany or Saudi Arabia has jumped on the bandwagon.  As we board there are security personal in the jetway going through on luggage.  I drift off and wonder how far we will go with pointless security measures when I am brought back to the present but my checker giving a little squeak as he cuts himself on something in my bag and starts bleeding.  Surprised that I’m not immediately arrested for having an extremely dangerous zipper I board and relax in my window seat for the five and a half hour flight.

Unable to sleep I watch some films and eat terrible food on this spotlessly clean plane.  When daylight appears my soul rises as green fields and forests extend to the horizon dotted with beautifully blue lakes.  After the endless expanse of brown in the Middle East it as if I am in heaven.  I stare out of the window enjoying this scene until we land.  When I finally move my neck is as stiff as a board, but it was worth it.  I only have an hour connection to make my Budapest flight but this being Germany everything is perfectly efficient and I am through customs and at my gate being anyone else.

Though this flight is under the Lufthansa name it is actually operated by an Italian airline.  The plane is blue inside and out and the crew Italian, though their German is very good.  Again I stare out the window for the whole flight as we follow the Danube, or Duna, down to Budapest.  Everything is beautiful.  After landing I make my way to the bus, 200E, which takes me to the Metro.  On the way out I take note of the new building being built just outside the terminal.  Budapest will finally have an airport hotel.  It is growing and modernizing quickly.

My bus trip is the normal bumpy ride and switching to the Metro is easy.  I make sure to validate my ticket as the first time I visited this city I was caught and fined as I thought I only needed the ticket and did not know to validate it.  I take the beautiful blue Russian metro of the M3 line a few stops before switching to the M4 line.  What a difference this makes.  The M4 is the newest line and has modern air conditioned trains with beautiful stops. The other lines do not and get extremely hot and stuffy in summer.

Arriving in Buda I spend a few hours with my parents who are in Budapest to visit me and get some dental work done.  If you need dental work come to Budapest.  The prices are and service are outstanding.  After a few nice hours chatting and walking around I leave them to catch my train for Csongrad.

I have always loved trains and they are my transportation preference.  They don’t get stuck in traffic, they sometimes have restaurant cars,  you can walk around and move seats if you don’t like your neighbors and there is something so relaxing in the sound of the wheels on the tracks.  I purchase a first class ticket and it turns out to be a first class intercity carriage which I have never seen before.  It is air conditioned and spotless.  The seats are large and lay back to almost flat.  It is an amazing carriage for Hungary and perfect.  I have a wonderful time for my one hour trip to Kiskunfeleghaza, where I get off to switch to the local train to Csongrad.  A more extreme difference could not be imagined.  Across the platform from my first class carriage is a tiny yellow and rusted two carriage mini train.  The whole train is smaller than my previous carriage.

I climb on board with my luggage and join a family of five and a more than a few spiders hanging from the ceiling.  The temperature is extreme and the air flow zero.  Once we get moving the air flow increases to just below a breath.  This one hour train ride belongs in an amusement park.  The amount of movement in the carriage in incredible.  I hold the belief that is is impossible for anybody to stand on that journey without holding on.  It is not that the train is fast, it is most surely not, it is that it wobbles like it wants to fall over but is just barely hanging on.  I enjoyed the hell out of it.

The icing on the train trip is that it actually has a ticket checker(I wonder who he pissed off), and stops in the middle of fields to pick people up and drop them off.  Even more amazing is that people were actually at these stops.  I have no idea where they came from as it is nothing but farm fields as far as the eye can see.  I love how the world works.

I arrive in Csongrad a sweaty mess, but with a massive smile on face.

Hearst Castle

Midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles along the Pacific Coast Highway lies a European castle.  In the middle of nowhere along the coast you arrive at sign for Hearst Castle.  Tired from driving you pull off the highway to see what it is about.  Passing row upon row of parking you arrive at an unimpressive building.  Saddened by what is the worst castle you have ever seen your gaze slowly drifts above this building and onto a large structure towering on a hill far in the distance.  Now that looks promising.  Further investigation reveals that your current location is only the visitors center.IMG_1187.JPG

Entering the front doors you are reminded of a bus terminal.  Walking past a small cafe to your left and a gift shop and restaurant on your right you arrive at the ticket counter.  Here you are presented with an array of tours.  The ticket agents(employees, park rangers, team members?), I’m not sure of their title, are more than happy to take the time to explain the differences to you and steer you to what you want.  Not only do you have to pick which tour you wish to join you also need to pick a time.  Do not be fooled into just picking the soonest slot as there are quite a few activities in the visitors center.  There are the aforementioned shops, a cinema showing the history of the castle and owner, a nice outdoor sitting area(though the birds are extremely aggressive), and I believe some other things.  When your scheduled time gets near you must line up at the proper gate near the ticket desk as buses take you up to the castle and different tours depart on different buses.  I guess the building gives the impression of a bus terminal for a good reason.IMG_1192.JPG

After queuing inside you take a short walk to a concrete shelter outside where you wait until called by the bus driver.  After this you queue again..just kidding.  Once you get a seat on the bus you can relax and enjoy the curving and elevating ride up to the castle.  The views and stunning and the buses audio fills your ears with information about the trip.  Explaining why there are animals on the hills near the road that have no natural business in California.  Such as that Zebra staring right at you.  IMG_1196.JPG

Most people would believe that a castle on the ocean would be right on the sea, but you would be mistaken.  This castle is far back from the sea high up on a hill.  Actually on the top of a hill with a commanding panoramic view and the ocean a tiny blue streak in the background.  You are taking all this in as your bus twists back and forth up this steep, meandering hill.IMG_1198.JPG

Once you reach the top you are ushered off the bus and assigned a tour guide and your journey begins.  Quite a bit of walking is involved as this is a large structure, as the name castle should have hinted to you.  Also there are quite a few stairs, again as the being on a hill should have been a giveaway.  The tour follows along the lines of most other tours.  If you have been to any other castles the format will be familiar to you.  Some interesting architecture, interesting rooms with interesting stories, a garden, a pool, so on and so on.  All very expensive and extravagant of course.  There is quite a bit of truly interesting information about the owner and castle so pay attention to your guide(or get the tour book at the gift shop, $19.95).  IMG_1199.JPG

Hearst Castle is a rest stop for those driving the Pacific Coast Highway.  Out in the middle of nowhere it is not worth a trip in itself, but it is absolutely worth a few hours of your time as a break from driving.  Enjoy this little piece of European aristocracy transplanted to the center of California.  IMG_1202.JPG

British Colony Drinking

Americans are not able to drink at the level of fellow British colonies.  Fact.  An effect of its strict twenty one year old drinking age and fear of giving a child even a drop of alcohol.  I am a product of this poor situation.  My first drinking experience was in high school where I passed-out at a party because I did not understand the effects of what I was drinking and the time it took to go through my system.  In the years since I have realized the severe drawbacks of complete abstinence until hitting the drinking age.  American students that go to Mexico for Summer break, where the drinking age is eighteen, or their first year of University have many problems with alcohol.  I once worked  in Cancun during Spring Break as a Paramedic and it was unbelievable.  The amount of eighteen year old students with alcohol poisoning was astronomical.  Not to mention those passed out in the streets or of the number of sexual assaults.

Now I compare my drinking experience with that of my wife.  She is a Hungarian and like most Europeans is raised on, and with a respect, for alcohol.  She could have drinks as a child with her parents for birthdays, celebrations, and such.  She got to see how alcohol effected her body under the supervision of her parents.  So when she got of age and went to clubs she knew her limits.  She has never passed out or gotten obnoxiously drunk.  I see no ill effects from her being given drinks as a child and youth.  Granted that different people are affected differently.  Some will become alcoholics and some Europeans still get pissed and pass out.  But starting drinking young does not make you an alcoholic, and Europeans do not get pissed on the same level as Americans.  I do remember seeing lots of billboards and advertisements in New Zealand asking citizens not to drink so much, but I wonder if it was really that bad.  From personal experience they seemed to have fewer problems than Americans with booze, but granted that I did not meet every Kiwi and I do not know every American.  I can only go by what I have experienced.

Then there is tolerance.  Being an American makes it difficult to go out with citizens of other countries as American beer barely qualifies as carbonated water(Water with gas).  When I moved to New Zealand I had an impossible time going out to the pub.  There was no way I could drink at the rate they do.  For some reason it was quite embarrassing.  Then when I moved to Poland I got my hair set on fire in a pub(story to come), as I had to contend with vodka instead of beer.  And finally it all came to a head in Hungary when I met my arch-nemesis Palinka.  Just drinking with my in-laws and I blacked out for the only time in my life.  After living in Hungary for a few years I can now drink anyone I know in the USA under the table.  It is even possible to keep up with my Irish friend.  It took some time but I am now drinking at a Hungarian level.  I’m so proud.

People of the world, especially parents, please realize that your children will drink.  Take the time and teach them the effects of alcohol at home under your supervision so it does not take them by surprise in a strange and sometimes dangerous location.  It is truly the best way.  And America for your part lower your damn drinking age to join the rest of the world and don’t be so prude and strict about giving a child a taste.

Morro Bay, California

The jewel of Morro Bay does not exist.  Like many, my first and only knowledge of Morro Bay came from the wonderful film Finding Dory.  The aquarium and area looked fantastic in the movie so we decided to spend a night here on our Pacific Coast journey.  Pulling into town we were somewhat disappointed.  It looked like any other small coastal town.  Little did we know then how severely disappointed we would be when walking along the coast looking for the aquarium. IMG_1167

We drove through the town to get to our hotel.  One of the drawbacks to traveling in the off season is that tourist towns look depressing, especially coastal tourist towns, and Morro Bay is no exception.  Our hearts sank driving the bland main street with its plain concrete strips of shops.  Not ones to give up we started bouncing funny and cute Dory quotes off each other to raise our spirits.  When we pulled up to our hotel we were quite a bit happier.  It had some nice flowers in the front and out towards the sea we had a view of Morro rock, which was looming large, quite beautiful and impressive. IMG_1171

Leaving the hotel we avoided the main street and instead directed our steps straight towards the ocean.  Walking down quite a steep hill we passed an RV park and a few hotels and hit a bay.  To our right was Morro Hill and a giant power station and to our left a road lined with shops.  To the left we went, passing shops that may have been open but without a customer to be seen.  The road was much the same.  A ghost town.  IMG_1184

From the start we were not satisfied.  The shops blocked any view of bay.  To see anything one had to use special sightseeing openings that took you behind the buildings to a dock.  It was quite annoying.  After looking out upon the bay for a while and taking some pictures with the rock in the background we headed for the aquarium, quite surprised that such a nice place as seen in the film would be located in this small town.  To our surprise(though we shouldn’t really have been surprised), the aquarium was nothing like in the movie.  It was a tiny little shack on the water.  We were bemused.  We shook our heads and passed on by, using what we think was the only Mexican restaurant in town to lift our spirits.  Unsurprisingly we were the only guests.  Here was the best part of our stay.  The food and drinks were good and our table overlooked the bay where we got to watch otters play in the water.  It was a much needed pick me up.  After dinner we went to our room and slept until leaving the next morning.IMG_1182

As always, Hollywood has exaggerated.  This time outdoing themselves.  There is nothing even remotely resembling the Morro Bay of Finding Dory fame.  Especially not a jewel.  The closest you will find is the excellent though bloody expensive Monterey Bay Aquarium about three hours North.  Plus that city is fantastic.  Do not waste a night in Morro Bay.  Stopping by for a few hours is more than enough.  Move along, nothing to see here.

Solvang, California

Heading off from Santa Barbara we take a detour from the Pacific Coast Highway and head less than an hour inland.  Cutting through tree lined winding hills and wineries spreading out from both sides of the road we enter a tiny town named Solvang.  The outskirts of which look like any Californian town but then changes dramatically when you turn onto the main road.  Suddenly you are in little Denmark.  Danish houses line the street.  True that the road is too wide and the buildings too spread out to really be Europe.  It hits you that this is more of a Disneyland version of Denmark.  IMG_1151.JPG

We slowly drive down the main strip towards our hotel admiring the view, though quite often interrupted by loud, spewing pick-up trucks which severely ruin the European feel of the place.  Arriving at our hotel, Wine Valley Inn, we get our bags and check inn.  The hotel feels like a cozy cottage and we enjoy the little maze we have to walk to our room.  Our room is fantastic.  It feels like it is out of a fairy tale.   After settling in we set out to see the town the European way, by foot.  IMG_1157.JPG

Our first stop is actually part of the hotel, Tivoli Square.  This is not a main square in any sense.  It is really just a little open area in front of a clock tower.  After posing for some pictures we move on.  There is only the main street and maybe one or two small side streets for tourists entertainment.  We cruised up and down these looking in the shops and taking pictures in front of the Danish architecture and tourist traps such as the windmill.  After finishing our sightseeing we got down to brass tacks.  What Solvang is really about.  The wineries and wine tasting.  IMG_1162.JPG

After visiting four of these establishments I was unable to count how many more there were but I would say at least a dozen, plus many more within driving distance.  My memory is hazy after starting on this adventure but I clearly remember a place with dog in the name, Wandering Dog perhaps.  I remember delicious wine and something else called a Shrub, which I think was good and spicy but I will stick with wine, thank you very much.  The misses and I were drinking there alone as it must have been the off season.  The next place we stumbled to was nearer our hotel and here we enjoyed some glasses of nectar with the one other gentleman in the place.  Our evening continued on like this.  A wonderful atmosphere and nice, but cool, weather.  It was extremely enjoyable.  IMG_1155.JPG

It the morning we had breakfast at one of the bakeries which was just satisfactory(The coffee was bad) and continued on our way back to the Pacific Coast.  It was a wonderful night in this pretty village but I couldn’t imagine spending more than a night or two.  Maybe in the high season it is more fun since there would be more people to talk to but I enjoyed the low season with just us, the wine, and a comfortable bed.  IMG_1164.JPG

Santa Barbara

It is a beautiful thing to break away from traffic and arrive in fantastic Santa Barbara after the minimum hour and a half drive up the coast from Los Angeles.  East Beach is my recommended destination.  As the name implies it is the beach area on the East side of Santa Barbara.   Here you will find an assortment of hotels and resorts mixed into a residential neighborhood, one block from the beach.   IMG_1131.JPG

After checking in and getting settled your first destination will most obviously be the beach.  A short walk across a four lane road and jogging/bicycle path brings you to the beach.  Take your shoes off and feel the squishy sand between your toes.  Walk down to the edge and feel the cool water splash over your skin.  Then raise your eyes and enjoy the complete panoramic view.  Ocean and beaches to one side and the town and mountains to the other.  Walk along the beautiful beach towards the pier that marks the beginning of State Street, the main road of Santa Barbara.  On your right will be beautifully tall palm trees lining the jogging path which will be populated by people doing what they do on such a path.  Every so often the view will be marred by tents of the homeless set up on the rear of the beach.  Try not to mind too much as they need somewhere to live and they truly aren’t really bothering you.  When you have walked enough, turn your feet to the path, wipe off the sand, put on your shoes, and double back to the hotel.  IMG_1134.JPG

There is little need to drive in town as there is a little trolley bus that hits all the main sights for free or a very slight fee.  Come morning simply ask your hotel host where the trolley stops and follow their advice.  You will most likely get off on State Street and your day will mostly consist of walking up and down this one street.  Let us begin at the beginning with the pier.  This is the same as other piers.  A structure of wood stuck out into the ocean.  You can drive a car onto it and park for a fee.  There are a few restaurants, mostly seafood of course, some tourist shops, and a candy store.  First, walk out onto the end of the pier.  If it is a crystal clear day it is possible to see the Empire of Japan and Islands of New Zealand far in the distance.  Once you have enjoyed the view peruse the shops and get a ten dollar ice cream or sit down for a meal.  Then it is off to State Street.IMG_1138.JPG

State Street is a normal Californian main street.  Full of shops, restaurants, and bars lining both sides.  The very beginning of it down by the pier has nothing as this is where the train track runs through town.  But once past this it turns into a beautiful small town strip.  Spend all day ducking in and out of shops and stopping for a cold drink every so often or when you find a happy hour.  You will find homeless walking next to you or sleeping on a bench but unlike the rest of the world they do not ask you for anything.  It is the only place I have been where they say nothing to you.  They don’t even hold out their hands.  You are completely ignored.  IMG_1140.JPG

There are other parts and sights to Santa Barbara but I am unfamiliar with them.  Every time I pass through I stick with East Beach, the pier, and State Street.  I have driven through West Beach and the West part of the city and don’t feel like I am missing much.  I end with the note that if I ever felt the desire to become homeless, Santa Barbara would be my home.

Las Vegas High Roller

Las Vegas is a city of extremes and its Ferris wheel is no exception.  At 550 feet(167.6m) it is the tallest in the world.  It opened in 2014 as the anchor of a new tourist area called The LINQ, which like everything else is located on the Strip.  There are twenty-eight large cabins, each capable of holding 40 persons except for when they change to a bar layout.

Walking into The Link from the Strip is like stepping into a towns main pedestrian street.  There are pubs and restaurants lining both sides of an immaculately clean and crowded pedestrian walkway.  Towering over the background is the High Roller.  During the day it is a massive white bicycle wheel spoke and at night it transforms into a stunning neon alien hula-hoop.  After sitting down for a meal and refreshing beverage you carry on towards the Ferris wheel, stopping to laugh and pose at the cupcake ATM.  IMG_1110.JPG

Like all tourist attractions you want to avoid the High Roller at peak time unless you enjoy standing in a queue for hours.  Time it correctly though and you can walk through the maze of twists and turns and escalators without so much as slowing down.  Shortly before getting to the boarding area there is a lobby with toilets and a bar, which are nice if you do get stuck in a queue.  At the boarding area you will be split into two groups depending of your ticket.  One for those with, and one for those without, the drinks package.  Thirty-eight of the cabins do not have a bar so there is usually a very short wait.  Being only two drinks cabins you have to wait fifteen minutes for one of the cabins to arrive, as it takes thirty minutes for a full rotation of the wheel.  While waiting you can get to know your fellow riders or, more likely, just stare as the massive wheel slowly spinning next to you.  When it is your turn to hop on you simply walk onto the cabin as it slowly glides by.  The High Roller does not stop or change speeds.  Do not be afraid of falling to your doom as there is a net below the loading area for those that have had one too many and have difficulty either seeing the cabin or controlling their legs.  IMG_1116.JPG

Once on board you can sit down if space allows or more likely stand so you can get a better view and view all sides. There are television screens above your head spouting out information about the journey.  Things are a bit different in the drinks cabin as the bar takes up a decent amount of space.  There is no order to the drinks ordering so it will depend on how pushy you are and how friendly your traveling companions are.  The one bartender will be overwhelmed at first but the drinks are well made and you will get yours faster than you think.  During the full rotation you could possibly pound quite a few if that is your thing but most people will just get through two drinks.  As the drink cabin is crowded, sticky, and noisy, and expensive, I would recommended drinking before and after the journey and just enjoy the rotation in the normal cabin.  Unless of course you are there to drink as much as you can then the drinks cabin may be worth it to you. IMG_1120.JPG

The view during the rotation is fabulous.  You will have excellent 360 degree views of the city and will tower above most of the giant hotels.  The television screens will announce when you reach the top, and then it is fifteen minutes back down to the bottom.  The whole ride is perfectly stable and uneventful.  The cabins are largely windowed so those with a fear of heights may be quite uncomfortable.  Once at the bottom of the rotation you simply step off your cabin and walk down a long ramp back to The Linq.  Again the safety net covers all open areas where you may feel a desire to walk off an edge.

The High Roller is a fantastic addition to the hundreds of other tourist attractions of this city.  Save some money from the gambling and prostitutes and instead go for a ride on this Ferris wheel.  Perhaps even purchase  a cupcake from a machine on your walk there.