The troll bridge

This is likely to be my last travel post as I’m packing up my suitcase and heading home tomorrow. I’m looking forward to real, fresh fruit and vegetables and of course seeing my beloved puppy. Never fear though, as I’ve just finished Floundering by Romy Ash so shall be following this post very shortly (I hope) with a review.

Amid the freestanding cacti and RV salesyards is the Bookman Event Center, home (for the last three days at least) to over 200 derby girls, plus officials and fanatics from around the world. The VRDL All Stars, cream of the Australian crop, have only hours ago skated into 5th place for the tournament, and based on their outstanding performance over the last three days are now ranked 13th in the world (according to Flat Track Stats).

I’ve drifted in and out of the center, watching the VRDL bouts and a few others here and there, but am very much a wanderer among the players and hardcore fans screaming around me.

On the first day I walked to the venue on a terrain made not really for walking. It is only fifteen minutes, if that, from the hotel, but the paths (when there are paths) often lead to a dead end or whittle off into shrubbery and rocks. Although the walk was short, as I approached a bridge that reeked of urine with blankets and broken bottles stuffed on top of the sloping walls, I felt a little like a billygoat approaching a troll.

Trip trap. Trip trap.

Paper flowers and desert roses.

After what was, let’s face it, a bleak start to my visit to Tucson, I woke up today determined not to let this holiday go to waste or end on a low. A rummage through my tourist brochures and a quick search online reminded me that I had wanted to visit the Arizona-Senora Desert Museum when I first started planning my trip here. Armed with my camera and a couple of muesli bars for refreshments, Matt and I called a cab and asked our driver to take us out to the museum.

“Ha!” he laughed. “That’s in the middle of the desert! What do you want there?” I explained that we were going to the desert museum. “Oh that’s that place with all the stuffed animals!” he exclaimed. My heart dropped. Here I was, in another cab (because without a car, that’s really the only way to get around here) spending my hard earned money flinging myself into the middle of the desert, to see a bunch of stuffed animals???

But I was determined, and although a seed of doubt had started to grow, I was going to see this adventure through to the end. Our cab driver was very nice and pointed out all of the other attractions (that we weren’t going to see) on the way to the desert museum. We arrived and he gave us his card and I was relieved that we weren’t going to be abandoned in the middle of nowhere.

We paid for our entry to the museum (which was extremely cheap, more so now that I know how much you get to see) and my first steps inside the entrance allayed any and all my fears. This was the Tucson that I had been waiting to see. We had left the awful flat, sad, depressing outskirts surrounding our hotel and had landed in the middle of the true desert beauty. The desert museum is like many of the local wildlife parks in Australia – set up to disturb as little of the surrounding flora and fauna as possible, this space houses everything that the desert has to offer.

There is a cave of gems, minerals and fossils, explaining how they are found, what they look like and where they come from with some stunning examples on display. Throughout the exhibit there is the chance for children (and childish adults) to have a turn at finding fossils or discovering minerals to take home. There’s a reptile house, a hummingbird house, an aviary and a small walkthrough of water animals (beavers and otters).

But these exhibits only make up a small portion of the museum itself, which soon opens up to sprawling paths in and around the natural landscape. Looking out all you can see is a sea of cactus on a flat desert. This doesn’t look sandy or dry, it looks expansive, the kind of open space that takes your breath away with how calm and big it all is. The only thing that stops this openness from rushing out to forever are the hills, jaggedly slicing into the sky, some close enough to count the cacti growing up their sides and some just grey silhouettes reaching into the clouds more gently. Tucked into the scenery are loose enclosures, surrounded by nature, giving you the chance to explore desert fauna in its true environment. Walking through the desert, where the carpet of dull grey/green and brown is broken up by delicate papery flowers in stunning reds, yellows, purples and oranges, you can see everything from prairie dogs & coyotes to ocelots, mountain goats and brown bears relaxing in their enclosures. There is such a blur between cage and free here, with animals like the coyotes roaming the deserts bordering the parkland and hawks flying freely overhead just as cheeky squirrels scamper underfoot at every turn.

Everything about this museum is absolutely amazing and the animals are 100% living I swear. If there was going to be a single thing that would win me over to Tucson, then this was surely it.


Our arrival in Tucson was about as different as an arrival can be. Right now I feel stranded, bleak and I miss San Francisco and my own home like crazy.

It began with what was (for me at least) the flight from hell. After being delayed for over an hour, our flight was downsized (because the previous plane had experienced some technical difficulties). Half of the passengers were asked to ‘volunteer’ to catch a shuttle to Tucson – a 2 hour drive away. We were one of the ‘lucky’ few who got a seat on the new downsized plane. I’m a tense, frightened, crybaby of a flyer at the best of times and as we walked onto a plane and our heads brushed the roof my stomach dropped. We were the last two of the fifty guests awarded seats on this flight and frankly, I wish that I’d caught the shuttle. We sat at the very back, over the engine, where we couldn’t hear a word that the captain or the hostess said, but could hear every bump and change of the old engine. Looking up to the ceiling barely skimming our heads, it wasn’t much of a relief to discover that a long line of gaffer tape ran peeling from the back to the front of the overhead lockers, holding them together. The small plane meant greater turbulence, and although the flight was short even Matt, who loves to fly, was shaken by the end. I was a wreck.

I am in our room now, in a motel whose main office is housed in the back of a Denny’s burger place. Apparently there are no buses to town (so they tell us when we arrive) and from my searches leading up to the trip, I know that we’re a 20 minute drive from whole food shops, tourist attractions and restaurants (that aren’t a Domino’s or a Denny’s). The 20 minute suggested cab ride won’t be cheap, and stocking up once isn’t really an option, since we’re not able to upgrade to a room with a fridge – I don’t know why.

I want to give Tucson a chance, but we’re off to a rocky start, and since this leg isn’t really for travelling I think a lot of it will be spent writing from the hotel room or derby stadium, with some desert trekking to fill in the gaps – if I can figure out how to get there. I can’t help but compare this to San Fran and the differences are as clear as day.

  • Instead of homeless people there are military
  • Where the trees were lush and green they are fat and spike or dry brown and tall, with a mop of weak green punching the air at the very top
  • The houses are not a lively cocktail of colours and shapes, they are different shades of brown (although not very) with sharp square corners and roofs
  • To look around there is no water to speak of.
  • The airport greeted us with a bar rather than an organic cafe and yoga room.
  • Already we’ve driven past three lots filled with campers and caravans, and some have set up permanent residence in the blocks allocated to them.
  • The beauty is in the mountains that circle this expanse of brown and dust. They cut jagged lines across the sky, peaking on a knifes edge, looking impossible to climb, although I’m sure they’re not.
  • People drive pick up trucks with the paint worn and peeling. Although I know that this is probably not the reason, it seems as though the desert has worn them like coarse sandpaper and I wonder if it will wear me the same way.

Taking a break from holidays.

Yesterday was long – so long that by the time I got back to the hotel it was too late to think about blogging.

Holidaying can be exhausting don’t you think? It’s not like taking a couple of days off from work and escaping to a house on the beach for a leisurely weekend of reading and board games.

No, overseas holidaying is further, it’s more expensive, and you can’t just pack up and do it in a weekend (well not your average person anyway), and so you need to make sure that you suck every moment and experience that you can out of your time in another country.

It’s my last night in San Francisco and tomorrow we head to Tucson. I would love to stay in San Fran for the rest of my holiday, although I’m hoping to find a nice quiet spot with a view in Tucson where I can get some writing done. There’s also going to be some walking through the desert, watching derby, and maybe checking out some artwork in a plane graveyard (if I can find it).

So to take a moment of reflection I thought I would make some lists, because that seems like a fairly straightforward way to summarise my time in San Fran.

Things I saw/did (in totally random order)

  • Saw/photographed a bunch of amazing street art, from downtown to the Mission District to Haight Ashbury
  • Hunted down City Lights bookshop, an iconic American independent bookshop. I also found The Booksmith in Haight Ashbury, which I fell in love with immediately and a scattering of other eclectic and wonderful shops with books on their shelves (blogged about in my earlier posts). I didn’t leave City Lights until midnight and it made me especially happy that there is a bookshop that stays open that late.
  • Did the touristy things (Alcatraz – creepy but interesting, Ripleys – interesting & interactive, the Wax Museum – um, the Aquarium – small)
  • Ate a (vegan) hotdog from a street vendor.
  • Saw the Sea Lions at Pier 39
  • Saw a 60-year-old lady do magic and acrobatics next to a giant carousel at night on Pier 39
  • Ate amazing pie from Mel’s Drive-In (American Graffiti) although unfortunately you can’t really drive into it.
  • Walked to, looked at, ate in the Mission District
  • Browsed the vintage stores of Haight Ashbury
  • Ate a good combination of delicious vegetarian and kitschy diner food.
  • Caught the historic F-line tram, the Cable Cars (both lines) and figured out how to use the Muni system.
  • Made some new friends (from Australia and San Fran)
  • Went on the ferry. Didn’t throw up.
  • Saw the ‘tree-man’ scaring children at the wharf & other amazing street performers

Things I missed/want to do next time.

  • Eat at Millenium & The Stinking Rose
  • Spend more time in the Mission, Castro & Haight Ashbury
  • Visit Golden Gate Park
  • Play at the Exploratorium
  • Go on a ferry cruise under the Golden Gate Bridge
  • Climb Coit Tower
  • Go on a tour to the Muir Woods
  • Hang out at the Beat Museum
  • Visit some of the islands (Angel Island etc)
  • Eat at Forbes Island
  • Visit the zoo
  • See a squirrel
  • Visit the cable car museum
  • See some theatre

There are some things I wouldn’t have bothered with, given my time here over, but I’m happy with the amount that we’ve packed into a few short days, and am leaving feeling a little less like a green tourist fresh of the plane than when I arrived. As well as the beautiful art, scenery and architecture, what will stay with me from this trip is the attitude of the people here, and how much I felt at home. I don’t know how worldly that makes me, since I’ve essentially flown overseas to visit a more expansive version of my own city, but I’m glad to have been here, and can’t wait to come back.

Change for a fiver.

Today we became official tourists. Full on, quotation mark, capital letter ‘Tourists’.Seriously, we may as well have worn bumbags and fluorescent caps.

It’s Easter Sunday, so a lot of places were closed. Rather than risking busing somewhere only to discover that it wasn’t open, we decided to head back down to the Wharf and use the tickets that we’d bought before coming for three of the major tourist attractions – Ripley’s museum, the Wax Museum and the Aquarium.

Frankly, two out of three were pretty disappointing. The wax museum was alright, but a) not a lot happens (probably a given), b) there were a surprising number of ‘change your notes to coins here machines’ (“Why do you suppose that is?” asked Matt, only to learn the answer as we rounded the next corner and bumped into the first of several ‘test your strength and/or sex appeal/fortune here’ machines) and c) the Marilyn Munroe figure was so unlike the real Marilyn that it undid any of the good work on the figures until that point.Salvador Dali was quite good though.

The aquarium was fine, but pretty small and had a surprising amount of non-aquatic animals (although since one of them was  an chinchilla – like a hopping mouse the size of a small rabbit – and was the cutest thing I’ve ever seen that can be forgiven). I thought there would be more though, and had I known, I would have spent more time entranced by the octopus or the jellyfish at the beginning of the exhibit. They’re so captivating – if someone put either one as my screensaver I would never actually open my computer again.

Ripley’s was good – there’s plenty of interesting stuff there, and lots of it interactive, which is always nice. Plus there’s a huge collection of art made out of strange things (push pins, chicken wire, telephone books, cassette tapes, pennies and more) which is like looking through the Art Attack! archives. If you don’t know what Art Attack! is, go look it up now. I’ll wait.

Are you back? Good. So Ripley’s was good, and the only time it asked me to change my notes for coins (which of course it did) it was for quarters to put in the fake shooting gallery to make targets spin. I love this game so I was totally happy to spend my quarters on it. And then we exited through our third gift shop of the day and I was amazed at the lack of cool stuff. I thought that Ripley’s would have all sorts of oddities for sale. Instead there was one invisible ink quiz (cool), some oversized novelty sunglasses with nothing whatsoever to do with Ripley’s (not) and then the rest of the shop was filled with a candy store (ohmygodsonotwhyisthisevenhere??). I walked (actually by this stage I was hobbling thanks to a particularly nasty blister and my total lack of endurance) out onto the street, ashamed at having bought into these three tourist traps when I could have been soaking up the much more vibrant and exciting parts of San Fran.

Back on the street things weren’t much better. The first day on the Wharf had been touristy but this was something else. It was all the obnoxious stereotypes crammed into one. Noisy, loud, pushy and rude and all I wanted to do was have a nice lie down.

But as we near the end of the San Fran leg of our trip I’m becoming even more determined to cram every minute with something exciting, so we hopped back on a cable car back to downtown SF and then (after a quick detour to buy a cardie and put on a second pair of tights and some legwarmers because I could no longer feel my legs) walked to the Muni station to get back to the Mission district before the sun went down. We made it just in time to catch the last glimmer of light on the street art down Clarion Alley (an ever changing and very famous strip of street art). I got my photos, Matt got dinner and our faith in humanity was restored.

Then we accidentally discovered the diner from American Graffiti which is by far the best diner we’ve discovered here. We also accidentally ate a big slice of amazing berry pie and we may go back tomorrow and accidentally eat some more. Easter Sunday really managed to turn it around in the final quarter.

No photo’s please

You can be walking along, cool as a cucumber, so proud of yourself for not needing a map and ordering your coffee like a local when you see something amazing, pull our your camera and give away to every man and his dog that you’re a tourist.

When is it ok to take a photo? There must be a fine balance between keeping memories and actually experiencing them – not being so wrapped up in preserving pictures for dinner table stories that the stories themselves don’t get played out.

There are a lot of amazing shops here. Among today’s highlights were the pirate shop at Valencia 826, Paxton Gate (both Paxton Gate & Paxton Gate Curiosities for Kids) and The Booksmith. Believe me when I say that these are only a few of the shops in San Fran dedicated to the weird, the wonderful and the whimsical. Valencia 826 is a not for profit organisation started by Dave Eggers that inspired other similar projects (including Melbourne’s very own Pigeon’s Project). Because the project runs programs for children who don’t have the means or the access to writing, they operate San Francisco (and possibly the world’s) only pirate supply store. As well as raising funds for the literacy arm of the project, the pirate supply store is a living breathing wealth of imagination. You can buy compilations of works by 826 attendees, you can buy a beard extension, or you can just walk in the door and start opening the drawers that line the walls at random. Perhaps you’ll come across a drawer full of spare hooks (in case you’re missing a hand) or perhaps you’ll open one merely labelled ‘yank’ to find a neverending magicians ribbon that you can pull out and watch it billow out around you. If you’re ever in San Francisco this place is well worth a look – and if you’re there for an extended visit, or are luck enough to live there, you can volunteer or apply for an internship.

Right next door to the Pirate Store is the mothership of Paxton’s Gate. Again, no photo’s please. If you want to describe this later you’re going to have to use your imagination and powers of recall. Paxton’s Gate is a collection of bizarre ephemera. Walk inside to a world of terrariums, fossils, and an extensive collection of glass eyes under the counter in the middle of the shop. Out the back is a collection of plants – possibly to inspire you to start your own plant world inside a bottle.One table holds a collection of artworks that look like Shaun Tan illustrations come to life. A glass cabinet holds a collection of fossils and teeth ranging from wild bear to Megalodon (which I’m told is twice the size of a great white shark). Behind the counter, stuffed animals lunge out from the wall – a flying monkey looks as though he wants to leave his perch to say hello.

Doors down is Paxton Gate’s little sister – home to a quirky shop front gallery that opens into a magical toyshop for children. This isn’t the place to buy video games or hungry hungry hippos, but a chance to step back to the toys of yesteryear. A part of the store is sectioned off for play by a twisted and gnarled branch almost growing from the wall and then spreading to form a play area. Ropes hand from the ceiling. Beautifully illustrated books and paintings line the walls and toys are everywhere – small to large – from shadow puppets to wooden jenga sets where the planks look like bones and a skull balances on top.

With so much rich inspiration it is amazing that these stores aren’t filled with writers, madly jotting down ideas or using the opportunity to step back to their childhood and remember what it is like to really imagine something. No photos allowed, but none necessary. It’s easy to remember.

Would you like your fortune read?

There are so many street performers, buskers, beggars and others asking for money. This would be easier if I understood the money (there is as much chance of me giving someone a fifty as giving them a one).

On the way to the cable car this morning we got sold two different editions of the equivalent of the big issue by a very helpful man who also gave us tips on where to find free cheese tasting (Macy’s). Only moments later we came across a street musician propping up a sign saying ‘It is customary to tip street musicians. We are working for our money and are not bums sitting on our lazy backsides or trying to sell you fake news’. A few steps away from him was a one man band who had a QR code. Unfortunately my phone doesn’t have the ability to scan these, but I was impressed nonetheless. Behind him was a guy moonwalking and doing the robot at the same time. I was a little impressed and a little disturbed.

We caught the cable car down (and up and down and up – San Fran is hilly like you wouldn’t believe) to Fisherman’s Wharf. About 5 ladies tried to read our fortune. I felt bad saying no to them, to anyone. Everyone’s offering a ‘special deal’. It’s amazing how beggars here ask for a few cents or a sandwich. I’ve come across Melbourne beggars who shout at you for anything less than five dollars and look baffled if you try to offer a sandwich. It’s so similar, but at the same time so different. While we were standing at the traffic lights after dinner freezing out of our minds we got another ‘special offer’. This one we accepted though – a rickshaw ride back to the cable car! Romantic and warm. With a blanket over our legs and a rider navigating and commentating our trip back to the car it was easy to forget the icy wind sweeping across the bay.

After a day spent traipsing across the city, into surprise carnivals and penny arcades and down piers to look at barking sealions it is difficult to go to sleep.Tomorrow we go to the home of the Grateful Dead – Haight Ashbury, the worlds only pirate supply store at Valencia 826 and the Beat museum. It’s going to be a totally different scene I think. Apparently there’s some rad street art.

I can see why obesity is a problem – if I eat another piece of fried food I’ll have to give my food baby a name.