Sunday, 31 March 2013

Shadowlands

Warlingham Green, Easter Sunday just before 8am.

Tatsfield Churchyard, Easter Sunday, around 9am.

Easter Sunday – to the Tatsfield Churchyard (16 miles)

Looking out on to a frosty lawn is deceptive: the immediate thought is of the cold, but stepping outside and noting the clear blue skies and the sunshine warms things up a little. In fact, it was good cycling weather, the sort of conditions that make you think you can cycle forever and, for some reason, I thought about riding to Broadstairs. I vowed to myself that if ever the occasion arose when I had a day to myself, I'd set out alone or with Andy to reach the place where Bleak House is located and where the novel by Bruce Robinson, The Peculiar Memoirs of Thomas Penman, is set.

For now, though, my chief aim was to reach Warlingham Green – and later than usual. Lying in bed at 6am, I heard a strange ringing sound. After a while I realised that it was my mobile phone. Normally, it's on 'silent' but I'd switched it a few days ago and changed the 'message alert' tone, hence the strange ringing. It was Andy hoping that I'd remembered to put my clocks forward. Oops. I called him and arranged to meet just as soon as I'd consumed a cup of tea.

The lake at the top of Slines Oak Road, Sunday 31 March 2013.
Photo by Andy Smith
We headed off for the Tatsfield Churchyard, meaning that, in total this weekend, we'd riden 58 miles and there was still Easter Monday to go. There was frost on the ground at Warlingham Green as we set off, but the weather was good. En route we stopped off at a small frozen lake where Andy took the shot on the right.

The churchyard was shrouded in frost and was not only rather picturesque but also incredibly peaceful. Not a sound except for the chirping of birds in the trees and then human intervention in the shape of people connected with the church; first a young girl, then a slightly older couple and then the vicar, all of whom had things to do in the church hall, a flint building where, in the afternoon, tea and cakes are served to anybody who's passing by. A couple of years ago I remember enjoying the delights of the place myself, but right now, I had my own tea (and a cereal bar) to enjoy.

We spent roughly 30 minutes standing in the churchyard drinking tea and munching those cereal bars before heading for home. Andy branched off halfway along the 269 and I carried on towards Sanderstead, the skies still blue and the sun still shining. In weather such as this, the key is to keep moving to keep warm.

We were last at the Tatsfield Churchyard on 16 December 2012.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Hilly ride to Merstham and the early proximity to Andy's house

This map, captured on Andy's iPhone shows how Andy found himself doubling back towards where he started on today's hilly ride to Merstham.

The reason I'd worked out the route was, as I said earlier, to see if it was possible to reach Redhill using only the quiet suburban roads and not the A23. However, the hills involved on roads such as Higher Drive and Rutherford Rise, to name but two, made the A23 the best option. I quickly reached the conclusion that cycling to work is not worth the effort. Not only would I have to use the awful, traffic-laden A23, but when I reached my destination I'd need to head to the leisure centre for a shower then take the bike to the office...yawn, yawn, yawn!!!

While it was hilly and, at times, unbearable, it at least made it clear that I won't be cycling to work (I needed to know). It's also made me think hard about any ambitions I might have harboured about cycling around the coast of the UK or, as I dreamed up yesterday, cycling down from Inverness and stopping off at assorted breweries en route. The book would have been called Beer, Bike and Bed, but not only would I never have the time to do it, I'd have family pressure to stop me doing it and even if I was given the green light by both friends and family, I'm not sure if the hills would do me much good. As I mentioned in previous posts, my right knee started playing up, probably a result of those hills around Purley. I was never in pain, just a little stiff and a bit achy and all is well now, but the very idea of being a long way from home, knackered, facing steep hills and strange bed & breakfasts and not seeing my family for days on end – I'll leave it Mike Carter and Rob Lilwall. I suppose I could do it in stages...

Now that's a big breakfast!

I could have done without the chips and beans, but still finished the lot.

The Quality Café certainly lives up to it's name. Here's my breakfast, much needed, but thinking seriously about it, I could have done without the beans and the chips. Having such a hearty breakfast stiffened my resolve to cycle home rather than catch the train.

Easter weekend cycling – hilly route to Merstham (never again)...

I'd worked out a route looking at a street map. The sole aim was to find a route to Redhill from Sanderstead that avoided the A23. But street maps don't say anything about hills and there were plenty. So many, in fact, on the early, suburban part of the ride, that, before reaching a place in Coulsdon called Farthing Common, a kind of deserted plateau rising above deep valleys on either side, we were already knackered.

My sentiments exactly...
Andy was knackered and pissed off because he'd riden all the way from Caterham to meet me outside the main entrance to Purley Station only to discover that the route he was about to embark upon took him back to within five or ten minutes' ride from his house.

But let's get back to those hills. The road names should have given them away: Foxley Hill, just off the A22 Godstone Road, then Higher Drive, Hartley Hill and Rutherford Rise. 'Hill' and 'Rise' and 'Higher' should have sparked off warning signals, but they hadn't and by the time we reached Farthing Common, well, we both felt as if we'd over-exerted things a little bit. From there it was fairly straightforward: the Farthing Down bit became Ditches Lane then Church Lane followed by Hilltop Lane and then, as if by magic, we found ourselves at Rockshaw Lane, the road that leads down to Merstham. My plan had been to continue down Hilltop Lane which would have become Warwick Wold Road and then turn right after crossing over the M25 on to the Bletchingly Road and then up School Hill into the centre of Merstham – but we decided to take the road we trusted and within 10 or 15 minutes were standing outside Hunger's End – which was closed.

We wandered down to the Quality Café, which, everytime I pass it is normally closed and shuttered. Not today. It was open so in we went. Andy ordered a bacon roll and tea and I chose an omelette, chips and beans. We both had a couple of mugs of tea and sat there reading the Sun and the Daily Star, marvelling at how fit that model, Elle MacPherson, once known as 'the body' was looking aged 50. She's had kids too, but wow, is she fit.

Andy with bacon roll in Merstham's Quality Café
We were, it had to be said, tired and those earlier hills had played havoc with my general state of well-being. I was fine, but had I been able to sit in the Quality Café all day, I would have done so; but I had to get home and I seriously considered the train. However, all that stodgy food needed to be burned off so I resolved to cycle home along the very busy A23. Andy branched off at Shepherd's Hill.

I was knackered by the time I reached home and my right knee was giving me some pain too, nothing major, and once I'd rested a bit I was fine.

We're going to cycle to Tatsfield Churchyard tomorrow – a nice short one.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Easter weekend cycling – Westerham (22 miles)

Not a bad day, but a bit on the chilly side as I set off for the Green to meet Andy. We'd decided upon Westerham as our final destination and, en route, discussed The Psychopath Test, which I'd lent to Andy and, of course, One Man & His Bike by Mike Carter. I've just bought Rob Lilwall's Cycling Home from Siberia (I'm a few chapters in and it's excellent) but the conversation centred around how people like Mike Carter can afford the time to cycle around the coast of the UK. We both admitted that in our situations, ie we have commitments, it would be impossible.

Bike-friendly caff in Westerham – note bicycle pump chained to drainpipe
On The Psychopath Test we discussed David Shayler and how he was portrayed in the book and moved on, when we reached Westerham, to discuss conspiracy theories, like 'did we really go to the moon?' Not us personally, but the Americans. Oddly, perhaps, while I think we did – and so does Andy – there's quite a bit of plausibility in the notion that we didn't and, secretly, I think we'd both love it to be fake. How funny!

The ride was fairly pleasant until we reached the roundabout beyond Botley Hill and turned into Clarks Lane. An easterly wind was cold so, instead of going down the conventional hill, we detoured through the golf course road and did that downhill slice of off-road riding, which was dotted with muddy puddles. Andy went through as many of them as possible, while I kept my bike dry.

Snow from last week snagged in the hedgerow
As a result of the detour, we approached Westerham from a different route, arriving in the high street midway and making our way to the Green. It was around 0840hrs and we sat there for about 30 minutes, leaving for home around 0910hrs.

The journey back, as expected, was long and arduous as we headed towards the hill, the long hill that lasts all the way to Botley Hill. Having missed a ride last week I felt a little sluggish. We stopped prior to the hill to take a photograph of some snow snagged in the hedgerow and then continued the ride.

Andy broke away halfway along the B269 and I carried on along the road to Sanderstead, reaching home just past 1030hrs.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The cold weather continues

...and snow still lies on the ground, although it's thawing very slowly. Now, when I say that snow is still lying on the ground, that gives the impression that it's been snowing a lot. It has been snowing a lot further north. In fact, in places like the Isle of Arran in Scotland, they're still without power after nearly a week of heavy snowfall. People have lost their lives and some of the pictures on television show huge snow drifts. In the south I think the phrase 'snow flurries' would sum up the situation adequately. I was still about to reverse the car off the drive and take my daughter to school, put it that way, on the day the snow fell. Last Saturday it snowed all day but the roads were still black – the colour of the tarmac they're made of – and only the front lawns and fields have retained the snow and that's because it's still very cold out there. I find it quite odd that a fortnight ago I was swimming in an outdoor pool in a hotel in Irvine, California, where the temperature was in the mid-80s.
Lingering snow – hardly cause for concern

In an earlier post I'd written about my favourite book of the moment, One Man & His Bike by Mike Carter. Now I've finished it I feel at a loose end and need another book, but what to buy? Carter's Uneasy Rider seems like a plan, but do I really want to read another book by Carter straightaway? I'm sure it's good, I mean Charley Boorman says so on the front cover, but it's about Carter's journey through various countries on a motorcycle so I'm not likely to have any affinity with it as I did with his cycling adventure around the coast of the UK.

I tried looking out for Pedalling to Hawaii, by Steve Smith, the guy that Mike met aboard the Salcombe to East Portlemouth ferry. Smith was, in fact, the ferryman and Carter was told by a fellow passenger to  ask the ferryman about his trip, so Mike did and discovered that Smith had pedalled all the way to Hawaii, telling Mike that 'loads of people had cycled across continents and others had rowed across oceans. But no-one had combined the two into a human-powered journey around the globe'.

So off went Stevie and a pal in what Carter described as 'a glorified pedalo called Moksha', encountering heavy seas and God knows what else. When they reached Miami, Stevie jumped on a bike and headed for San Francisco. His travel buddy Jason had set off on rollerblades but had an accident with a car, both his legs being smashed up in the process. Oddly, while Stevie stopped in Hawaii, Jason continued on the pedallo and reached Australia where, using his feet, a bike and a kayak travelled to India then by Mokhsa again to Africa and, ultimately, reaching the UK (Greenwich) in 2007. What an adventure!

Stevie Smith is another reason to read One Man & His Bike. I won't ruin it, but Smith gets philosophical about life and why being a ferryman is the perfect job for him despite the affluent nature of Salcombe and its initial effect on his self-esteem. Equally, of course, his book, Pedalling to Hawaii is out there somewhere, but I couldn't find in Waterstone's.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Snow stops ride (again)

For most of Saturday there was snow. It started early, like a fine drizzle, but within minutes the flakes grew larger and it started to lay on the ground. The ride was well and truly off and the day proved to be cold and unpleasant, even if, eventually, the snow did thaw leaving that strange contrast of black road and white lawns.

Today, Sunday, is a similar story. No snow at first, just the odd flake, but now, as I look out of the conservatory window, there's more of it and it's coming down fairly steadily. The ride has been aborted, which is not good and, let's be honest, we could have gone out, but we know how unpleasant and cold it is having been caught in the snow before. I remember that great pre-blog occasion back in April 2008 when were out near Botley in the snow. At first it was a novelty of sorts, being out in the snow, but soon the cold set in, especially on the ride back, with the cold wind in our faces. Not nice. Today the experience would be similar, so we didn't bother.

What's in the news, then? Well, Cyprus is having a few problems in the banking department and everybody else is getting a little fidgety about it, ie, perhaps if the Cypriot government can take its citizens' money, so can others. I think if they tried it here there would be a revolution, although, having said that, there probably wouldn't be; that's what really annoys me about this country: we just accept things, we 'plod on' when we should be fighting back. I feel like a revolution is needed in the UK, but it'll never happen, sadly, as we're all too accepting of our leaders, we let them get away with murder.

I'm just hearing on the news that in Cyprus, there are queues at cashpoints, but I thought the banks had all shut up shop, in which case, wouldn't the cashpoint simply say 'refer to bank'? Why the queue?

A Russian oligarch, whose name escapes me, has been found dead in his house in Surrey. Naturally, the press wants it to be some shady, polonium-based murder, but it seems as if he's just died.

Everything is boring so I'm going to sign off.


Saturday, 23 March 2013

Blizzard conditions...and final thoughts about Mike Carter's book

You might not be able to see the snow, but it's there, believe me.
I went to bed early and woke up early as a result. It was gone 5am and for a while I sat and listened to the shipping forecast, something I haven't done for a while. It went on for much longer than I remember when dad used to listen to it back at home, but there's something cosy about it.

When I gazed out of the window there was snow, fine snow, but now, at 0655hrs, it's coming down quite heavily. I aborted the ride early as I just knew it was settling in for the day. Let's hope tomorrow's a better day for a ride as I need to get out there. In fact, because I was up early I was going to head out early, ie around 7am, but the weather had other plans.

Yesterday I finished Mike Carter's One Man & His Bike and I can honestly say it was the only book that I've truly not wanted to finish – and by that I mean I wanted it to go on forever. But, as they say, all good things come to an end and I can only cheer myself up with the fact that he's written another travel book, Uneasy Rider, which I intend to buy immediately.

As readers of this blog will already know, I've posted about One Man & His Bike before and I really must recommend it to anybody who likes the idea, believes in the idea, of the strong relationship between the bicycle and freedom of mind and, of course, freedom of spirit. I know that I can really think about stuff when I'm out on the bike, riding towards the green or through some country lane, it's a time to sort things out in my head.

So, I've finished it. One of the best later chapters (it's all good) is Chapter 20 when he meets a ferryman who, it transpires, is more than just a ferryman – although that 'just' is not right. Mike meets a man who pedalled to Hawaii and, indeed, almost everywhere else in the world. His name was Stevie and, I guess the best way to describe people like Stevie – whose book I will definitely read if I can find it – is 'out there'. I think Mike Carter's 'out there', you have to be to embark upon a mammoth cycling adventure around the coast of the UK. I'd like to think that I was 'out there' – and in some respects I probably am – but not as 'out there' as Stevie. In fact, he's truly 'out there' in the sense that he doesn't seem to care about the things we're all supposed to care about: jobs, prospects, 'getting on', pensions and fitting in. It takes something that I don't have to simply up sticks and cycle to Hawaii, forgetting any peer pressure to stay at home or parental pressure, perhaps, to 'knuckle down'. Or perhaps its not having these things, or not caring about these things or even not having the friendly, stable surroundings in the first place that makes people do these things. Then again, of course, it might just be the spirit of adventure, which is even better and I'd like to think that with all these guys: Mike Carter, Stevie, all the others that write great travel books, that it's more the spirit of adventure that motivates them, not, say, a desolate family life, nobody to cling on to and so on.

Last week Andy and I spoke about how we wouldn't be able to do what Mike Carter and now, of course, Stevie, have done; we have commitments, responsibilities, we're no longer carefree – were we ever carefree? I think that's why I liked One Man & His Bike, because it put me in the saddle. I did that trip with Mike but in the comfort of a hotel restaurant in California, a sofa in my living room, an airplane high above the clouds travelling from Detroit to Los Angeles. I was there in the Highlands of Scotland, in various campsites dotted around the country, in lonely bed & breakfasts in coastal towns, but at the same time I wasn't there – that is what good writing is all about, putting the reader in the adventure, transporting them from wherever they are to the landscape of the book, even if, for the reader, the reality is more a fairground ride as they trace the steps of the pioneering writer who did it for real, laying down the tracks in front of himself like Gromit did in The Wrong Trousers.

I've just spent about five minutes searching around for my copy of One Man & His Bike, which I've probably left in the office. I was going to quote from the book itself and I will, probably later in the week. For now, though, I'd advise you to go out and buy this great book, or order it on Amazon, it's amazing.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Rain almost stops the ride...

0600hrs: it seems like a nice day, but the birdbath tells a different story. Rain. I was tired, so the idea of sending an 'abort' text had some appeal, but I sent it with a question mark to leave the door open, so to speak. "It's raining. Abort?" A while later a text came back along the lines of 'is it still raining where you are?" I texted back, "no, let's see what it's like at 7am" and the rain stopped. "I'm going to make the tea and then I'll be on my way". And sure enough, I was on my way. My first ride in two weeks and I was feeling a little sluggish.

I swung the bike from side to side going up Church Way to give myself some traction and once I reached the plateau I crossed the road and cycled through the churchyard and across the so-called Gruffy, past the pond where the ducks were here, there and everywhere. I powered along the Limpsfield Road en route to Warlingham Green and then the heavens opened, yards from my destination.

Taking cover from the rain under the Village Cafe's awning
As I approached the green I saw Andy taking cover underneath the awning of the Village Café and I joined him there. We weren't going any further. It was early so I took out the tea and hot water and we settled in for a chat about this and that – mainly One Man & His Bike by Mike Carter, which I promised Andy I would lend him once I'd finished.

It goes without saying that Andy and I both felt slightly envious of Carter and his ability to simply up sticks and ride around the coast of Great Britain. How, we both wondered, was he able to do this? The book's cover makes out that he was cycling to work, one spring day, and decided not to stop. This, of course, simply can't be true. Carter works as a freelance journalist on The Guardian Newspaper in London. He must have told them he was going away for a while. Then there's the issue of money. How would he make ends meet while away from work. Either he had savings that he could rely upon or he had some other arrangement. Having already written a travel book about riding a motorcycle through various countries, he must, I assumed, have approached his publisher, told him (or her) of his intentions (to write a book about cycling around the coast of Great Britain) and they then offered him an advance and with that he survived. Remember, he was away for a few months, not just a few weeks. He spent money on food, B&Bs, hotels and campsites, not to mention bike repairs, so the very notion that he simply decided, on a whim, to cycle past the office and off on a big adventure around coastal Britain, is far from the reality of the situation.

This, of course, got us on to Top Gear, which often throws in contrived scenes that simply couldn't have happened by pure accident – there are many, believe me – but Andy said the latest adventure of Messrs Clarkson, Hammond and May, in which they search for the source of the Nile, was, fortunately, without such contrivances (or there weren't as many as usual). That's good, but of course, I'd missed the two programmes of Top Gear because I was in the USA (see previous posts).

I must stress that Carter's excellent book is not in anyway conning anybody. The bit about cycling past the office rather than stopping is on the book's back cover, something along the lines of 'imagine cycling to work and then deciding to just keep going'...but, as I say, this can't be what happened. As Carter himself writes, he was thinking about going to Buenos Aires, but then, one day, while cycling to work, he decides instead to embark upon a ride around the coast of Great Britain. He doesn't just cycle off into the sunset leaving his work colleagues wondering for days what has happened to him.

In fact, sticking with this theme, the only other thing that slightly annoys me about the book – and believe me, this is minor as it is easily one of the best, most enthralling and entertaining books I've ever read – is that Carter, when asked (frequently) why he is cycling around the coast of Great Britain, answers along the lines of 'just for the sheer hell of it'. This is not strictly true: he's doing it because he's managed to secure a book deal and that deal has enabled him to be able to take the time off work to do the ride and probably get paid for doing it through the mechanism of an advance. And even if he didn't get that advance then his publisher must have known about the adventure and must have been approached by Carter. Likewise, The Guardian must been approached by Carter too. Surely Carter wasn't so irresponsible that he simply upped sticks and did the ride – although, let's face it, that would have been the rock 'n' roll thing to do and it would have given some edge to the book – not that it needed it. We'd all be thinking as he describes his journey south from the tip of Scotland towards Wales and then home: now he's got to face the stoney-faced reception committee – his irate employer, friends and family – and hey, what if he doesn't get that book deal? Then what?. But no, life is rarely so exciting.

Andy and I debated Carter's ongoing problem: that of carrying too much stuff on the bike (he has wheel problems on a couple of occasions as a result). Throughout the early parts of the book he sends some of his stuff back via post to his house in South West London (I'm guessing Richmond) to lighten the load. I told Andy that if I was going to embark upon such a journey, I'd travel light from the beginning. A rucksack full of, say, clothes for seven days – perhaps one extra pair of trousers and another pair of shoes being part of the load. Andy said that when he cycled to Paris, he didn't rely upon a rucksack, but a rack on the back of his bike. We talked about how we would have to pay weekly visits to launderettes.

We also said we wouldn't camp, but rely entirely upon bed & breakfasts, based on the fact that after a hard day in the saddle – and especially if we were soaked through by rain – the very thought of erecting a tent in a field on a stormy day would not appeal.

The rain stopped and started while we stood under the Village Café's awning and we savoured our second and last cup of tea before heading back down the Limpsfield Road towards home. The rain had stopped. Andy turned left into Tithepit Shaw Lane en route to Caterham and I carried on towards Sanderstead.

Rain had stopped play yesterday and it almost cancelled today's ride, but it was good to get out, even to Warlingham Green (an eight-mile round trip) so all was not lost. The rain continued throughout the day, just like the TV weathermen had predicted and now, as I gaze out of the conservatory window, the garden looks very damp. Tears of rain hang from shrubs and bushes, the sky is grey and all is generally still. It's time to make dinner, which today is spaghetti bolognaise, made by yours truly. I'm off, so until next week, goodbye.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

San Antonio expands B-Cycle scheme

San Antonio's B-Cycle initiative
A report by Sarah L Tressler in the San Antonio Express News says that the fourth largest city in Texas (and seventh largest in the whole of the USA) is going to expand it's B-Cycle scheme with the addition of five new stations.

There are now B-Cycle stations at San Antonio Zoo, the Witte Museum, the TriPoint YMCA, the Amtrak Sunset Station and the Ace Mart Restaurant Supply on South St. Mary Street.

The B-Cycle initiative started in March 2011 and it is estimated that, since that date, 270,000 miles have been ridden on B-Cycles. That equates to 12.4 million calories burned and 'tens of thousands of dollars in saved gasoline expenses'.

The person behind the site selection process for the B-Cycle stations, JD Simpson, said, "We've been real fortunate that the city has procured grant dollars and funneled it into the B-Cycle stations."

It costs San Antonio $50,000 to set up a station, from the kiosks to the bikes and the RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) chips in each bike.

Work is still in progress improving signage for the B-Cycle scheme and there are plans for seven more stations before the end of 2013.

The B-Cycle deal is straightforward. Once a bike is checked out of a station, riders have 30 minutes to check the bike back into a station to avoid incurring additional charges on their credit card. A smartphone app exists to help riders locate stations.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Killing time on Venice Beach while waiting for a night flight to London...

Like a lot of people in the UK, my impression of Los Angeles was coloured by the movies – in both a good and a bad way. The good part is easy to explain: Falling Down, you name them, all the decent movies appear to be set in LA. The bad bit, of course, is the crime and the fact that it’s supposedly possible to wind up in dodgy neighbourhood like Compton, which, to be fair to Compton, I only really know about thanks to a band called NWA, whose album, Straight Out of Compton (it might have been Straight Outta Compton) was one of the first major rap albums – or is it Hip Hop, I can never work out the difference. In fact, it might even be ‘gangsta rap’, who knows?

There is, of course, much more to Los Angeles that the city sprawl we see and hear so much of in the movies. I was glad to get out of the LAX Holiday Inn, mainly because it was in the midst of a kind of industrial sprawl not dissimilar to the area surrounding Heathrow Airport in the UK.

A big problem with LA is that people drive everywhere. It’s not like the UK where people can walk and stare into shop windows or dive into cafés for a cup of tea and a Millionaire’s Shortbread. A car is needed and this is a shame.

When I left LA central behind and found myself in Irvine, en route to Foothill Ranch, I was relieved and surprised by how nice everything was: palm trees, relative peace and quiet, a plesant, pristine environment of office buildings and hotels and, seemingly, nobody around.

The shuttle dropped me off at my hotel, the Hyatt Regency, which turned out to be the best hotel of the entire trip. It was classy not only in its overall service ethic, but it’s food, it’s environment, everything.

What I liked about Hyatt was its determination to encourage Americans not to eat a load of fatty, horrible food smothered in fatty sauces. They even had chicken sausages for breakfast, instead of the usual beef or pork that we’re all used to (in the UK and the USA). On my first and only night in the hotel I enjoyed a really pleasant grilled salmon with vegetables (sprouts) and rice, a glass of wine and a bottle of chilled, sparkling Badoit mineral water (Badoit is, in my opinion, the best mineral water around). Oddly, it tastes so much better from a glass bottle than a plastic one.

I settled into a very pleasant meal, albeit alone, which is never good, especially as I was feeling a little homesick. But the waiting staff were extremely pleasant and chatty and with the good food on top, I really couldn’t have asked for more.

Venice Beach, California. Pic: Thomas Alber.
It was Sunday – effectively my only day off – so I headed for the outdoor pool, which, I’d discovered earlier, was heated. I was a little anxious about taking a dip as I wasn’t sure how cold the water would be, but once I got there, changed into my trunks (which I’d put on underneath my trousers to avoid embarrassing moments trying to conceal myself with a towel like on a day trip to the beach in England).

As it turned out, the water was warm and once I’d gotten my shoulders under, which took all of a minute, I was in my element. I haven’t swam in an outdoor swimming pool since the summer of 2007 – six years ago – and I stayed in for a good 30 minutes swimming back and forth and generally enjoying every single minute. Surrounded by palm trees and gazing up at a blue and cloudless sky I really couldn’t ask for anything more – except my wife and kids who I really wanted to be there too. Sadly they were thousands of miles away in England where, I was told earlier, it had been snowing (but hadn’t laid).

Snow seemed alien to my current environment. In fact I don’t even think they have snow in California, do they? No wonder everybody’s so miserable in the UK, the weather is so lousy. And yet all the Americans want to go there – and all the Brits want to escape. It all made me realise how important it is to have a holiday, something missing in my house for the past six years or so. We all desperately need one.

I swam back and forth and kept saying to myself I’d swim another two lengths and then get out and dry myself. But I didn’t, I just kept going until I looked at my hands and noticed how wrinkled up they were getting. Time to get out and dry myself. I then decided to do the day tripper thing and take my trunks off while concealed by a towel, something I hate doing at the best of times. But it worked and soon I was dry and ready to return to the hotel.

I sat in my hotel room watching America’s answer to The Apprentice, with Donald Trump as Alan Sugar and a whole host of American celebs raising money for various charities. I kept nodding off, but needed to check my return flight to the UK as I wanted a seat with leg room. I managed to get one and then headed on downstairs for a late dinner. I was in two minds about eating anything but figured I should get a decent meal inside me; and and that's where the grilled salmon came in.

The next morning I was up around 6am and ready for business. I took a taxi to Foothill Ranch. LA was one thing, but this was something else, especially with the blue skies, the foothills – that's why it must be called Foothill ranch – and the sunshine. I was really taken by the place and envied all those people who lived and worked in the area. No wonder everybody was so cheery, I thought.

After the last bit of business was over, the PR for the company I’d been interviewing offered me a lift to LAX – why LA International Airport is called LAX, and not LAII, I don’t know and nor, it seemed, did anybody else. We – that is my new PR buddy Dave and I – went to an Inn-n-Out Burger restaurant for a spot of lunch. Dave is a fast food, burger joint connoisseur. He loves them and has been known to eat two of them in a day. Oddly, he’s not a great big fat person, but a fit-looking chap who puts his thinness down to cycling daily on stationary bikes in a gym, ‘spin clasess’, which I once considered, but never really got my act together.

The Inn-n-Out Burger restaurant – where they cook the burgers to order – was just next to one of the main LAX runways so we sat there watching the planes coming in to land. And when I say ‘just next to’ one of the runways, it was JUST NEXT TO one of the runways. The planes were very close – a few yards away – reminding me of my impending flight from LAX to London, which would be ten hours and 35 minutes and not something I was particularly relishing.

I had time to kill and Dave suggested I take a cab to Venice Beach, which I did. It was an amazing, crazy place that made me realise how that whole US hippy thing, characterised by the Beach Boys and Simon and Garfunkel, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and so on, was alive and well. Crazy people selling all manner of crazy craft items, such as dreamcatchers, painted skulls and framed paintings, lined the beachfront and there were equally colourful shops and stalls selling tee-shirts and shorts facing the Pacific. There were street entertainers, musicians and people supposedly trying to sell passers-by CDs of their own music.

I walked from Venice beach along the coast to the pier at Santa Monica where I stopped for lunch before walking all the way back. There were kids playing in the sea, women sunbathing on the beach, people cycling or using those two-wheeled Segways. After all the big breakfasts I'd been eating, I needed the exercise but none of the bikes had baskets – to place my laptop – so I walked instead. I'd left my camera in my checked-in suitcase back at the airport so I couldn’t take any photographs of this wonderful place. It was full of colourful, happy people – shiny, happy people – enjoying what in London would be a sweltering hot summer’s day – in March! Once again I began to long for a family holiday. I’d love my family to see this place and what a great holiday we could have here on Venice Beach. I thought back to Foothill Ranch, the palm trees, the peace, the blue skies and temporarily forgot that I had a long-haul flight ahead of me. There was a strong temptation to give it all up and become a beach bum.

It was getting close to the time when I should be finding a taxi and heading back to LAX, but I stopped off at Larry’s Bar first for a glass of beer. After that there was no escaping the fact that LAX beckoned. I found a cab, owned and run by Johnny, a pleasant Ethiopian man who sings in his spare time. Johnny and I chewed the fat as we drove through the sun-kissed streets of LA heading for LAX and then, after bidding him farewell, I was back in the hassled world of the airport with its perfume brands and premium spirits. I had to endure going through security: shoes off, laptop in a separate tray, pockets empty.

Right now, as I write this, I’m in a food court. I’ve had a cup of tea and a cookie and I'm waiting for the moment when I can board the flight (I’ve got about 30 minutes). I could do without the flight, but it’s what stands between me and my family and some lighter meals.

The flight leaves at 8.30pm and I will reach home at 2pm on Tuesday. Right now it’s Monday night in LA. When I get off the plane, it’ll be Tuesday afternoon in the UK – seven hours ahead in terms of time.

Back home, the mouse problem persists. There have been mice in our house since before we arrived back in 1998; somewhere, somehow, they’re getting in and I’ve heard that, while I’ve been away, one more has been caught. This means that life will continue to be upside down as my wife and daughter don’t really want to sleep there until the problem has been eradicated. My theory is that it won’t be sorted out until the kitchen is gutted and the holes in the floor sealed up. I reckon that’s where they’re getting in.

The rodent control man says they’re in the loft and that they get there via a cable that runs up the outside of the house by the conservatory. He says they get to the cable by crawling along the branch of tree that overhangs the conservatory during the summer months – are they really that clever? This seems very far-fetched to me, but he’s supposed to be expert. Once in the loft they get around between the cavity walls and enter the house proper through holes in the floor in the kitchen. I think that if we have any hope in hell of eradicating the problem, we’ve got to gut the kitchen, seal all the holes and then put a new kitchen in. I think we’re going to have to bite the bullet money-wise and get it done, otherwise life will continue to be upside down with nights round at the in-laws and our house remaining deserted. It’s all bad karma, that’s for sure.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Irvine, California...

Hounslow with palm trees?
I had two choices: hire the hotel limo to take me to Irvine – at a cost of $80 – or take the free shuttle back to the airport and then look for another shuttle to take me to Irvine. I was sorely tempted by the hotel limo, but felt it was simply too extravagant.

Jumping into the hotel shuttle, I headed back to the airport and quickly found the shuttle buses that would take me on from there – at half the price; and after a few minutes, there was the bus. Inside I found a Japanese girl from Tokyo, another Japanese person sitting in the front, a man from Boston and an older man who I didn't engage in conversation.

We headed out of Los Angeles on the highway and soon the awful sprawl of LA was behind us and there were pleasant houses in palm tree-lined roads, all reminiscent, for me, of those summer days of the 1960s that you see in the movies. Movies like The Graduate. If Simon & Garfunkel were on the radio the picture would have been complete. I was transported back to my childhood and a time I'd love to recapture as, I imagined, those living in these quaint houses managed to do most days.

The journey lasted about 40 minutes with nobody saying a word, although I had chatted with the Japanese girl prior to the coach setting off. She was from Tokyo and had flown in from New York where, she said, it was very cold. She'd been to London too and found it cold. I agreed with her and then silence resumed.

Getting out of LA was quite a relief. Admittedly I was staying close to the airport – imagine Hounslow but with palm trees – but many people have said to me that LA was a bit of dump. They were right. The night before, on the hotel television, I'd watched a bit of 'celebrity' television, all of which took place downtown and I immediately knew that a trip there would be pointless. I hate all that celebrity shit at the best of times.
Wally Park – now that's where I should be heading.

My hotel in LA was alright, but basic. The door stuck whenever I tried to open it, which was annoying, and the bar downstairs left a lot to be desired. I'd gone down there for a glass of red wine before bed, but it wasn't very appealing. Breakfast the next morning wasn't brilliant either, but it was generally okay. I had time to kill. Remember, this was my weekend. Normally I'd be out with the family somewhere, but I was stuck in LA, a city not conducive to walking so I felt a bit of a prisoner.

View from room 508, Hyatt Regency, Irvine, CA.
When the clock reached 11am, therefore, I headed out, took the shuttle, got the other shuttle from the airport and ended up in Irvine and the Hyatt Regency Hotel. For the first time in the last week, a decent hotel. It was truly wonderful from the moment I set eyes upon it: cool, calm and luxurious. I checked in with ease, went to my room and marvelled at everything. Hyatt was a cool hotel brand and I was glad to be here.

There was a pool which, unlike the hotel pools in other hotels I'd stayed in, was heated and located in a pleasant environment. The San Antonio El Tropicano pool was unappetising, if that phrase fits. It was cold, for a start, but it's location within the hotel grounds wasn't in anyway conducive to having a pleasant swim. I don't know what it was, but it wasn't upbeat, it wasn't 'happy', just a pool. Although, having said that, I would have gone for a swim had the pool been heated. Then, at LA's Holiday Inn by the airport it was the same deal: a pool, like an afterthought, in a location to the side of the building and not that brilliant, certainly not appealing enough to make me want a swim. I think there was a pool in Knoxville's Hilton, but it was much cooler there anyway so a swim was definitely out of the question.
Room 508, Hyatt Regency, Irvine CA

The Hyatt Regency, however, had it all. I ventured down to the pool where two girls in bikinis were sunbathing and two young kids were messing around in the water. I knelt down to feel the temperature of the water and it was just right. I vowed to have a swim, but first, something to eat.

Up to now, everything – virtually everything – had been 'unhealthy' large portions or something healthy smothered in something unhealthy. Not at the Hyatt. I chose a chicken and avocado sandwich with a pleasant vegetable soup to start with and then set about reading my all-time favourite book, One Man & His Bike by Mike Carter. This, I thought, was bliss. Outside, there were palm trees and, for the first time, I realised that I had found a true oasis.

Chicken and avocado sandwich with sweet potato fries.
Irvine was a nice place. The need to travel by car was still there, but now I was in Orange County, not a million miles from John Wayne Airport and close to the location of my meeting tomorrow. All was good. And so was the waitress, who originated in Thailand but had been brought up in Hawaii and had moved to Irvine. She has two children and takes them every week to Disneyland in Anaheim. She has a weekly pass that allows her access during the week and she takes her kids there to wear them out – and it works: they're ready for bed when they come home.

She was a very good waitress who engaged her guests in conversation and was happy to discuss the menu and the fact that Hyatt was focusing on lighter meals. I told her it was a welcomed relief from what I'd been used to over the last few days.

What was also very pleasant was the laid back music being played over the restaurant's sound system. The music, the wine and the food provided extreme comfort after yesterday's nightmare journey from Knoxville to LA, which had taken over 12 hours from start to finish. I was lapping it up. The whole thing was made even more enjoyable by Mike Carter's book. For lunch, incidentally, I opted for a chicken an avocado sandwich with a side order of sweet potato fries and honey mustard – oh, and a couple glasses of red wine.
Poached pear crumble – it was good.

Today has been my only real day of relaxation so I'm making the most of it. I can't go for a swim yet as my food needs to be digested a bit first, but I'm thinking about it.

Earlier on I was giving up on LA as a bit of a bad job, but, thanks to the Hyatt Regency, the food it offers, the service and the general vibe, not forgetting the pool, I've changed my mind. I think the key is to get out of LA, head for somewhere like Orange County and suddenly, the days of endless summer, epitomised by childhood mainly, return and you feel at ease with yourself. That's how I'm feeling now. At home it's 2250hrs on a Sunday night. Here in Irvine it's seven hours earlier and the sun is shining.

Simply one of the best books I've ever read.

In Los Angeles...

The beginning of a five-hour relationship with Detroit airport.
Can you believe that it took me over 12 hours to reach Los Angeles from Knoxville? It did. My Denver flight cancelled, I was re-routed to Detroit and had over a five-hour wait at the airport. Then, to my surprise, the flight time to Los Angeles was four hours. FOUR HOURS! That's like going to Greece from the UK.

I don't like night flights at the best of times – I like to see what's going on out there – but that was the deal and besides, I did have my window seat, 28A, so all was well with the world.
Room 502, Holiday Inn, Los Angeles Airport

The flight itself was a little tiresome (I wasn't expecting four hours) but I had One Man & His Bike with me so I read that, transporting myself back to the United Kingdom as author Mike Carter travelled through one of my favourite UK towns, Berwick-upon-Tweed, and on through North Berwick towards Inverness. All good stuff and it made me long for being home. I really do want to come home now. A trip of this magnitude is not going to happen again, that, I can assure you.

So on my clock – Knoxville time – by the time I reached the hotel it was nearing 1am. The Holiday Inn was by the airport and not downtown, which was annoying. It even annoyed the taxi driver who told me I should have taken the hotel shuttle. I would have done had I known it existed.

The awe-inspiring view from Room 502.
The clocks here have gone back or forth, I can't recall, but as I write this it's something like a quarter to eight and I need a shower and then breakfast. I've got to make my way to Foothills Ranch, which is near Irvine –'Er-Vine' – and I have to check out of here. It's almost pointless being here as now I've got to go. Had the United flight to Denver yesterday not been cancelled, I'd have been in LA mid-afternoon and I might have been able to go downtown, but now that's not the case, although I do have tomorrow afternoon as my flight home – my flight home! – isn't until 8.30pm (another night flight) although I'm planning on checking my seat online. I need the leg room and then I'm thinking of just stretching out and sleeping.

Not much else to say right now other than I am including the obligatory shot of my room – room 502, see above – and an uninspiring 'view from my hotel window' shot (also now above) when the system allows me to; right now it's very slow so I've cancelled the request.
The day started out fine: sunrise in Knoxville.

With all the trouble yesterday involving cancelled flights, I'm amazed that my luggage was on the baggage reclaim conveyor – that would have made the perfect end to the perfect day.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

In Detroit...

I woke up early so as not to miss the flight, put the alarm on snooze a couple of times and then got up and prepared to leave the hotel (and Knoxville). I'd ordered a taxi for 0645hrs and when I went outside I found a man with handlebar moustache asleep at the wheel of his cab. He didn't even wake up when I tapped on the window so I thought, no, I don't want to be driven to the airport by this man.

I walked back to the hotel, having already checked another cab and found that he was waiting for somebody to take to the hospital. As it turned out, as well you might expect, the sleepy taxi driver was mine. He even knew my name! He was the guy I'd booked and I was to be his last passenger for the day.

We didn't exchange names, but he was pleasant enough, although Knoxville taxi drivers seem half asleep to me. Yesterday I wanted to go to the North Wright Road, number 2300, but the guy was useless: first he tapped in South Wright Road into his SatNav and I had to tell him that it was North Wright Road and then, well, he couldn't find the place. Fortunately, he got his act together and I wasn't late for my appointment – which would have been a disaster. He was a musician and too laid back in my opinion to be a taxi driver. He knew somebody from the band America (of Horse with No Name fame) and was hoping to get a band together with him – or something like that.

Todays driver was different. He used to live in New York where he was involved in selling mortgages – until the recession hit. Then he split up with his girlfriend (he'd already been married twice) and blamed his misfortune on his 'two heads', one being his real head and the other, he intimated, his cock. In other words, somewhere along the line he'd been caught out with another woman, his relationship had split up and he decided to move out of New York and start a cabbing job in Knoxville.

Right now he's not got a girlfriend, but he does have 'dawgs' – six of them! And they keep him busy. He dropped me off at the airport and that's where the problems began. In a nutshell, the United flight to Denver had been cancelled so I was re-routed to Detroit and then LA, but I wouldn't be leaving until lunch time, 12.35pm to be precise and not with United but Delta.

I then had to waste time at Knoxville. I had breakfast in Ruby Tuesday and then just walked around until it was time to head for the gate.

The flight was okay – clear skies all the way, despite the Captain saying it was overcast in Detroit. I travelled with a fairly large man on his way to a seafood convention (basically, a weekend eating seafood and drinking wine). I felt like telling him to go easy, but I figured he wouldn't listen.

America has more than it's fair share of fat people and, in my opinion, they shouldn't be allowed on plancs. I'm not joking. There were two HUGE women on my plane and all I can say is thank God they were friends as this meant they sat together and didn't squash me into the wall of the plane.

I can understand why they are fat: it's their diet. Everything, even healthy food, is made to be unhealthy. They will take, say a roasted chicken leg – fairly light and healthy – and do something like batter or deep-fry it. I had a meal that was accompanied by vegetables the other day and guess what, they'd deep fried them.

When I arrived at Detroit it was time for lunch. Back in Knoxville, having not had breakfast at the hotel, I went to Ruby Tuesday where, incidentally, one of the male customers didn't think twice about blowing off really loudly and then walking off to the restrooms with a mildly peeved look on his face. It was all very well, but I was tucking in to my Western Omelette and it was the last thing I expected to hear.

So, Detroit and it's lunch time. What an airport, by the way! It's huge! I debated leaving the airport and going downtown but was advised not to. "It's only casinos and it'll cost you fifty bucks both ways," said a helpful member of Delta's ground team. The view was: stay in the airport, so I did. In fact I walked along the length of the terminal building, which was roughly half a mile in either direction, passing various mid-spend restaurants along the way, some good, some not so good. In the end I opted for Chilis Too and, fortunately, there was a 'light choices' section. I ordered chicken breast with rice and brocolli and a glass of red wine and, right now, as I write this, I don't feel stuffed.  But there was another great example of the American diet: the waitress asked me if I would like some soup so I said, yes, okay, and she brought some some soup in a small bowl and it would have been fine had it not been covered with grated cheese. Why? Why can't they just leave their food alone?

The meal was pleasant as I had One Man & His Bike to continue reading, but now, with lunch out of the way, I've nothing else to do other than write this blog, so here I am, writing it. My LA flight boards at 7pm from Gate A24 and, as it write this, it's only 4.30pm.

As I've said in previous posts I just want to go home. Perhaps I didn't say that, perhaps it was just in emails to my wife, but I just want to go home. I'm tired and I want to go to bed. I won't reach LA until just before 10pm  – and that's if the flight is on time. So I'm not going to see much of the place tonight and then tomorrow (Sunday) I've got to take a train to Irvine from Grand Union station.

Once Monday's interview is over I'll have some spare time before flying off home on Monday night. I take off at 8.30pm and arrive home at 2pm on Tuesday afternoon. I'd like to get a cup of coffee, but I feel dutybound never to buy anything from Starbucks as they don't pay their taxes in the UK. I might take a wander and find another retailer selling tea.

What's really weird is the sparrows. They're in the terminal building flying around and eating scraps of food left by the travellers. They have trees here in huge tubs and the sparrows are in the trees chirping away. Somebody remarked the other day that you don't see that many sparrows in the UK anymore. She had a point. But here they in inside an airport.

I'm wondering whether there will be bikes for hire in LA and, if there is, will it be safe enough to use them? I don't want to end up in gangland like Michael Douglas in Falling Down – not on a bike at any rate.

Yesterday I took a trolley bus ride around Knoxville. There wasn't really that much to see if I'm honest. That's the odd thing about America with, perhaps, the exception of established cities like Los Angeles, New York and Washington. Places like San Antonio have a 'downtown' area but it's as if the whole thing is a film set, propped up from behind by wooden supports and nothing behind the facade.

Knoxville and San Antonio were like this; they had a 'downtown', yes, but they were fairly small and once you'd travelled just a short distance, you found yourself on the outskirts of town. I remember feeling this way about Calgary in North Western Canada and it was true enough: once outside of the main town, things thinned out and soon you were out on the prairies.

For obvious reasons, the Americans don't have the history that we do in the UK, but they're trying hard. In San Antonio there's the Alamo, but it's not that impressive. Knoxville is trying hard to regenerate itself. Market Square is pleasant and they have a few street performers, but it's no Covent Garden. What America has going for it is the countryside. Knoxville is surrounded by the Smoky Mountains and there's the Tennessee River, it's an outdoorsy sort of place. San Antonio is just San Antonio, it's pleasant enough and they're trying hard too with their Riverwalk that snakes through the city. But in either city you can't go that far on foot before you hit the city limits. In many ways this is good, there's no urban sprawl like in the UK, but I don't like the way that things peter out, run out of batteries so to speak.

One thing I did notice as we came into land in Detroit was that here there is urban sprawl. Landing in San Antonio or Knoxville the land surrounding the airport is largely fields and open space, similarly in Calgary. From the air you can see the spaces, the vast open spaces that separate cities and towns. But whether I could live here I don't know. In many ways, the UK is one big suburb and you're never far from anywhere, nothing runs out on you. There's always a pub or a gas station or something.

And then there's the Harley Davidson. I've seen a few out here and I can see the point of them, but not in the UK. Because of it's sheer size and the distances involved – Americans think nothing of driving for 18 hours solid if they have to – there's a point to owning a Harley Davidson. But not in the UK. I'm afraid the M6 or the M25 don't quite have the ring of the Interstate Highways.

I'll stop there or I'll miss my flight to LA.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Sax players and whacky statues...


Saxophone player on Market Square, Knoxville.

Fantastic 'installation' – actually, it's very impressive.

Knoxville, Tennessee...

Flying over Texas. The view from seat 17C.
First, the flight. The plane boarded and began to taxi towards the runway and then the pilot announced that he was turning back to the gate. Why? There was a smell of smoke in the cabin (according to passengers) and he figured it best to check it out. Fair enough, but, of course, that now meant that, yes, he had to check it out and who would accept some flimsy excuse for simply turning around and taking off? Not me.

So, back at the gate, we eventually disembark, safe in the knowledge that the plan was to find a replacement aircraft and get us to Knoxville just as soon as possible. So we – 'we' being me and my fellow passengers – are led to what looks like some kind of temporary refuge for United passengers who discover their aircraft is not safe to fly. All the while we were there some announcement or other said that, for example, passengers travelling to 'Oak City', that's Oklahoma City, should go to gate 4 where a replacement aircraft... and so on and so forth.

What worried me was when they called the Knoxville flight we ended up on the same plane we'd earlier abandoned. "We checked a few light bulbs, ran the engines at full thrust and we can't detect anymore smoke," said the captain and we all sat back and thought, well, it's his word against what?

The flight took off and it was fine, generally speaking. There was a lot of cloud high up so it wasn't as smooth as I'd have liked it, but after my traditional 187ml bottle of wine, I fell asleep, waking as we started our descent into Knoxville, which was cloudy and overcast.

Weatherwise, the difference between Knoxville and San Antonio was staggering. In San Antonio, it was the summer. I mean it was hot. In Knoxville it was like the UK – cold and grey, although, apparently, it's going to be 60 deg F tomorrow (Friday). All well and good, but I had to put a jumper on before I ventured out to investigate the downtown area.
Another boring view, this time from the Knoxville Hilton.

Knoxville is more my cup of tea, if I'm honest. It's a little bit more 'arty' and 'left wing', compared to San Antonio's 'big steak, Gung Ho!, John Wayne' kind of attitude, which I didn't particularly like. Don't get me wrong, San Antonio was lovely: the B-Cycles (which, incidentally, they don't have in Knoxville, although the receptionist on the front desk told me they have them in Chattanooga, where the train comes from.

The absence of bikes for hire was, in some ways, a relief, although, to be honest, after all the food I've been eating, the exercise would have done me some good. What amazes me about the Americans is their ability to turn healthy food into unhealthy food. Yesterday lunchtime, in San Antonio, I found a small back street place in which to eat. It was pleasant, but the food, while fine, was a prime example of how the Americans take something essentially healthy – chicken, vegetables – and make it unhealthy.

The chicken was fried and the vegetables were too; so a slice of carrot, a nice healthy carrot, was made unhealthy by the fact that it was battered. If it's not battering, it's smothering something with a creamy sauce unnecessarily. Still, that's the American way and while, a short time ago over my dinner, I was thinking about how the Americans in Knoxville were pretty slim-looking – until I remembered the guy at the airport (a blob in clothes) and the old woman downstairs in the reception (a female blob in clothes). She wasn't a member of the hotel staff, she was guest.

I found my way to Market Square where I chose Bella Luna as my dinner venue: a nice, Italian place and, to be fair to them, not the usual American cuisine. I ordered steak with green beans and sauteéd potatoes – nice with a glass of red wine. I loved it there and might return tomorrow, although it's pretty sad dining alone. I hate it. I long to be home, eating my wife's excellent food – nothing excessive, nothing fatty, just good, healthy food. I do miss home and it's emphasised when I see a dad with his daughter or a husband, wife and kids out for a meal. I wish I was doing the same, but instead I'm sitting there, alone, messing around with my mobile phone – which has no signal at all – or thinking deep thoughts about work.
Room 1317 at the Knoxville Hilton downtown.

The hotel is fine. At least they permit international calls, unlike the El Tropicano in San Antonio. The reason I went out to eat was because the hotel restaurant didn't look up to much. I think they're in the middle of refurbishment and the 'restaurant' (the Orange Martini) looked a bit dreary. Bella Luna was nice and I might get back there tomorrow night.

So, no bikes to ride. A blessing in disguise. As for Knoxville, it's good. Whereas San Antonio was full of Mexicans and South Americans and is famed for its 'big everything' – nowt wrong with that, at least it was warm – Knoxville, for me, was better. A little more arty and understated, judging only by the Market Square shops and restaurants, and it was more my cup of tea.

The hotel's good too. Although, the view from my hotel window is not up to much (see photo). San Antonio was six hours behind the UK; Knoxville is five hours behind and my next stop is Los Angeles, via Denver where they are seven hours behind – it was eight but the clocks went forward, or back, I can't remember. Still, that's not until the weekend.

Note to self: turn off the noisy air con system otherwise it will mean a broken night.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Here's a strange photograph...

A local television station in San Antonio has this attached to its offices.
...and here's the building, spotted while riding yesterday afternoon.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

I know it's becoming boring, but...

...it's also becoming a tradition: that I take two photographs; one a shot from my hotel window; and the other a shot of the room. So, here they are: my room at the El Tropicano Hotel and the view from my room.

My room...

... and the view from my hotel window

Riding around San Antonio...

The beginning of the journey
Still feeling a little weary, but decidedly more upbeat about my hotel, which has a lot more character than the Crowne Plaza where my colleague is staying, I sauntered downstairs to see whether I could find a decent breakfast venue somewhere in downtown San Antonio. Already the sun was up and it was looking amazing outside, just like a stunningly hot summer's day in the UK in, say, mid-July. But then I heard the general cacophony of the hotel's breakfast room and decided to stay in.

The El Tropicano has a Mexican flavour about it; remember, we're virtually on the border here and the staff all seem to be Mexican or hispanic and it's great. The entire hotel has that Mexican Cantina air about it and I really like it, right down to the piped music, which isn't 'musak' but that upbeat Mexican brass sound that you get in movies like The Three Amigos.

Me and the bike, San Antonio, Sunday 2nd March 2013
Breakfast was self-service and, if it has to be said, but in a kind way, a little slapdash. Little things, like one knife and fork and spoon wrapped up in a napkin (albeit a cloth napkin, not paper). The problem is that when you finish your main course (in my case scrambled egg, sausage and fried potatoes cut into small cubes (lovely) it would be nice to have another knife to butter your toast. But they're not readily available so you have to ask, which is just a little irritating.

It was good to get tea with milk, even if I did have to ask, and the waitress brought orange juice to my table and was generally very helpful and down to earth. That's what I liked about the El Tropicano – it was down to earth and not up it's own arse.

Something else that was nice was the clientele: ordinary people, mainly Americans, some old, some young, some families, a good mixed bag and, fortunately, no businessmen. This was definitely not a businessman's hotel – it was the Harley, not the sportsbike of the hotel world, the Jeep, not the Jag, so to speak, but the room was good, as you can tell from my now traditional shot of the hotel bedroom. I really like the El Tropicano and guess what? The Rolling Stones have stayed here, probably way back in the sixties and who knows, they might well have occupied my room as it's huge, it overlooks the pool and it's the right height from which to throw a television set. Although, the nice flat-screen Hisense model dominating my room is probably a little hard to throw out of the window – and who would want to? (Alright, I have long harboured the fantasy of throwing a television set out of a hotel room window. One day, my friends, one day...).

Cycling around San Antonio

The Alamo where, sadly, Ozzy Osbourne misbehaved himself.
This morning, while out wandering about town I noticed, to my satisfaction that San Antonio has a number of what it calls B-Cycle stations dotted around. Later, after lunch and a long, tiring walk from The Alamo along Navarro and then North Saint Mary's to my hotel – in the afternoon heat – I spotted one of these stations and then noticed on the map provided by the hotel that the place was peppered with B-Cycle stations and one was a very short distance from the El Tropicano.

I was going to have a swim in the outdoor pool but believe me, the water was freezing, so I headed off towards the nearest cycle station and hired myself a bike. The deal here is $10 for half an hour and you're supposed to re-dock the bike and take out another one – the idea being you don't simply hog a bike all day. The $10 bought me a 24-hour pass, so I could go out now and get out another one, but I'm not going to, although I guess I could go out tomorrow morning. We'll see. Hey, I could ride to the Convention Center, the Henry B Gonzalez Convention Center, where I'll be for most of next week. As I say, we'll see.

View from the bike.
The shot on the left is the view from the bike. Note the lack of traffic on the road. 

 It was easy to get the bike out of the station, much easier than in Essen a week or two ago and soon I was on my way. Like the bikes in Essen, the Bixi bikes in Montreal and, of course, the Boris Bikes in the UK, the B-Cycles have baskets and a padlock. The basket carried my rucksack, which contained everything I'd need. I pulled out of the Navarro station and headed down North St Mary's, turning left on to Navarro, right into East Houston, right again into Soledad and then I lost track of what road I was in; the main thing was there was no traffic so I simply rode around town, stopping here and there to take photographs.

I found myself down by The Alamo and managed to get a photo taken of myself in front of the historical fort by an obliging gentlemen in a bright yellow Tee-shirt. By this stage I had no idea how to get back on to Navarro for the ride back to the hotel so I had to ask the man in the Tee-shirt for directions. It turns out it wasn't far away. I rode out on to East Houston from the Alamo Plaza and then across Jefferson and turned right on to Navarro. From there it was a straight road until I found North St Mary's and the bike station, which was hidden from view and, I'd imagine, quite difficult to find. I parked up the bike and then retraced my steps back to North St Mary and then left into Lexington to my hotel.
Back in the rack, the ride is over.

It was hot and I figured a cold Dos Equus would be worth drinking so I ordered one from the hotel bar and chilled for a while.

Comparing the three rides: Montreal, Essen and now San Antonio, the best was Montreal, followed by San Antonio and then Essen, although they were all good in their own way.

After San Antonio, I'm off to Knoxville, Tennessee, birthplace of Johnny Knoxville of Jackass fame and film diretor Quentin Tarrantino. If there are bikes there, I'll ride 'em. Then it's Los Angeles so hopefully there will be bikes there too, who knows?

Better go, I'm starving hungry and need something to eat, followed by a good night's sleep.

San Antonio, Texas...

You can't fly direct to San Antonio from the UK so I took a flight down to Houston, which took nine hours, and then after an hour or so at the airport, transferred to a short flight to San Antonio – all with United and pretty good all round. The London-Houston flight was good – daylight all the way, which I like – and because there's not much else to do when you're on a long haul flight, I read the newspaper.

In fact, the for the first time ever, I had time to actually read my Guardian. Normally I read Tim Dowling, the Q&A, possibly the Experience and the property pages and the rest remains unread due to other commitments. But when you're at 35,000 feet, strapped to chair with little else to occupy your mind, the newspaper is a good idea. I'm so glad I queued at Terminal Four's WH Smith to buy it.

We'll come back to queuing later on as I'm a little fed up with the way businesses inconvenience their so-called customers just so they can save money. Saving money is the key phrase here, but it translates very easily into greed. There were a few examples, the first being United's auto-check-in at Heathrow. Oh for human beings! It's like in the supermarkets when they beckon you over to the auto check-outs. I never go and I can never understand the gullibility of those who promote the technology that will basically put them out of work.

United has auto-check-ins at Terminal Four and I very quickly lost my patience (I'm amazed at how quick-tempered I get in frustrating situations when I know that the frustration is being caused by somebody else – in this case United Airlines – trying to save a quick buck. I much prefer human contact, but no, I had to type in all these details that required me to unpack my suitcase. Very irritating.

While the United flight UA5 to Houston was fine overall, something else that bugged me was that I had to pay for stuff. Normally, say with BA or others (but not budget carriers) you order a small bottle of wine (187ml) and it's free, but not with United. It cost $7 a time and I could only use my credit card. Okay, the rest of the flight was good and the service was fine, so I'll let them off, but I hate that grasping nature of the business world, especially in these lean economic times. It's almost as if they're cutting off their noses to spite their faces – in my opinion, the main reason behind the continuation of the global recession.

What makes me laugh is their inability to grasp the situation. Nobody's got any money, but that doesn't stop, for example, Marina O'Loughlin in the Guardian's Weekend magazine reviewing the Quality Chop House on the Farringdon Rd in London and adding the sentence, "About £50 a head with drinks and service." Now, I know what you're thinking: "she's only telling you how much the place costs" – but that's not it. It's that silent assumption that those reading her review will think, "Oh! £50 a head, that's reasonable!" No, it's NOT reasonable. With two people thats £100!!!!! Add a couple of kids and you're be nearer to £200! And for what? A plate of Basque charcuterie. Lardo strips? Blackface Haggis Scotch eggs? So what? It's still a few quid short of £200 and who the hell can afford to waste that amount of money on dinner out? I'd rather spend it on two week's worth of shopping.

I wonder if you'd tip the restaurant at that sort of price? I wouldn't. My view on tipping is this: I never tip, unless I'm abroad in, say the US, where tips, I think, are more a part of the culture than in the UK. By that I mean that people have said to me you must tip because they get a bit irate if you don't and, to be honest, I don't want to upset anybody when I'm in a foreign country where anybody can roam around at will shooting people with semi-automatic weapons.

Another reason I don't tip? The experience is NEVER up to scratch, the service is NEVER that good, the food always leaves me with the feeling of 'hmmm...it wasn't that brilliant' and I also find myself thinking: why can't the restaurant pay their staff better so that I'm not expected to give them their bonus? Bastards.

No, the idiotic nature of 'business' is everywhere. They just don't get it. How about the Birmingham Royal Ballet performing Aladdin at the London Coliseum? A nice night out, a treat for the children, perhaps? Well, let's see now, stalls at £65 per head and if a family of four take up the offer, they can enjoy the show from as little as £20 for up to two under-16s and here's the crunch, "for every two FULL-PRICE adult tickets. That's £130 to start with. Throw in dinner at the Quality Chop House and you're night out is creeping up to £500. Well, what's £500? Nothing! We spend that on a night out every weekend!

And that's what I mean. In the business world where, incidentally, wages are declining, business, generally, acts as if a recession isn't  – or hasn't – happened, when quite clearly it has; and then you read on the news about how shops are being boarded up, companies are going into administration and there's an kind of expectation that we should all be really concerned about the poor businessmen who are losing money and having to shut up shop because we, the horrible, inconsiderate consumers, are not shelling out £50 a head to the nice little proprietor of the Quality Chop House so he can keep his head above water. We don't count, oh no, we can get in debt as long as the Quality fucking Chop House remains in business and the seats at the Coliseum are all taken. And if they're not and the Coliseum has to close its doors 'for the last time' then we're all expected to dip our heads in mourning.

It's so simple to understand: salaries are declining, prices on the other hand are going up. This means that people can't afford to do things like they used to UNLESS the prices come down. But they're not, so the businesses go out of business and then we all sit in front of our televisions wondering what the world is coming to – or rather the media wonders what the world is coming to and the businessmen wonder too, but the sorry truth of the matter is this: they KNOW! They KNOW! But they're so thick with greed they keep trying to tempt us with £50 per head meals and then wonder why they're restaurant is empty. O'Loughlin, incidentally, gives the Quality Chop House 8/10 for value for money! Wow! She must be SO wealthy! Oh, hold on, she can claim it on expenses.

So, I arrived in San Antonio where, incidentally, there are blue skies and no cloud and outdoor swimming pools. Right now, as I look out of my hotel window, there is a bright sun and it's only 0741hrs. I'll have photos just as soon as I fire up the camera.

There's not that much to report on at the moment. I had a terrible night's sleep, which I put down to jet lag and I've discovered that the hotel I'm staying in – the El Tropicano – does not permit international calls. I was getting in a quiet rage about this in the middle of the night, but when I awoke in the morning and found that they do have WiFi, I decided to let them off.

I won't let O2 off, though. There's another example of a crappy business. Remember not too long ago when the O2 network just went off for millions of subscribers, me included? Well, that's one example and then this morning I discovered that my phone has no signal. How pathetic is that? Mind you, it means that I won't be using it, which in turn means that O2 will lose out. Once again, a prime example of the short-sightedness of British business who fail to believe that old adage, 'the customer is king'.

More to follow, ie photos and I'll see if I can find some push bikes to ride around town.