Friday, 30 November 2012

SCHOLARSHIP DAY 92: The Oregon Zoo

I didn't get as much sleep as I would like to have got last night. Even at midnight, the reverberations of passing traffic were rattling the loose screws in my bunk, as late night Portland parties drew to a close. At 2am, a gentleman was experiencing difficulties with using his key card to enter the dorm, and no matter how many times he inserted it, he wasn't getting much luck. At 6am, a group of guests, most probably scheduled for early morning flights, were rummaging their way through the lockers, unavoidably yet rather annoyingly making loud metallic sounds as their bag zips met the insides of the cabinet. Intermittent snoring of varying amplitude and eight men trying to get in the most comfortable position were also not helping.

I awoke at 8am, once again to a dull and dismally wet morning, but this didn't seem to discourage me, for today I had a visit to the Oregon Zoo to look forward to. It's been years- literally- since I've set foot in one, and although I wasn't expecting the whole experience to be any different from my childhood recollections, I was still looking forward to seeing how America does the whole 'zoo' thing. A short walk through Washington Park would lead me there. I had thought about taking the small forest train, but it didn't seem to be running. It was certainly more humid today than it has been recently, which didn't make hiking inclinations any easier, and for once I welcomed a nice Alaskan subzero breeze.

If every zoo in America is like Oregon Zoo, then I'm very impressed. It's been a fantastic day, and to think that for the last few days I've been less than a few miles away from some of the most incredible and some of the most endangered animals on this planet. The structure of the zoo, for a geographer, is an interesting one too. Animals are grouped by continent and the enclosures are shaped moreover into the shape of that particular continent. What's more, in such a small space, there's such a diverse array of both popular and remarkably abnormal species here. I can't possibly go through each and every one, so I've decided to pick my top favourite five.

At the very pinnacle of my zoo experience today, it has to be the bears. It's funny; for three months in Alaska, they were a day to day occupational hazard, things to avoid, things to be weary of. Today, despite the fact they were in an enclosure, I still couldn't believe that they were within ten feet of me. Although I didn't see a Grizzly (that would have been the cherry on the cake) I did, as it happens, see a fairly large black bear; much bigger than the one I had seen on the train that day in Alaska. Aswell as the black bear, was the Herculean nine foot high Polar Bear. Glad I didn't come across one of those in Alaska! A child, part of a school group I reckoned, asked her teacher, "Do they eat meat?" I felt like telling her that they can (and have) eaten humans.

From the ferocious black and polar bears, came a exhibit where ironically you could actually get close to the animals. On the map, it was described as 'The Farm' and indeed, it was a little bit like one. A disused tractor stood outside, and scattered by the light breeze were untidy piles of straw. It was like being back in Norfolk! Inside a wooden farmyard, in one single enclosure, were quite a few goats, all varying slightly. They all seemed to think my arrival meant feeding time, and that I was the special visiting zoo ranger for the day!

The countryside essence of the farmyard soon faded into one of aromatic spice, as I left the goats to await the official ranger and made my way to the 'Africa' enclosure. It was probably the most diverse section of the park, with animals ranging from the small 'blink-and-you-miss-it' bat and scorpian to the Zebra, the Giraffe and the Hippo. As I made my way round, I couldn't help but wonder if these native African animals were cold in just 50 degrees F, just as Californians would feel cold in Alaska and Canada. They seemed content enough; the Giraffes munched on grass stashed high up on a fence, the Zebras idled around their enclosure, and the Hippos took intermittent dips into the rather small pool of water they had been provided with. One of the Hippos yawned, and by momentarily seeing the size of its teeth, I decided that a visit to Africa could never be a solitary one!

The Oregon Zoo doesn't just have the conventional array of animals and information boards. Just like the Oregon History Musuem that I visited yesterday, I noted that a lot of care had been taken to ensure that the visitor, whether young or old, did not tire of boredom. Hands on displays were frequent in each section, and as you walked through doors, sounds of the animals you were about to visit or just had visited played through built in speakers, making the experience that little bit more realistic! Next to one of the enclosures, there was a heat sensitive camera; I love these. The last one I saw was on my very first day on this scholarship, in the Anchorage Musuem. This one, however, was much sophisticated. It took your picture, showing which bodily parts were colder than others, and then you could rub those parts, generate warmth, stand next to your image, and compare. The original image of me is on the right, (the blue denoting the colder parts) so I rubbed my head a bit, and here's the result. I'm not sure why my camera has suddenly changed temperature though; perhaps someone can explain that to me!

Although there wasn't any 'tiger walk' where one could travel above the enclosures and obtain bird's eye view shots of the animals, some exhibits did have a small see-through dome. I must admit being 18 years old (and soon to be 19) I felt a little outgrown for these interactive opportunities, but it did get me a great shot.

Ok, so it may have not taught me anything about Portland's culture, but it's nice to do these things sometimes; especially on a rainy day like today. Tomorrow is my last day in Portland, so a very busy day as I conclude my sightseeing here, and then Eugene awaits. From what I've been told aswell, Eugene should be a very interesting experience indeed!

Thursday, 29 November 2012

SCHOLARSHIP DAY 91: Pioneer Center, Oregon Historical Society, the Steel Bridge and the World's Largest Used and New Bookstore

I got chatting to an Australian guy last night. Ah, the australian accent! He told me that he seems to magically bring the Sun wherever he goes. Well, I'm sorry to say his meterological manipulating powers haven't worked for Portland. (Perhaps they didn't get through airport security!) I woke up to the familiar sound of 'pitter patter' and the all to often seen dark, almost insecure grey sky. I spent most of the morning working on an article for a local British newspaper and then at 12:00pm, assessed the sky again. No change, but I was going to do the best I could anyway, so off with my waterproofs I left the hostel. It wasn't actually that bad, in reality. It could have been worse, put it that way.

After a couple of days of walking in parkland, I decided that today should see more exploration downtown, so I pulled out my torn and slightly damp map, and noticed a familiar name: Pioneer Center. Fairbanks had a Pioneer Park, Seattle too, and it now seems to be a regular attribute for american cities. (I've just checked Eugene, my next location, and that has a Pioneer Cemetry!) Here in Portland, Pioneer Center is a shopping mall; that's the easiest way of describing it. A four storey building, split into two with a skybridge like Macy's of Seattle. Almost immediately after entering I noticed that Christmas had most certainly arrived in Portland. Christmas carols were encircling each storey of this center, Santa was greeting the young children (and the parents from what I saw), and a large hanging Christmas tree composed of several metal balls hung from the ceiling.

In fact, this particular center was quite sophisticated in its choice of furnishings. The only other mall I've walked through was at Anchorage, and compared to that Alaskan take, this one was very elite. Golden and gleaming strips of metal bordered the escalators, and most of the shops were selling designer products. How a women's handbag can cost more than a $100 beats me! I quickly made my way around; I even went into a few shops, although after three months wearing the same clothes, I felt a little bit of an outcast to be browsing such fashionable apparel.

As I was heading for the food court, passing two very mature people who were trying to work an ipad, I decided that it was time to treat myself to a lunch. I scrupulously scanned each menu from the different outlets, and finally the italian side of me opted for the Pizza combo: a large slice of pizza, with a drink and two breadsticks for $6.99 wasn't bad. I sat, and listened to the selection of festive tunes. I was about to leave but Paul McCartney's Wonderful Christmas Time came on (the first original tune I had heard I think) and it immediately brought back memories of past Christmases, so I hung around a little longer. How wonderful will the Los Angeles' take on Christmas be, I wondered?

My next stop was the Oregon History Musuem. Outside it, two state troopers were standing over a handcuffed man laying on the floor; history was being made in front of me, but I was more interested to see what the musuem had to offer. Indeed, it offered more than I thought, as is always the case with these places. Here in Portland, like Seattle, I'm a child at 18 so saved $6 on the admission fee which is always a good saving. On floor 3, the exhibits centered around a 'Pre-1950' theme, going back to early exploration and voyages of the Oregon coast. The center piece was a long canoe; at its length, it could probably have held quite a capacity; I wonder how many people it took to move it!

The musuem has at least thought about how it presents its information. There's a make-believe lift which, when you enter by pushing the conventional two direction buttons, actually turns out to be a small video room, where you can learn about the art of Portland. When it comes to discussing Portland's transport system, you board a bus and all the information you need is in there, and for the foot weary there's even real bus seats! I especially liked the fruit machine counter; selecting, not fruit, but a video about Portland that appears behind the counter on a screen.

With a lot on the itenary, and with the Sun already starting to set, I made a quick walk down to the river to see the famous Portland Steel Bridge. Truss in design, it's a double decked bridge, with the metro tram and car traffic using the top deck, and pedestrians, cyclists and freight trains making use of the bottom deck. Apparently, it's the only double deck bridge with independant lifts in the world. Set inf front of a disused manufacturing factory, it's a distinct reminder about Portland's industrious past, and you really get that feel when you walk over it.

City lights were beginning to be turned on in the city; early evening was fastly approaching, and from the other side of the river, Portland was one colourfully luminous city. The river was rippling slightly, obscuring the reflection momentarily, but otherwise this seemed to be a very quiet city indeed. Of course, when I returned to the downtown district, the case was totally the contrary. Evening rush hour was taking hold, and I was one of a couple hundred thousand trying to get to a particular destination in time.

Well, for me, Powell's Bookstore; the world's largest used and new bookstore was awaiting my arrival. Wow, what a place. A bookworm's paradise; you can quite easily get lost in here. Row after row, shelf after shelf, room after room; you could literally spend an entire lifetime in here and not get bored! I browsed aimlessly, and then decided that I had to buy a book from this internationally recognised shop. So my shop-wide search for Bill Bryson's Notes from a small island (that Ronald from Fairbanks introduced me to on our first field trip) began. Was it under B for Bryson? N for Notes? The section on England? Or should I say the room for England? That's how big this place is! Well, it was under the Travel section, in the Red room. I think I will make one more visit before I leave, but I don't think another purchase would be wise; my bag is becoming full of books!

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

SCHOLARSHIP DAY 90: West Portland: International Rose Garden, Hoyt Arboretum and Pittock Mansion

We've hit another milestone in the scholarship. 90 days have passed since I left that quaint little village of Filby; 90 days since I waved goodbye to Britain and started what would be the most interesting 90 days of my life so far.

Yesterday I explored the eastern side of Portland, walking to Mount Tabor, so today I thought I would check out the west. Arguably, there's a whole month's worth of exploration here in west Portland, so I set out early this morning to try and squeeze as much of it as I could into a day. The day was fair, but the Sun spent most of it's time today, trying to break through the haze, and so Portland experienced nine hours of considerably weak light. With a slight windchill, the conditions were perfect for a long hike.

The western area of Portland is elevated considerably, giving the 'Southwest Hills' and 'Arlington Heights' their names. This elevation isn't gradual either; hikers wanting to experience the west have a steep climb to do from the very moment they exit downtown. Housing both on the bottom and on top of this ridge has a contemporary feel, octagonal in shape, with characteristic large windows and flat roofs. I suppose one disadvantage about being on the ridge is no space for a front garden, but I'm sure they make do.

Dominating most of the western ridge aside from the series of recently built housing is Washington Park, perhaps one of the most diverse parks in Portland, and quite possibly one of the most diverse parks I have ever had the pleasure of walking around. Forget all the conventions of city parks, the playground, the large expanse of grass for picnics, concrete paths; Washington Park takes the image of City Parkland to a new level. Here to offer anyone who desires a day away from the hustle and bustle of city life, is a range of attractions. The International Rose Garden, the Hoyt Arboretum, the Pittock Mansion, to name a few, but just walking the spiral cord of paths here is enough to amaze and excite. It's like someone took a path, like a piece of string, and laid it out casually over this park,you never know where your chosen route will lead to and that, for me, is the great attraction about this place.

Wildlife is always good at announcing its presence, and then seeming invisible, even after the most thorough scrutiny. Squirrels chomp madly at their nutty lunch, and then scamper off up a tree trunk, to a place shielded from a buzzing photographer's view. (They've got cameras so wrong; they must learn that we just desire one clear photo!) I did get this image of an East Towhee, a sparrow. They like to spend their time in the undergrowth, but are incredibly sensitive, even to the reticent sounds of my camera motors.

My serendipitous wander through Washington Park eventually led me to the International Rose Test Garden. I wish I was here in the summer, to marvel with glee over all the blossoming roses. Now the fall had arrived here at Portland, the roses had been dead headed. Trimmed stems were scattered all over the park, and there was a great sense of potential here. Although not in flower, I enjoyed wandering around and reading their names: 'Secret', 'Little Anne', 'Dreams'. I sat on a nicely positioned park bench by the corner of the main bed, and over the monotonous drones of traffic in the city in the distance, I heard a rustling in the nearby bushes. Nature being scarce again.

Bordering the Rose Garden was the Hoyt Arbortum. Unlike Seattle's, Portland should be proud to have such a grand arboretum. Mile upon mile of hiking trails, weaving around a dense and flourishing collection of some of the world's most celebrated flora. No portion of the arboretum is barren; and just a day's hike cannot begin to cover this all-encompassing environment. It's a pick and mix bag of plants; the most experienced botanist can only guess what might come next. Despite this medley, everything seems to fit together, in what must have been a tough job in the designing department. The Hoyt Arboretum, in a nutshell, is a completed 1000 piece jigsaw; every piece a different species, but fit together to create a living musuem.

From the good ol' English Oak, to the Himalayan Lilac and the Redwood. The Redwood group are just statuesque; no other words to describe them. It's satisfying to know that here nature really does rule. The bark is rustic with a toasted look about it, as if it has just come out the oven and sprinkled with cinammon; the kind of tan a well cooked flapjack would give. I can't wait to go to the Redwoods in San Francisco.

I did quite a few hours of hiking, in what seemed like an endless labyrinth of trails. Eventually I found what looked like a space dedicated for picnics, so decided to eat lunch there. There I was, miles away from the city again and very content about the distance I'd covered. I sat, munching on my Granola Cereal Bar and my thoughts. If a tree had eyes, would it become bored with its view? How could something so deeply rooted into one spot explore to the extent that I am on this trip. Call me mad, or call me sad, but I pondered over it. Perhaps trees are better explorers than humans. Their mile-length roots delve deep into an underground world; a world that we as humans hardly see unless we dig and disrupt it. Trees, like the Redwood, are so altitudinous, and have a panoramic view of the skyline both day and night; something even the most experienced pilots can't match. Trees are visited by some of the most incredible fauna; species we as humans can sometimes get only a mere passing glance of. Finally, some trees live thousands of years, and are passed by generation after generation of visitors. From one spot, they possibly are the best explorers that this planet has, and I love the fact that the Hoyt Arboretum has gone to all efforts in protecting thousands of them.

Upon more walking this afternoon, I came across something I had planned to see later in the week, but as I was so close, I decided to make an early trip. The Pittock Mansion is perhaps the most remarkable of buildings in Portland, nestled 1000 feet above sea level. (Had I walked that far?) It once was home to Henry and Georgiana Pittock from 1914 to 1919, notable people that gave a lot to the early 20th century Portland population. I didn't go in today, but could see from the exterior, its grandeur. It's easy to understand why this place is regularly visited, both from local residents and those, like me, from far away.

Perhaps one of the best attributes about this place are the views that it overlooks. Yesterday I got a glimpse of Portland, from the east, and it was very satisfying to finally see it from the other side. I could make out Mount Hood and indeed Mount Tabor, set in the background behind what looked, once again, a very dynamic city.

The Sun was setting, and I had a long walk back. For the purposes of not getting lost, I took the same route back, but in the late afternoon sunlight, had a bit of fun, experimenting with my camera. It's great to be able to cover such a distance and be able to stop, and it's even more fulfilling to be able to see this level of natural activity in a city park. Tomorrow should see some more exploration downtown.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

SCHOLARSHIP DAY 89: Mount Tabor- My walk on an extinct volcano cone

I thought it was time for some more volcanoes on this scholarship; the last ones I came across were travelling from Seward to Homer, in Alaska, way back in early September! Portland is very lucky to have an extinct volcanic cinder cone on its doorstep, so I awoke early this morning, and decided to hike to it. I use the word hike, because I had to trek 5 miles uphill to it from Portland city centre. There was a bus incidentally going there, but I refused the comforts of public transport. After all, it was another gloriously sunny day, and one should take advantage of these moments of sunshine; you never know what's going to happen tomorrow!

My walk to Mount Tabor, this site of special geological interest which has taken the name from the Tabor in Isreal, took me into all corners of Portland's diverse cityscape. From the bustling monday morning business taking place in the central district, I weaved my way in between entrepreneurs to reach the Morrison Bridge. It just so happened that the bridge was going up (again) to let another over-sized boat through, which made me wonder how many times a day do these bridges have to stop traffic and cause brief lapses of irritating traffic congestion? Once I had crossed, my next stretch on this mini marathon to Mount Tabor was actually underneath it. Some steep steps led me down to the bleak and dirty understory of the city, and no more than half an hour after I was dodging people in suits with briefcases, I was now making my way passed the homeless. Cardboard laid pavements led me to a small shack with what looked like the meeting centre for all these unlucky residents. It was once again like walking through another country, as if this little stretch of Portland was dismembered from twenty-first century civilisation. How many people who were crossing the bridge above realised what they were passing over?

I soon found my way back to what looked more like Portland. It was now a solid one road stretch to Mount Tabor, and I had 60 avenues to go through. I calculated that it would take me no more than hour to do this bit, and I was right, arriving at Mount Tabor Parkland in good time. It's amazing the distance you can make out if you put your best foot forward. Mount Tabor has now been made into a park, so I wasn't surprised to suddenly find myself positively engulfed by lush vegetation. Trees, hundreds of years old, towered above me, watching my every step up the steep slopes of this special site.

A few things caught my eye, as I made my first exploratory movements through Mount Tabor. It seems that Mount Tabor has gone all out to attract as many people as possible to it, setting out three walks of differing difficulty for those like me who like to hike. For those more into the sports, a basketball court had been constructed. There was also a playground for the younger and a picnic area, and even a car park! Beside the car park, I came across these granite boulders, originally from the cinder cone before it was converted into a park area for all. They showed signs of succession; pioneer species such as moss and lichens had made these large historic rocks their home.

I also came across these Tibetan Cherry trees, just another asian tree that Portland allows to thrive. I love the Tibetan Cherry and how it peels these glossy copper brown strips.

One last little word on the tree front. (This blog I reckon sometimes should be called Trees with Dan, but it's actually quite interesting, and can tell you a lot about an area's climate, both past and present.) I noticed this contortioned tree trunk, that was obstructing the path around the basketball court. This is intraspecies competition; members of the same species fighting for the same resources, and in this case, the trunk's contorting shape could suggest it's trying to find the most light as possible.

The soil here on this cinder cone is typcially red in colour, and I didn't expect anything else. The red shows a presence of Iron, very typical in volcanic soils. If you look carefully, there's evidence of some geological uplift here, as the soil horizons are sloping slightly. Humus and a thin organic layer then makes up the litter horizon which supports the vegetation above.

I moved on to the other side of the cinder cone, with views looking east towards Mount St Helens and Mount Hood. Ah, my first proper sighting of Mount St. Helens. Here's a famous stratovolcano! I couldn't get the best picture of it, but Mount Hood was right in my viewpoint, so I took many oppotunities to capture this equally impressive mountain on film. The people who live with views towards these giants are extremely lucky.

Walking round to the western ridge of Mount Tabor, I realised that this park was even more diverse than I first thought. Here was true resourcefullness. A couple of reservoirs that serve the city are maintained here. By no means are they large, but their elevation over Portland city centre, must ease the worries of hydraulic pressure and the such. I decided to find myself a sun-drenched park bench, and I stroke lucky, finding one that not just overlooked the park and the reservoir, but offered fine views of Portland.

I realise now that I have made several trips to city parks over the last week or so. Is this the wilderness-loving part of me that misses Alaska? I think so. Regretfully, I made the long walk back to the city. My long walk back to the hostel was rewarded with a parcel; my laptop charger has finally arrived! You have never seen someone so happy to see a piece of post!

SCHOLARSHIP DAY 88: First Day in Portland

I awoke early this moning keen to explore Portland in much the same way that I first delved into Seattle. My plan was to walk down every avenue of the downtown district, but before I could set off on my adventure, a shopping trip was required, and I was glad to see a Safeway in the city. With the excellent discount card that Sarah and Bill gave me in Alaska, I can make a week's food and drink cost only $17.72! It also seems this superstore is trying to tone the arms of its shoppers, providing large brown paper bags with no handles. For most, a small trip to the boot of a car would be fine to make without handles, but I had a 20 minute walk to do, and wasn't best comfortable on it at all. Perserverance got me through, I unloaded the shopping and then set out to explore Portland.

Blue sky was easing its way over Portland by the time I made it out the hostel, and I was pleased to feel the warmth of the radiating sunlight on me after so many months of very weak aubade. Using the same method from Seattle, I started from the west and slowly headed east, trotting up and down each and every avenue between Alder Street in the north to Market Street in the south. The first highlight on my trip were these very special trees. It took some researching, but they're Ginkgo biloba (Ginkgo or Maidenhair trees). They're a living fossil, having first been discovered 270 million years ago. It's a Chinese tree by native origin but is well distributed. Here, the leaves are starting to blanket the ground. One of their most recognisable features, and what led me to finding out what it actually was, are the leaves; they have fan shaped leaves like nothing else I've seen.

On first inspection, I got the feeling Portland was doing its very best to cling onto it's history whilst simultaneously trying to keep the city up to date in transport, infrastructure, and energy efficiency. The transport system here is widespread and whilst a day pass is $5, there's a free zone for the city centre.  It's a system with a modern timetable, but if you wish, you can board the Vintage Tram which may cost a little more, but as the name reads, is vintage, both in physical shape and the costumes that the conductor wears. Further on my walk, I managed to capture the old and new in the same shot. A church from the late 1800s is in the foreground, whilst a skyscraper lingers behind, sporting a couple of wind turbines on its roof.

Portland is a much more greener city than Seattle I feel, not just because it's doing it's bit in renewable energy sector, but by the number of parks it maintains. Moreover, every avenue seems to accomodate a strip of land dedicated to trees; I later learnt that there had been a widespread tree growing scheme here in the 1970s. It's nice to see so much nature here in the city. I spent about half an hour eating my lunch amongst lush vegetation, and I wasn't the only one. Joining me to feast were Ravens and even a grey squirrel although he was a little more camera shy than the one I saw in Seattle. A Herringull watched me from a distance, and started to call out supposedly to his friends in the area advertising that there was a strange man in a red jacket making a mess. What he didn't know was that I was purposefully making crumbs so that he could enjoy the remains of my lunch when I departed. I wonder if he enjoyed Oat and Honey cereal bar crumbs?

My last supplement of evidence to show that Portland is serious about this 'green' image is this skyscraper. Alone, with what must be an all year round superb view, is this tree; it's rooftop gardening being taken to the next level.

The walk continued, in and out each avenue, and soon I was in the heart of the CBD, with big names staring at me, such as Nordstrom and Banana Republic. (Well, they're big over here!) I popped into Radioshack and enquired about laptop chargers. If mine doesn't arrive tomorrow, then I'm making a rapid yet unfortunate purchase. The salesman seemed to sympathise with my more than little understanding of electrical assessories, and recommended me to bring in the laptop to get the best buy. I will do this tomorrow, if the post doesn't knock up anything.

All along the pedestrian routes of the city are these little fountains, also known as the Benson Bubblers. They were created to promote temperance and they worked. Portland alcohol consumption has reduced 25% since the bubblers have been installed. I have to admit to having some fears over the sanitation side of things, and prefer to have my own water bottle, (or even better, my own Sprite bottle).

Before long, I had paraded up and down every avenue in the downtown district and slowly was headed for the river; the Willamette River. As the Sun was beginning to make it's western descent, it beamed down on a carpet of autumnal red.

At the water's edge, was a picturesque view of the Hawthorne Bridge, a champion bit of engineering itself, and from a large tree trunk that had capsised on the narrow strip of beach, I sat and watched as it let a vessel pass under it. It has a unique way of making the bridge high enough for boats; instead of separating in the middle, Hawthorne Bridge just lifts a segment of it, maintaining an 180 degree angle at all times.

I just had to investigate further and made time to go over it. It has pedestrian access, and seems to attract the strollers (people like me) and those on a workout. Many joggers and cyclists passed me on what was a very generous pavement for us, the motorless of Portland. The view from the other side of the city was just as incredible as the bridge itself!

There was just enough time to explore China Town- Portland Style. Unlike Seattle, which as I reported had a North/South divide of class, here in Portland there is more of a West/East divide. The affluent have accomodated the western strip, and those homeless and worse for wears have set up camp in the east. Quite literally in fact. Just inside of China Town is a space dedicated to those without a roof; cardboard is laid out on the floor, and old cloth is hooked up for shelter. The whole complex is a little surreal; for one minute, this felt like a 3rd world country. A site of dispair, and a poignant reminder to all who live with everything they desire. Suddenly, the laptop charger didn't seem that significant. China Town was smaller than Seattle's with less overall impact, I felt. There certainly seemed to be less segregation between the Chinese and the Americans. The town here also has an entrance, with this characteristically Chinese red arch.

I headed back towards the hostel, now a little foot-weary. Tomorrow would include another long 12 mile walk to Mount Tabor, so an early night for me. Hopefully the laptop charger comes!

SCHOLARSHIP DAY 87: Leaving Seattle for Portland- First Greyhound Experience

Unlike yesterday's thundery downpours, I woke up this morning with blue sky. Today would be a travelling day; I would be using the Greyhound service for the first time to transport me from Seattle to Portland. Although the weather didn't really synchronise with my plans today, I put it down to Sod's law, and got on with it.

Ever since I arrived in America, I've heard so many mixed views about the Greyhound transport. Some say they're fantastic, offering fine views of some parts of America you wouldn't usually visit. These people seem to be the optimistic ones. A large group of experienced 'Greyhounders' report the contrary; the coaches are small, stuffy, and smelly, full of dull, dirty, and dangerous people. Well, it was about time I set out to make my own opinion.

My coach would leave at 1:10pm, but I assumed there would be some security check element to the boarding procedure so I arrived at the station at just after 12:30pm. I was right about the security. The station was typically dirty, with a feeling of helplessness about it. Southbound travellers had to be in line 2; everyone looked miserable, tired, and perhaps a little less excited about using Greyhound than I was. It was very difficult to smile in here. If I did, I imagined everyone would stare as if to ask why I was happy about the prospect of spending four hours packed into a tight crowded spot. And so I joined the monotonous melancholic line.

We boarded late, and I managed to secure a seat next to the window and on the right hand side of the bus, which would provide the best views. (Or so I was told back in England.) There was still the chance that someone would sit next to me. Normally I would welcome this, as a traveller should always be in conversation, but today I just wanted some peace and space; some 'me' time from Seattle to Portland. I figured that if I started rummaging through my bag placed on the seat next to me, in a frenzied state, it would deter passing passengers from asking to sit there. Cunning, but it worked!

We were on our way, exiting Seattle south onto the freeway, and going through some dramatic scenery changes. One minute, the skyscrapers that leave you dizzy, to the small suburban housing, and finally the open countryside. The first stop on our journey to Portland was Tacoma. Once upon a time I had planned to stay in Tacoma; from the bus, it didn't look anything exciting on a major scale.

When we entered Olympia, a little before 2:00pm, we were allowed a ten minute rest and stretch so I made a quick little walk to the front of the Eugene Greyhound station where this sign caught me eye.

Seeing America by bus may not be as glamerous as the train or plane, but it does let you see parts of America that those other options don't allow. It's very hard to see anything up close on a plane, and to read any signs on a fast-speed train. The Greyhound coach so far had let me literally 'see America'. We left Olympia, picking up a few more passengers, and letting a few off, and still I had managed to keep the seat next to me spare.

From Olympia came a long drive to Portland with only a couple of stops in small towns, where we didn't even pick anybody up in. Now the scenery was changing and I was seeing a much more flat landscape, serving most probably as a drainage basin. Not much was growing here though, despite the fact I did see some farmyards dotted here and there. As we continued on, pastoral farming took hold; I was seeing cows- just like the ones back in England- on what now was land with a gradient. That's often the case.

I was managing to keep awake, just! Usually on long trips, I would be dozing in and out, and would experience a very episodic form of the trip. Today, the excitement of exploring North-West America was keeping me alert. Despite my decision to stay awake, the Sun was beginning to go to sleep and I was left with a very mixed sky. Nimbus were on the way, and sure enough, ten minutes later, down poured the rain.

We entered Portland over a bridge, but by the time we arrived just after five, the night sky was out and I couldn't see much of my temporary residence, which was I suppose, a good thing. I could finally get some sleep and explore the city fresh tomorrow morning.

Oh, by the way, the charger still hasn't arrived here in Portland. I'm beginning to wonder whether it's gone to Portland, Dorset! Until then, I'm forced to use just my iPod.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

SCHOLARSHIP DAY 86: Black Friday Parade, Seattle Aquarium and Fireworks

The power of spontaneity never ceases to amaze me. I was eating my breakfast this morning, which these days consists of cereals and toast, when I suddenly saw on live local television news, a parade taking place in the city centre. Naturally, therefore, I rushed down the remaining cereal and ran to be part of it. The rain was lashing down, and would do for most of the day, but still I dodged puddle (and in some places what could be classed as a small pond) to get a good viewing spot. Fortunately, I reached a good enough position in order to take in all the action.

It's amazing to think that yesterday, this city was a ghost town, with Thanksgiving a suitable enough reason to stay indoors with the family. Within twenty-four hours, that reserved atmosphere had manifested into a city very much alive; a multi-cultural community joining in the rhythms of street celebration that this parade was providing. Why was there a parade in the first place? Well, today is not only Black Friday, but the start of Winter Fest; a season full of winter activities that the people of Seattsle and far beyond can take part in. Macy's Superstore were the ones organising this street parade, which in format, were like the Flower Shows of the Channel Islands.

Lots of people were taking part in what couldn't have been very comfortable weather to be wearing any particular costume or uniform. By the time the performers, musicians or dancers had reached my part of the course, they had obviosuly endured all they could bear, and were starting to lose any feeling of jubilation they originally had!

I had planned to go on a cruise that woul offer great views of the city, but looking out towards Elliot Bay, the rain was shielding any view I had of the boats and I figured it would probably be more hassle than it was worth. The rain was starting to become heavier and more persistant now, but having said that, my bag waterproofing was working a treat! It seems that rain- or indeed any precipitation- lands in Seattle more frequently than one would hope for. I think it's also proud of this fact; why else, then, would they display a large broken umbrella in the middle of an avenue?

With the cruise crossed of the list, my next place to visit was the Seattle Aquarium. I've heard good reports from people who have previously been so it was worth a go. It's amazing how rain can affect your mood; the simplest and smallest of things were starting to irritate me, like the crying of a baby, or someone walking straight in front of me. My jeans were rather damp and uncomfortable, but making the best of it as I could, I continued around the aquarium. The Aquarium is split into two sections: the fish side of things and then everything else from sea birds to otters and sea lions. Other than this split, there really wasn't anything remarkably unusual about this place, but it was great to once again see the wide variety of wildlife that lives in the depths below.

I had arrived just in time for a live feeding demostration, and although the commentary was probably aimed at young children, this was something that Seward SeaLife center in Alaska never offered. Sea Otter were popular with the photographers; they lay resting on the water, and why not? It must be hard being an otter; sleeping, eating, swimming and drinking- all day, everyday.

There were some center exhibits that allowed visitors to touch, such as the Starfish. I was guarenteed by one of the volunteers that these would not attack upon such unwished for probing, so I went for it! I've never stroked a Starfish; the skin feels much more tough than I first expected.

My final Seattle experience was going to be a special one; I would literally be seeing the city off with a bang, as Westlake Center were holding a special live music concert and fireworks. Still the rain pursued, but with the right gear, standing outside isn't that bad. I managed to get a good position to hear the concert, but couldn't always see what was going on. A large Christmas tree was lit, and momentarily afterwards, the fireworks began. It was a great way to see off Seattle. Before I leave tomorrow afternoon to go to Portland, I will make one last trip around the city, and then brace myself for my first ever Greyhound Bus ride, which by all accounts, should be an interesting time!