Tuesday, April 29, 2008

last orders in la-la land ...

I've not been sure what to write about our weekend in LA.

We had a really nice time meeting up with our friends Sean, John & Laura, but I didn't take any photos, and how interesting is hearing about other peoples dinner (tea if you're from Yorkshire) and shopping trips? Not very I suspect.

I know you're only interested in the drinking.

After dinner on our last evening we headed to one of Pasadena's bars for a quick drink. I don't know if it's the same for you, but whenever that is the pretext for an evening out it inevitably ends up being anything but quick. This is always bad news, but especially when you have to leave for the airport at 5.30am.

We met lots of interesting locals during the evening. The ones I'll remember most are the couple who walked up and by way of an introduction asked me if I used to play the trumpet as a child. No, only the fool I told them.

We got talking and it turned out they were on a date the format of which they had decided would be a treasure hunt - finding people who had played various instruments in childhood was one of the questions.

As the conversation turned to pets we found out the guy had a female cat called Zeus. In retrospect this was obviously a setup and when Mel made the comment we were all thinking - "surely that's a boys name?" the girl let out massive "YYYY-ES!!" and punched the air as she crossed one more off her list.

Later, and after receiving a complimentary pint of Guiness in return for helping the barman to sign You'll Never Walk Alone (a transaction I still don't fully understand) I looked up just in time to see the girl from earlier giving her boyfriend a piggyback through the bar.

I checked my watch and confirmed it was indeed that time of night. 3am.

Otherwise known as stupid o'clock ...

Of course you really just want to know how this affects the league ...

After sampling Woodie Gold, Sierra Nevada Summerfest and Beech Wood Red I got a bit of a scare as the bar menu described Blue Moon (sampled in late 2007) as a Canadian Beer. A spot of internet research has revealed that despite being owned by a Canadian company, Blue Moon is very much a US brewed beer, so the current total stands at 149.

I hope I'll be able to find at least one more in New York ..

Sunday, April 27, 2008

getting our kicks on route 66 ...

After 3 nights in Vegas I'd had my fill, so I was glad to set out into the desert for one final road trip.

After the relative excitement of driving across the top of the Hoover Dam, the highway running through the Arizona desert was dull, dull, dull. A whole hour without the slightest curve or kink made me very glad indeed of cruise control - never again will I think of motorway driving in the UK as boring.

We spent the night at the old Route 66 town of Williams just 60 miles south of Grand Canyon National Park, which nowadays has reinvented itself as a tourist gateway, with restored 1950's diners.

A we drove out to the canyon the following morning we nearly hit a roadrunner crossing the highway - having now had the opportunity to observe both a Coyote and a Roadrunner, I feel qualified to raise a few issues with the classic cartoon.

Running out front of cars is just plain stupid. However, the Coyote we saw displayed his wiley characteristics perfectly as he stalked a small herd of deer - wandering off casually behind a building after being sighted, only to reappear moments later from a completely different direction. In real life I just don't think there would be any contest, much less the need to spend a small fortune at ACME.

But the biggest question is why? Roadruners are tinier than the cartoon makes out. In fact I reckon you'd probably get more meat on your average housesparrow. I can't see that in real life a Coyote would even bother.

The Grand Canyon was well worth the journey, and if anything possibly more impressive than I had expected. After taking in several viewpoints, the return journey gave us the opportunity to take the more scenic route for a couple of hours along the 66. It was just a small taster of the classic road trip from Los Angeles to Chicago, but I think the full route would make an excellent holiday - and current exchange rates I doubt there'll ever be a better time to do it.

We'd had a great day, but as we took lunch in a classic 1950's Soda fountain (think lemonade, with vanilla ice-cream and fresh cherries) I couldn't help thinking Mel had let all this talk of cartoons go to her head ...

Finding new beers to sample is becoming increasingly difficult but as we stayed just outside Vegas I got to sample of couple of hitherto unseen beers from Utah at a local wine bar.

My eye was especially drawn to the Polygamy Porter and after ordering a bottle I was even more amused by the strapline on the bottle - Why only have one?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

bringing down the house ...

I'd never really thought Vegas would be my sort of place.

Checking out flights from Denver to California I discovered that rather than flying direct it was cheaper to stop over in Vegas, stay in a 4-star hotel for 3 nights and hire a convertible sports car for 2 days.

So of course that's what we did.

Nothing I saw in the first 24 hours altered my preconceptions, and on the second afternoon I found myself having to escape to the hotel pool to avoid the pulsating neon and crowds of loud margharita swilling tourists wandering the strip.

The first evening we'd restricted ourselves to a few dollars in the 1 cent slot machines (at one stage reaching the dizzying heights of a $5 profit), but no trip to Sin City would be complete without at least trying our hand at some slightly more serious gambling.

Our budget is by no means "hardcore backpacker", but neither is it endless. After blowing $50 in just 20 minutes playing roulette we thought we figured we wouldn't be spending much of our time playing the $10 minimum bet table games.

Since reading Bringing Down the House earlier in the trip (watch out for the film, it's a great story) I'd been keen to at least try playing blackjack, so we decided to commit just another $40 to a few quick hands - our main objective being to spin things out long enough to land a free round of drinks.

So we were quite suprised when 3 hours later we were still playing and had managed to increase our stake five-fold to $200 - and almost as good we'd had at least a dozen free drinks each.

Compared to the MIT students in the book we might only have brought down the equivalent of a small garden shed, but despite my expectations we had a great time here.

I found another 4 beers here from the aptly named Sin City Brewing Company, taking the current total to 144 as we enter the last week of the trip.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

the denver dozen ...

Any concerns I might have had about the magnitude of my self imposed target of 150 beers for the league are now a thing of the past.

This weekend I was introduced to Total Beverage, a super-sized liquor warehouse where they have 6 whole chillers full of pick 'n' mix beer (top). With 9 varieties of microbrewed beer on each shelf (no repeats) I calculated a staggering 324 different bottled microbrews to choose from.

At this late stage in our trip staying in Denver for a month to sample them all was out of the question so I had to be content with just four before we heaed out for the evening with our friends Cathy and Leon took us for a fantastic seafood meal at their local branch of Bonefish Grill.
If there was a downside it was only minor, just one new beer on the menu, the "low alcohol" Michelob Ultra. Hitting the magic 150 is one thing, but not if you have to compromise your principles.

After dinner it all came right with a visit to the nearby Rock Bottom microbrewery where it didn't take long for me to decide from a long menu of choices - their 8 beer sampler (below), served on laminated tasting notes.

A move as natural as it was good.

A big thanks to Cathy and Leon for all their hospitality during our weekend in Denver - we had a great time and the beer league wouldn't be in such great shape without you.

With 140 beers now sampled, the target for the rest of the trip has come into sharp focus - a beer a day for the next 10 days ...

Saturday, April 19, 2008

the joy of six ...

I've just found a very useful facility in the liqour store near our cabin in the rockies - a whole shelf of beer from which you are encouraged to "pick'n'mix" your own six pack.

Better still, I managed to fill my hopper with 6 beers I hadn't tried yet.

Being from small breweries they all have interesting names like Mothership Wit, Tommyknocker Maple Nut Brown Ale, Road Dog and my personal favourite - Moose Drool. Add another couple sampled on the way up here and we have 8 more beers for the league, bringing the total upto 128.

With just two weeks left to go I've decided to set myself a challenging target - 150 before I return to the UK.

So it's lucky that we're going to Denver next. Apparently they have more microbreweries than anywhere else in the US - although even I won't be able to sample all the output in just 36 hours.

But I will try ...

Friday, April 18, 2008

snowed in ...

First stop over the border into Colorado was the old mining town of Silverton.

Located in a secluded valley over 9,000 feet high in the mountains and surrounded by snow-capped peaks, winter was still in evidence here with snow reaching the upper storeys of some buildings as we explored the historic town.

It was here that we discovered that it is not only Bolivia where you can get a high altitude hangover. Of course it wasn't really our fault - the only place open after 7pm was the local tavern.

In fact, the following morning's hangover was so bad I had to continually fight the urge to stop and bury my head in the snow drifts for relief. But despite the headaches our drive through the stunning Red Canyon was fantastic with superb far reaching views and 12-foot long icicles hanging by the side of the road.

It wasn't until lunchtime the following day that we reached Rocky Mountains National Park in the north of Colorado.

After stocking up on supplies at the local store we found a cabin for the evening just as a snowstorm was beginning to hit. By 6pm there was already 3 inches of snow on the ground and the temperature had fallen to -4C, but it takes more than that to stop us making full use of the hot tub - the contrast in temperatures was invigorating.

Especially the walk to and from the cabin in flip-flops.

We're having such a good time here that we've abandoned our plans to visit Boulder in favour of another two nights in the cabin.

Driving around the National Park by day offers some unbeatable views, but we've discovered that the wildlife around our cabin is just as plentiful as in the protected area. Every day we've seen scores of ground squirrels and deer, and even a coyote hanging around this morning.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

truth or consequences ...

If we hadn't already known Texas is the "bible belt" of the US, we'd have worked it out pretty quickly arriving in El Paso.

As I went in search of the indoor pool I stumbled across an audience of several hundred in one of the hotels atriums. Some kind of religious conference was in full swing, with loud clapping and cheering at every other sentence.

In the process of collecting our hire car we discovered there are two kinds of clientelle at the airport here, groups of teenagers wearing a uniform of bible camp t-shirts, or military types from the nearby Fort Bliss sporting crew cuts and combats.

It struck me just how easily religion and the machinery of war sit side by side here - yet somehow we never seem to hear much about the dangers of Christian fundamentalism in the media.

Driving into New Mexico our first stop was the unusually named town of Truth or Consequences, who intially won their name on a radio show - you can read more about that here. After spending the night in a refurbished 1950's motel we hit the hot springs, enjoying a private pool along the banks of the Rio Grande overlooking turtleback mountain.

Food in Mexico tends to be quite different from the Mexican food we enjoy at home, which is probably more accurately described as Tex-Mex (i.e the americanised version) and to my taste at least far nicer.

Here of course they prefer to use the term New Mexican.

Continuing the drive north we stopped at a diner in Albuquerque for lunch where I had the nicest burrito I'm ever likely to taste (stuffed with chilli con carne and refried beans, topped with loads of cheese, guacamole and sour cream) - hardly diet food, but then again we are on holiday - which has been the universal excuse for pretty much everything over the last 50 weeks.

Our final stop in New Mexico was the town of Santa Fe in the high desert, characterised by it's trademark adobe buildings. To be honest, it all seemed a bit manufactured - even the town carpark (below) got the same treatment ...

Sunday, April 13, 2008

friends reunited ...

There is a temptation to think of everywhere in Central and South America as being fairly close together. Not so.

The final leg of our journey began by taking the 10 hour flight from Buenos Aires to Mexico City, which is actually the same distance as travelling from the north coast of Ireland to Botswana.

I know this because Mel's Dad, Robert, worked it out for us.

Using the trusted method of measuring out the distance on his map between forefinger and thumb, then making an arc out from Ballycastle to identify destinations of the same distance from his home. Hardly scientific, but pretty accurate all the same I reckon.

Leaving the capital we headed up to Los Mochis for the classic Copper Canyon Train to Chihuahua (above). The ride of 16 hours took us through stunning scenery, clinging to the edge of steep canyons and traversing single guage bridges over numerous lakes, rivers and valleys.

However, the fantastic train ride was quickly forgotten though as we discovered the state of our hotel in Chihuahua - the worst part being that our arrival in the middle of the night didn't really give us the option of taking our business elsewhere.

I'll spare you the goriest of the details, but Mel was forced into wearing flip flops due to a sudden onset of carpet-phobia and our shower curtain rail was partially constructed using a bar of soap. You get the idea.

Classic rail journeys are one thing, but perhaps even better our brief return to Mexico gave us the chance to catch up with a few old amigos.

Victoria, Montejo, Tecate and of course, Modelo Especial (below).

Still reigning numero uno in the beer league.

Those of you paying really close attention will have noticed this is in fact an export bottle of Modelo.

I forgot while actually in Mexico, but it wasn't to hard to pick up a six-pack as we crossed the border into the Texas.

More on that next time ...

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

one last tango ...

Suddenly we found ourselves with just a few short days to cram in everything we had promised to do during our month in Buenos Aires.

Perhaps the biggest highlight of our final weekend was taking in a Tango Show in Bar Sur, an atmospheric bar situated on a cobbled backstreet in our neighbourhood of San Telmo with just a dozen tiny tables pushed back against the walls to make space for the musicians and dancers.

Our evenings entertainment was a 2 hour repetoire of tango standards on piano, violin, guitar and accordion - accompanied by the occasional ageing crooner it matched the historic surroundings of the bar (and of course a bottle of bubbly).

Of course the highlight of the show were the professional dancers, with the characteristic between-the-legs kicks of the ladies in 4-inch heels seeming to pass perilously close to the male dancers unmentionables. The show was made all the more impressive for the extreme lack of floorspace and it required inch-perfect coordination to avoid accidents of all types.

One more Boca Juniors game, a final steak and we were ready to close the door for the last time on our apartment in San Telmo.

I can only think of one last word to adequately describe our time here.


I also had a final opportunity to raid the Argentine beer cellar for last minute additions to the league and came up with another five, one in particular the simply outstanding Palermo at 90%.

I only ever saw it in our local supermarket, but due to mistaking the label for a wheat beer I didn't try it until the final few days. Just goes to show that appearances can be deceiving!

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Recycled in Buenos Aires ...

The financial crisis in 2002 left a lot of Argentines out of work, but like every cloud it had a silver lining.

Or in this case, green.

Granted it's little to compensate for the huge-dirty-great-black cloud that is financial collapse, but I doubt whether the cities recycling has ever been in better shape.

As businesses and housholds put their rubbish out every evening, thousands of unofficial recyclers descend on the city centre to sift through the days waste before the refuse collection lorries make their rounds. Cardboard seems to be the major prize on offer here - so much so that they even have a special name for the people that collect it.

Meet the Cartoneros.

Even in the so-called developed world it's fairly common to see the poor and homeless collecting aluminium cans for recycling (in Cambodia we even had kids following us, waiting to collect cans we were mid-way through drinking), but what really impresses here is the collective effort.

Households actually take the trouble to separate out the rubbish that has value (cans, carboard etc.) to make it easier for the recyclers to deal with. I'm not sure which is the biggest motivator, green tendencies, human empathy or just attempts to keep the street clean - either way the effect is great recycling.

I may not have joined the ranks of the Cartoneros, but you'll be pleased to know I'm doing my bit too. Not only do we pre-sort the rubbish from our apartment, but I've been recycling tremendous quantities of glass bottles almost every day over the past month. Beer bottles of course.

The deposit of $1.50 (pesos) on a litre bottle is over half the cost of the actual beer ($2.70) - thus ensuring almost every bottle in the city gets returned to the brewery for refilling. Our local supermarket even reuses the plastic bag you bring the empties back with for the full ones.

I think the current bag has made about 25 trips now ...

My guide to using the Guia T has just been published over on Day 12, where my blog is also featured this month ...

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

getting stuffed on the empanada trail ...

We'll be leaving Argentina in a few days time, but I couldn't move on without giving a mention to the humble empanada.

A bit like an extra-tasty miniature cornish pasty, they are available with a wide variety of fillings and are sold absolutely everywhere, from bakeries to top-end restaurants as starters. To put it quite simply the Argentines are empanada crazy, and after several weeks here a little of the madness has rubbed off on us too.

So when our friend Sherri emailed from Melbourne with a link to this interesting article by Dan whose secret restaurant we visited the evening beforehand, we started to wonder, would be possible to visit each of the empanada vendors in a single day?

And what if you had to take public transport aided by a copy of the Guia T?

The gauntlet was laid down.

First came the planning. Aside from a couple of "hot spots" with outlets a few blocks apart the locations were spread throughout the city so it was important to try and minimise travel time and connections. I won't go into detail but let's just say it involved four hours, various improvised diagrams and quite a bit of swearing before I finally managed to map out a circuit in preparation for the following morning.

On the back of arriving home at 4am the previous evening, we didn't get started until 11.40am, and we set off for the 15 minute walk to the bakery of La Familia. Thankfully empanadas are great hangover food and served in Santiago de Estero style here they didn't dissapoint - still warm from the oven, the crisp light pastry was filled with a tasty mix of mince, onion and chopped egg. It was our first food of the day and we had to curb our natural instincts to order a second, remembering we had a further 9 stores to visit.

From here we jumped on the subway to the city centre and the small restaurant of Los Chilenos where we sat down and ordered a coffee and empanada apiece. Our waiter returned from the kitchen with devastating news. No empanadas due to lack of beef. It appears we are caught in the midst of a seige situation as farmers blockades attempt to starve the capital into submission. You can read more here.

We quickly moved on.

Just a few blocks away we found El Federal, specialising in Patagonian cuisine. Panic buying is a feature of all good sieges so here we decided to go for their tempting gustation platter (above) of 6 empanadas with beef, lamb, cheese and humita (sweetcorn & cheese) fillings. We found the pastry a touch greasy but the fillings were to die for, the best one being melt-in-the-mouth patagonian lamb.

Taking our first bus of the day to Barrio Norte we arrived at La Cocina - a cafeteria/takeway joint with walls covered in fading rock and reggae posters. We were back in pastry heaven with their Catamarca style empanadas, which we sampled in ricotta and ham, and chicken varieties. Even though we were beginning to feel a little bit sick we thought the fillings were pretty good too.

It was almost a relief when we found the nearby La Querencia closed as it gave us 30 minutes of digestion time while we took another bus out to the suburb of Palermo Viejo. Not only were both the restaurants here closed but Mel had started saying things like "I'm going to be sick" and "I'll get you back for this". It didn't bode well.

Other than a brief interlude where we unexpectedly found ourselves wandering through the middle of a film set as we walked through Palermo Viejo it had been a wasted journey. So when we arrived at our next destination in Belgrano to find it too was very much closed, it prompted Mel to unleash the threat of the ultimate weapon.

Handbag shopping.

We were on the next bus home.

Mel has an irrational fear of sweetcorn, an intolerance of peppers and quite frankly "wasn't in the mood" for the final one (not on Dan's list) I had with my coffee just before we caught the bus home, but here's how they stack up.

Marks for pastry and filling are out of 10, overall out of 20, averaged where applicable.


La Familia

Mel 8/5
Mark 8/7

El Federal

Queso 10.5
Mel 5/6
Mark 5/5

Carne 12
Mark 5/7

Humita 11
Mark 5/6

Lamb 13
Mel 5/8
Mark 5/8

La Cocina

Ricotta/ham 14
Mel 7/7
Mark 7/7

Chicken 13.5
Mel 7/6
Mark 7/7


Rquefort 12
Mark 6/6

Moving on to stuffing of a different kind, I'm pleased to report that the eagle creek pack system is continuing to perform excellently. Although I didn't need to main bag for our recent trip to Uruguay I still used one of the cubes to good effect in my hand luggage.

If I'd started worrying that I was maybe taking things a bit too far by reducing my round-the-world luggage to a mere 12kg, then I needn't have. After checking out Crazy Eric's website I am reassured that I am a sane and well-adjusted individual. Just like he claims to be ...