In April 2010 I finally got to the Great North-West. I arrived in Seattle, picked up a rental
car from the airport, which I had lined up in Germany and went to stay with my youngest brother and his wife and
daughter. They had lived earlier in New Orleans, San Francisco and Atlanta but mentioned that if possible they will
stay in Seattle. Seems that it is the kind of place one learns to love once you get used to the rain. Like I had
imagined it, it was laid back without being pretentious. Even though I had the car, I learned that there was an
acceptable public bus system and with parking downtown costing 6 USD for half an hour, it was the cheapest option.
One of the big attractions in the downtown area is Pike Place Market.
It is much more a place for souvenirs and handicrafts than fish, fruits and veggies but those are available too. The
fishmongers running around in their orange outfits liked to yell and throw big fish to each other. It definitely caught your eye although
I had to wonder if it really inspired people to buy more fish. Most people there were tourists - without much use for a huge fish. And while
many of the handicrafts were nice, I didn't see much which inspired me as a memory of Seattle and for every half decent t-shirt I might have
considered, there were a pile of ill-shaped, plain white ones with some poorly laid out slogan in a basic black script. Seemed to be an
unfulfilled market for some quality artistic souvenirs Seattle.
There were a couple of guys offering their services as guides, probably sweet characters but they looked like they best
knew the soup kitchens and most comfortable bridges to sleep under. I had envisioned more skate-boarding, slacker types begging for spare
change but I guess the city had been cracking down on the panhandling lately and every park had signs posted saying it was illegal to sleep
there. I had envisioned more street performers adding a bit of life to the city. Maybe they were waiting for more summer like weather but
all I saw was one balloon twister and a couple of musicians which seemed to trade off a small place squeezed into the market, which was
definitely not big enough for a clown or juggling show.
The number of coffee houses in Seattle is incredible. The first Starbucks opened by Pike Place Market and now there
seems to be one every 50 meters or so. So a view of tall buildings and a Starbucks typifies Seattle. One can even get a good view over
the city from the Columbia building. There is an observation deck up top but one has to pay 8 dollars at the information desk and then
they send someone up with you. I went for the free option, which was to take the express elevator to the 49th floor where you can look
out the windows of, you guessed it! the Starbucks. And if you didn't get enough caffeine, don't worry; there is another Starbucks on the
There are still some nice preserved old buildings downtown, which offset the skyscrapers. Columbia square looked very
quaint but the weather was still cool so there were not a lot of people hanging out. There are a number of totem poles displayed there and
around the town and I passed signs for a couple of reservations on my drive up to Vancouver. This was a surprise for me since I had rarely seen
much of an Indian presence in the USA outside of Arizona and New Mexico.
That's my cute (but smart) niece Tessa back of the house. She, my brother and I, took his big kayak out on the sound,
which is just 15 minutes by foot down the hill. It was a bit chilly but sunny and we warmed up once we got paddling. This seems to be the
main attraction of the area, access to both mountains and sea both of which are spectacularly viewable from this neighborhood called Sunset
Hill. The area itself, Ballard seemed pretty nice, still well connected to the city but with its own center with plenty of restaurants and
bars to keep one entertained. The scenery, weather and even style of wooden houses reminded me a lot of Scandinavia and in fact this
neighborhood used to have a large percentage of Scandinavian immigrants, many attracted by the big fishing fleets based here.
In March 2013 I was back in Seattle and Portland after a month in California and a month in Nicaragua. We didn't
go kayaking this time but I borrowed a bike to explore the nearby discovery park which has hills and forest and good views over the
sound as well as a Indian cultural center with native art exhibitions. This is the view toward the old lighthouse on the beach there.
My brother Michael and his wife Maggie had added a son Finn to the family since I had been there just short of 3 years before.
On Saturdays there is a street market in their suburg of Ballard. Finn especially LOVES
to see the street musicians, often dancing or singing along and he even knows some of their names by heart.
At home Finn has multiple guitars, drums and a toy saxaphone which he regularly plays singing his self composed songs.
I'm not sure if I can believe in reincarnation but if so, I think he is Kurt Cobain back in the mix but anyway, music is going to be a
part of his future. The atmosphere at the market is interesting. It seemed to be exclusively families with kids that stopped to see the musicians.
I saw one kid doing some juggling with his hat out but otherwise didn't see anyone attempting a big show. Not sure if this was due to the still chilly
weather or limited space but I thought the mix of people would make for an interesting audience.
I drove from Seattle down to Portland for a couple of days to visit an old friend. I took my rental car but had second
thoughts about having booked it since it might have been more relaxing to take the train. I take trains all the time in Europe but just
once had the opportunity in upstate New York to ride on a train in America. Later on this trip I was in Ft Worth, Texas and wanted to take
the intercity train to Dallas but it was Sunday and there was no service, no city buses running either. My friend Steve showed me the
Portland art museum and took me to the main Powell's bookstore, which is said to be the biggest in the USA. Would have loved to have more
time just poking around the shelves but we took advantage of another offering which was their daily author reading. I was told that Portland
has the highest level of residents with advanced degrees in the country, which makes it a ripe market for such things. But the lively place
to hang out was in the neighborhood of Burnside, which had a lot of little restaurants, coffee houses, second-hand shops and what ever
that would contribute to the local slogan of "keep Portland weird".
There seemed to be a number of old cinemas around and the city is supposed to be the capital of burlesque in America.
Many performers I know have ended up in Oregon and such venues provide at least the occasional gig for them. We also went to a video store,
which was unlike any I had ever seen. It not only has the country's biggest selection of video/DVDs but also is a museum to cinema memorabilia
as well including important objects from some of the most famous films of all time.
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
From Seattle I also did a day trip to Vancouver, Canada. The winter Olympics had just finished a few weeks before so
either I just missed a great time or a lot of stress depending on your point of view. I remember the good old days where crossing the
Canadian border was done by flashing a driver's licence. Now they wanted to see my passport and know exactly where I live, what I do,
where I was staying and for how long, what my purpose was... Returning later that day I had fewer questions to answer at US customs
because they simply already had it in their computer. But one had to pass through 3 sets of multiple cameras. They don't just take your
photo but take video footage of everyone coming across, most likely in 3-d. As it was a Sunday it was rather quiet downtown except for
the tourists running around. I even found a free parking place. Granville Street was basically just an extension of the highway I had taken
all the way from Seattle. It is the main drag downtown to shop or get a bite to eat and luckily I could get a burrito and pay in US dollars,
as I couldn't be bothered to change money just for the afternoon. The exchange rate is like 1.03 something, which also surprised me as for
years the Canadian dollar was worth significantly less.
Central Vancouver has a lot of big, modern buildings but unlike in most American cities, many of them seemed to be
residential rather than just office space. Not that Canada lacks enough space but the approach to urban planning there reflects a more
European approach to condensed city spaces, which makes more sense for things like saving energy and the efficiency of public transportation.
Thankfully, they have also kept and renovated some of the older neighborhoods like Gastown. It was once a real working class place but
much of it is now quaint shops and restaurants. This old trolley car was one of the eye catchers for the tourists.
Another oddity was this old steam powered clock. Gastown was the location of the old gasworks, which would have been
pretty important before the street lamps were converted to electricity. So if you can light a lamp, why not use gas to drive a steam powered clock?
The area was not all quaint and fixed up though. I had notice a multiple of crosses on my map but rather than big
churches they turned out to be missions which catered to hardcore junkies and street people. With huge crowds of down-and-out looking
characters, I stashed my camera in my bag and continued on my way past many places that looked abandoned. Was almost surprised to see
this cannabis store as the average pot head would probably not want to be associated with most of the clientele I saw around there or
maybe they are too stoned to notice. A bigger surprise was the Scientology center. Like they hide themselves in the neighborhood to say,
"Hey, we're a church too". Would love to see the reaction of having some street people ask for a hot meal and a helping hand from those
pricks who are all about swindling peoples money. Or maybe they actually have some crack dealers donating their profits to Ron L. Hubbard.
Returning to Granville Street, I followed it across a long, high bridge, which has a spectacular view of the downtown
and harbour at Granville Island. The island is half industrial and the other half fancy establishments catering to tourists.
If I had had more time I would have taken one of the tours on these cool little tugboats, which seemed to show up every
10 minutes or so and take off when they filled up.
There were a number of large covered markets on the island, which were really just small malls of souvenir shops in
addition to the many eateries. It was a bit brisk but people still hung out to enjoy the day.
There were two spots, which were reserved for the buskers. Seemed well organized and each got an hour pitch but the
crowds were not so big. Would have been a lot of work to pull a proper crowd for a clown show there and all I saw were musicians. I had
seen a juggler with a tall unicycle in the pedestrian part of Granville Street, which had more room and fewer distractions. He mentioned
that it had only been a year since the police allowed performers to use this area in addition to the pitches on the island. Ralph Shaw
the ukulele player seemed to be in his element here with his family friendly entertainment. I would have loved to explore more of the
city especially to see how many immigrants make up such a dynamic metropolis but I had to return the almost five hour drive to Seattle.
From Seattle I went on to Texas, staying with my brother in Ft Worth and attending the wedding of a niece in San Antonio.
The Alamo and river walk area are nice in S. Antonio but I had seen them before and spent my energy visiting relatives rather than seeing such
sites. On the way back to Ft Worth, we stopped a day in Austin, which also has the motto "keep Austin weird". I don't know Portland or Austin
well enough to declare a winner as America's weirdest city. Weird for Texas probably doesn't compare to weird for the Northwest but the amount
of live music offered for free on the main strip in Austin was impressive. And the millions of bats that fly out from under a bridge at dusk
was pretty unique to see in a major city although they took a route a bit hard to see rather than flying right along the river. Guess I might
have to visit both more extensively to declare a winner.
In 2014 I was in Texas again and due to the amount of photos and text here
compared to the page for eastern North America I've shifted Texas there. Like what the hell, they always want to secceed from the Union
anyway so why not? Maybe I'll have to put them with Mexico and Central America if they get their way.