A post of two parts… *dun dun duuuuuuun!*
Determined to live up to my new name of Amy Astro Tourist (AAT, my initials), I met up with my PhD supervisor from back in Manchester to spend 3 nights at an observatory I’ve not been to before – the San Pedro Martir, in Baja California, Mexico.
Stunning place once you’re there, but a bloody pain in the butt to get to!
The journey involved (are you ready?): a 10 hour flight from Santiago to Atlanta, Georgia, followed by a 5 hour flight into San Diego, California. From San Diego the next day, it was then about an hour to get to the USA-Mexico boarder on the “trolleys” (a train, to you and me) and then cross it on foot. Once officially in Mexico, this was then followed by a 2 hour bus journey to the town of Ensenada, a night there, then a 4 hour ride in a 4×4 pick-up truck to the observatory… Phew!
So let’s break this down a little:
Leg 1: Santiago –> Atlanta
I flew with Delta Airlines. Those of you who have flown with them before shall surely be tutting and muttering a sympathetic word to yourself upon reading that sentence. Those who haven’t, I have one piece of advice: Don’t. Now, I love flying (once one the plane – I DETEST airports when travelling by myself!), but I think I’d rather walk if the alternative is to fly with them. I flew with them once before to the US from the UK when I was 17, and even then I thought “never again”. Sadly, I fell foul of ESO booking things for me (such a tough life, I know!). So after standing in the ‘speedy boarding baggage drop-off’ queue for a not-so-speedy 45 minutes, 3 attempts to get through Chilean security (first time I didn’t have a a bit of paper filled out no-one mentioned to me, second time there was only one part of two of the form I handed in so had to do it again, the third time involved someone realising that I held an official Chilean visa in my passport but then getting confused when I couldn’t produce the ID card to go with it seeing as though it was in the wallet that got stolen…), taking ages to get through the America-style security (i.e. removing more or less everything from my rucksack and pretty much having to get undressed again), and then having them check everyone’s hand luggage AGAIN on the actual walkway to the plane (yes, for all 300+ passengers. By hand. Including making people ditch water bottles bought in the terminal. Madness!), I finally got onto the plane.
So for the 10 hour flight, I enjoyed terrible overhead entertainment instead of the backseat stuff, probably the least legroom I’ve had on a long-haul flight, the word’s most uncomfortable seats, air conditioning that would put an eskimo’s refrigerator to shame, and food resembling an inedible biohazard (for a similar discussion about Virgin food, read this. I was crying laughing: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/travelnews/4344890/Virgin-the-worlds-best-passenger-complaint-letter.html). But at least I could chat to the guy next to me for a while, whose entertainment value increased directly proportionally to the amount of free wine he consumed during and after dinner (e.g. asking the hostess “What year is it? 2012? What a great year for box-wine!”, and commenting on another slightly sozzled-looking woman further down the plane who was asked to sit down by staff “I wanna see her stand up again! Do you think if I threw something at her, she’d do it again?”).
We eventually land at Atlanta’s brand new international terminal (only opened 3 days earlier!) with a 2.5 hour layover. I thought ‘great, time for some decent food and coffee before my next flight!’. Instead, I spent all but 20 minutes waiting to get off the plane, only to stand in yet more queues (off the plane = 20 mins, immigration = 1 hour, security = 20 mins…). Time enough to buy some water and then go to the gate for my next plane to San Diego.
Leg 2: Atlanta –> San Diego
Finally, a plus point – this plane had Wi-Fi! Double plus point, I discovered that someone puts ‘Neighbours’ on YouTube! So at least I had some decent entertainment in starting to catch up on the 3 months I’ve missed (All in all, I watched 20 episodes in my week away. Soap opera bliss!). So between that, free biscuits + more terrible coffee, and more napping, the time passed relatively quickly, and I land in San Diego at 10am (7am Chile O’Clock). I grab a taxi to my hotel downtown.
For this one night, I stayed in the 500 West Hotel – a building actually owned by the YMCA (it was literally the only room available by the time I could get around to booking it after replacing my stolen debit card. Just so happened that there was a huge medical conference that weekend – and I mean, 10,000 people kind of big – so everything else was booked out). Very simple, as you could imagine, with shared bathroom facilities. But by this point, I was just happy to have somewhere to collapse, have a hot shower and watch more ‘Neighbours’. My supervisor wasn’t due in until that evening, so I had the rest of the day to toddle around on my own. I ended up just eating at the little restaurant attached to the hotel – and boy, did I forget about American portion sizes!! My breakfast could easily have fed me twice over. But at least there is another positive in this country… Bottomless coffee! So many free refills that I could either drown in it, or become so wired that I start cartwheeling down the road. Either is a good way to go.
Aaah, San Diego. Home to such famous names as Gregory Peck, Tom Waits, Raquel Welch, and…. err… Playboy Bunny, Kendra Wilkinson. Firstly, I decide to check out what might be further up the road heading deeper downtown. Only took me about 15 minutes to get creeped out enough to go back the other way. Something that is immediately striking in San Diego is the number of homeless/poor people wandering around the streets (which has obviously only worsened since the recession), and quite frankly it’s a little intimidating. I got the usual looks and the odd call from random old men, but there was a moment of comedy gold in all of this. At one point I was walking up, there was a homeless man walking towards me from the opposite direction. As I came into his eyeline, he just couldn’t stop staring at me. As we walked past each other, he stops, turns around back to me, and says – more to himself than to me or anyone else! – “What IS that?! Some sorta Barbie Doll?” The genuinely baffled and puzzled tone to his voice actually made me laugh out loud to myself, despite the slight internal protestation at being referred to as a ‘that’. I’ve never really considered to have any Barbie-like features, and I’m still trying to figure out the connection (I mean, I’m pretty sure even Barbie has more of a tan than I do)
Instead, I decide to head down to the waterfront. It’s a little tourist-tastic, but still extremely pretty and lovely to walk around with the sun cracking the flags and the temperature in the mid-20’s. One of the cool things to see down there is this huuuuuuge aircraft carrier. Idecided to investigate a little closer, as I could see that there were planes on it and I love planes, me. Except as I get closer, I also see that out the back just below the top deck they’ve set up a café complete with tables, chairs, parasols… “Not exactly looking battle ready”, I think to myself, before I also notice people wandering around the decks and sticking their heads out of windows and such. Turns out this aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Midway, is permanently set up there as a naval aviation museum! I never went in, which I sort of regret now, but will certainly make time for if I ever go back.
A little further on past the not-quite-an-aircraft-carrier, you come to a little touristy outdoor complex, containing lots of cafés, sweet/ice cream shops, souvenir shops… All hideously overpriced, but nice for a little wander around and to grab an ice cold drink. Following the waters edge, there is a park area that had people flying kites, having a nap, playing with their children… all the things you love to see on a beautiful summer’s day. There were even a bunch of school kids all dressed up for their prom, having their photos taken and waiting for their limos – the girls truly do dress to compete with each other for the longest/brightest/tightest/sparkliest dress! I decided to sit here for a little while and just people-watch, with a simultaneous view over the ocean. How pleasant.
Later on that evening, I meet up with my supervisor, Myf, to go for dinner in San Diego’s “Little Italy” district – does what it says on the tin, a lovely area full of really good Italian restaurants and bars. In one great restaurant, we both had a 3-course dinner with a bottle of wine and coffees afterwards for a great price. Afterwards, we headed to the ‘British Pub’ over the road, complete with Big Ben chimes on the hour. After being asked for ID before they would serve us (yes, including my 43 year old supervisor! But involving me having to go back to the hotel to get my passport, seeing as though all my other ID was stolen… ) we ended up teaching an ex- high school physics teacher about astronomy over a pint of Old Speckled Hen (with his biggest faux-pas being when he announced that “oh yeah, I loved teaching the kids about astronomy, especially about how a star stays round by fission and fusion fighting each other…” *Facepalm* ‡).
And so after our beer and feeling like we righted a little wrong in the world of teaching, we part ways back to our respective hotels to grab some sleep… Stay tuned for phase two of this post, and phase two of this epic journey!
Hasta la proxima,
‡ [NB: for my non-science friends, it’s the outward pressure generated by the fusion of hydrogen into helium occuring in the star’s core competing with the crushing force of its own gravity that allows a star like our sun it to keep its form – something that a high school physics teacher should know!]