The Quiet Traveller: Day 39 – Portland

I was up at 5:30am to hopefully get to the airport on time. I had decided my best bet was to order an Uber, as I didn’t think the earliest trains/buses combo would get me there in time (9:35am flight).

I was mildly concerned because the driver was dressed like a hitman, but then I realised that no hitman would ever go to a job in a Prius. Unless a new breed of hyper-environmentally friendly murderers for hire had passed me by, I was probably safe for the time being. Shout out to Anselmus for the ride.

My destination, Portland OR, was a short flight up the coast, during which I was struck by the greenery and lushness of the American Northwest. Oregon is well known for its wilderness, and so much so that it’s the kind of place where people have guns to protect themselves against bears, not because of a misplaced sense of duty to ancient legislation.

For the initial few days, I would be within the city, so the dangers were not bears, but the common tortoise-shell frame hipster. These bearded beings cycle the city on their fixies, seeking out freshly brewed coffee, assimilating passing strangers into their geometrically tattooed ranks. I spotted a high ranking officer early on, his seniority denoted by not only a beard and rounded glasses, but a PSG jacket, a niche team in a niche sport for the States.

My hostel was called Traveler’s House, and it was not a hostel as such, but a house turned into a hostel. I was greeted by Grant the proprietor, who had set up the hostel to be part of the local community, ethical, and very friendly. How hipster. I immediately felt at ease at the House, and it was refreshing to be sleeping in an environment that didn’t feel like a hostel. I’m pretty happy to sleep anywhere in all locations in all weathers, but it’s amazing how much of a difference your surroundings can make to your mind after a while. It was easy to recharge there. However, as I would soon find out, Portland was not as draining on introvert energy as other cities.

I was rather tired by this point, having decided to walk from the light rail stop to the hostel (about 3 miles lugging all my stuff), combined with the early start in San Francisco. I did need some food however, so I set off for a wander to the nearest shop. I soon stumbled across what was called a ‘food market’, but upon entering the establishment, I realised it was pretty much a weed paraphernalia shop that also sold some foods. I felt rather out of place browsing the cereals whilst being stared down by giant cannabis leaf flags. I just wanted some Weetabix.

I gathered a mishmash of food from what was on offer, and decided to make conversation with the cashier to fit in. I explained to him about all the weird and wonderful food stuffs that America sold that we didn’t have in the UK. He seemed very amazed by this fact, and I soon realised after I left the building that he had been absolutely baked. Portland and Oregon is well known for the legal use of cannabis, and it was very surreal to walk past dispensaries with people walking out with little brown paper bags, knowing that in other countries that would be cause for arrest.

Despite my tired start to Portland, and briefly losing my passport only to find it in the exact same place as I lost it last time (why are you like this Simon), I was really looking forward to exploring the city and surrounding area, knowing that I had a nice base to return to at the end of each day. I was also encouraged by Portland’s whimsical unofficial motto: ‘Keep Portland Weird’.

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The Quiet Traveller: Day 38 – San Francisco

As previously demonstrated, I was beginning to get a feel for San Francisco, and I felt now knew the main streets reasonably well. Today was one of those not much planned days, which are always nice after a few days of focussed exploration, and as it was my last full day here, I decided to see where my wanderings would take me.

However, one plan today was visiting the City Lights bookshop, which is a world famous bookshop and independent publisher known for being founded at the height of the Beatnik movement, and being associated with a number of the prominent Beat writers. It is everything you expect of a independent bookshop, and I decided it would be rude to not make a purchase from such an icon. I left with a copy of Fahrenheit 451, something that I had been meaning to read for ages. Although buying books whilst travelling added weight to my bag, I found they were often a necessity, as well as being enjoyable to read. Ok, not a necessity like food is a necessity, but they were a great way to kill time in those awkward parts of the day when it’s too late to go out but too early to go to bed, especially if you don’t fancy talking to people some days.

I followed up City Lights with a brief visit to the Maritime Museum, which is a small collection of ship related paraphernalia on the shoreline. There wasn’t a great deal there, hence the briefness of the visit, and considering there were much better ship related historical features further along the shore, it seemed a little underwhelming. The museum does look like a ship from outside though, that was pretty cool.

Back at the hostel, I made some plans for my next destination, Portland, and I decided to purchase a ticket to an NBA game. The Portland Trailblazers were playing the Denver Nuggets – chicken nuggets are of no relation. Now, I know I have previously proclaimed my disapproval of basketball, but as the ticket was only $14 (a bargain compared to the Premier League), and when in Rome, it was another case of it would be rude not to.

Sitting in the lobby I found myself chatting to a fellow Brit, which was nice to encounter as it had been a little while since I had come across a compatriot. Interestingly, he was out in California to meet a friend from Instagram, and was here for two weeks. I found this a strange concept, but I feel like it is something the slightly younger generation are more comfortable with. To me, the idea of meeting a complete stranger in a foreign country that you have met on the internet is asking to be murdered and your kidneys sold for a big payday. The guy was 18, and I did get the impression that he was rather shy and low on confidence, as he barely made eye contact with me as I spoke to him.

I think it’s important to differentiate between shyness and introvert personality traits. Of course, both things are closely intertwined from the outsider’s perspective, as it is often difficult to separate them out. However, shyness is definitely something that changes over time, as people often come out of their shells as they get older. Introversion and extroversion, in my opinion, are things which cannot be changed, as these traits are fundamental to our outlook on life and how we react to the world around us.

To finish my time in San Francisco, I decided to top up my already impressive tan by my standards and watch the sunset, which was truly spectacular (see below). Tomorrow it was onwards to Portland, the city of hipsters and coffee and bikes and beards.

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Western shore sunsets are always the best.

 

 

The Quiet Traveller: Day 37 – San Francisco

The previous night had been an interesting one, as it provided examples of the best and the worst of humanity.

The best happened as I was just sorting out my bag in my dorm, when Wesley, a Chinese traveller with a very un-Chinese sounding name, presented me with a poster of the Golden State Warriors basketball team. We had been chatting briefly over the past few days, but I was rather taken aback by this kind gesture, wondering what I had done to deserve this gift. I neglected to tell him that basketball was one of my least favourite sports, and instead grinned and made positive head nodding motions.

The worst of humanity happened whilst I was sat in the lobby charging my electronics and planning future days. A man took up a seat next to me with his laptop, appearing to be rather frustrated. He struck up a conversation with me and asked if I knew how to use the Apple device finder, which I did. He explained that he believed he had left his phone on the bus, and that therefore his wife was going to be maaaad. At this point, I felt sorry for him and appreciated the difficulties of his situation. I did my best to get the FindMyiPhone working, but unfortunately it seemed someone had turned the phone off or it had ran at of battery. At this point, things got weird. The guy started accusing the bus driver of taking the phone, making it clear that he had taken the phone due to the colour of his skin.

At first I could not believe what he had just said. But as he kept talking about it, I realised he was deadly serious. This was an odd feeling to experience, because I had never encountered such an overtly racist person before. This confirmed to me that racism was most definitely alive in 2010s America.

I immediately ceased my efforts to help him, made an excuse to get away, and left him to suffer the wrath of his wife. Looking back I really wish I had challenged his views, because they were simply unacceptable.

Having seen the best and worst of humanity, today I was going to see what humanity could build, with a walking tour of San Francisco organised by the hostel. This appealed to me for several reasons: it was free, had no charge, and did not require money. But in all seriousness I was also interested in the architecture and neighbourhood history of the city.

The tour left from the hostel at 9, led by a native moustache sporting volunteer called Henry. Right from the start, he made it clear that no tips were expected. I liked Henry so far.

Henry took our group through the various hills and highlights of SF, including the Filbert Steps, Lombard Street, Telegraph Hill, Russian Hill, and Nob Hill (huehuehue). What was interesting was that he described 1850 buildings as ‘old’ whereas in Britain we have tea cups that are older. Of course, I don’t think much survived the early 1900s earthquake. He also took us through Chinatown, which was a fascinating experience, complete with a park full of older Chinese women practising what looked like Tai Chi in full tracksuits.

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Filbert Steps – I believe they’re officially a road or something.

The weather was perfect, and combined with some seriously steep hills, I was soon feeling the burn on my thighs. What I found very enjoyable though, was the sense of security and safeness that I felt walking around with a San Francisco native and a medium size group. It’s all well and good walking around on your own to recharge your introvert battery and get some alone time, but simultaneously you have to be constantly switched on and constantly vigilant, especially in areas that you are not familiar with. It was refreshing to let Henry lead the way, knowing that he knew the city and its inhabitants like the back of his hand.

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I assume the cars are parked sideways so they don’t roll down.

Henry also told us that some of the inhabitants enjoyed vehicular vandalism, and that it was wise not to leave contents inside vehicles as often that would result in the window being smashed and aforementioned contents in the hands of light-fingered new owners. He also told us about the Smart car flipping epidemic. This was to do with San Franciscans buying Smart cars for their parking abilities on the steep slopes and in narrow spaces, but unfortunately opportunists had taken the chance to flip them over, because unlike a lot of American cars, they are very light. Cow tipping, urban style.

I chatted to some of the group as we walked through the streets, and to my surprise, I finally met a Simone. I think she was French, as Simone’s are most likely to be, but it was just an oddity to finally meet someone with the female equivalent of my name.

A few hours later, I parted ways with Henry and the group, and set off to experience the most touristy thing in SF; the cable cars. These aren’t really used much as public transport any more, they’re more tourist attractions in their own right, pulling themselves up the steep inclines. I boarded one at the cable car turnaround after a lengthy queue (they literally push the cable car around with their bare hands). A rather shouty driver barked at me to stand clear of the middle lever, which the driver uses to control the speed. Cable car drivers have to be very strong to wrestle with these levers, because they grip the cable which hauls the car. And over the course of history this has gone wrong on occasion. But today was my lucky day, and I disembarked the cable car a little underwhelmed to be honest, but I was glad I had ticked off a major attraction.

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Cable car remixing station.

Upon return to the hostel, I used a payphone like it was the 1980s, in order to phone my uncle in New York to let him know I was stateside. My phone deal did not allow for foreign calls or messages without a hefty fee, and emails were read intermittently, so I decided my best bet was the payphone. I felt a like I was some sort of gangster film the way I had to slot my quarters into the machine, which probably hadn’t been used in at least several months if not years.

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An antique specimen, possibly a voice communication device?

The day ended once again looking at the sun set behind the bridge. The lyrics ‘Lost my mind in San Francisco’ from the song London Thunder circled in my head, which was partly true because of the snorer in my room driving me mad. But the city itself, had endeared itself to me. Yes there was a lot of crazy, but there was also a vibrant atmosphere, one found at the edge of a continent facing the great abyss of the Pacific, with the sun beating down on the days of youth. (Well that got very descriptive).

 

 

The Quiet Traveller: Day 36 – San Francisco

Today I witnessed a classic US-style argument, something that could only take place on this enormous land mass. I only caught the tail-end of it, and I did not understand what it was about, but judging the hostile atmosphere between these two gentleman, I could tell it would have been regarding something ridiculous.

As the shouting came to an end, and one guy stormed off, the other jeered: ‘I’m a San Francisco Californian motherfucker, that’s right, walk away, going to change your underwear pussy’. It was like a scene from a bad film, and as I walked on by I had to stifle my laughter.

This hilarious incident happened on the way to the bike rental shop, for today I planned to cross the Golden Gate and cycle down into the town of Sausalito, before boarding the ferry to take me back across the bay.

As I geared up in the shop, I had to watch a cringe-inducing health and safety video, which concluded with the cheesily-grinning presenter reminding me to ‘high five’ my fellow cyclists. Sadly, I was the only person in the shop at the time, so I consoled myself that I was not going to get the aforementioned high five, and hit the road. I had also decided that I did not need to pay the extra dollars for insurance, something which would come back to haunt me later that day.

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Excellent conditions. None of the infamous fog.

It was great to be back on a bike, especially on a designated route with the sun beaming down on a fresh April day. My bike was a standard rental, and not particularly good, but it did the job and did roll along at a fair speed. Once on the bridge, I found it surprisingly long (2km), and rather stressful to navigate. I mean finding your way is very easy (it’s a bridge, duh), but there’s a lot of other bikes and pedestrians, which led to a few close calls. The wannabe professional cyclists were the worst, as they did not seem to appreciate that the entire bridge was crawling with tourists. However, the views definitely made up for any stress, and I took multiple stops along the span to soak them up.

Once over the bridge, I stopped at the viewpoint and then headed down the hill road to Sausalito. This was probably the best part of the cycle journey, cruising down a green hilltop, with the sun on my back and wind slicing through my helmet holes. There were a few cars, but it was nowhere near as busy as the bridge itself.

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That line up tho.

Stopping for a beasty sandwich and big bottle of OJ on the way down, I felt refreshed, but alas, other specific areas of my body were not so merry. It turned out that the bike seats were not as comfortable as they looked, and this combined with the long period since I had last ridden a bike meant that I would be aching over the next few days.

Upon arrival in Sausolito, I had to park my bike. Which seems fine on paper. But no. There are specific parking areas where you must park, and pay to park. Madness. I begrudgingly left my bike, and set off to explore Sausolito. Apart from having great views and yacht clubs, there wasn’t a huge amount to do. All the food and shops seemed well out of my price range, so I was glad I had filled up already. However I did come across an excellently named shop called ‘SOXalito’, which sells a fine selection of socks.

Overcome by the witticism of the name, and needing a souvenir from my time in California, I purchased a pair of reasonably priced socks, which depicted a sloth with a beer hat on, and the phrase ‘Get Slothed’. This was very much in line with my ethics and morality on life, so I decided that this was an excellent investment.

This was a highlight of the day. Soon after, I experienced a very low point. I went back to the bike park to collect my bike, stopping to put my bag down and check the leaving instructions on the way. I soon realised that I had lost my bike lock key.

I made my way back to where I had taken a seat upon arrival, scrabbling around on the floor like a raccoon. I emptied my bag. Checked my pockets. No luck.

An American family noticed me and my raccoon activities, and asked if I was ok. I explained my situation, and to my surprise, they began helping me search, with the dad even inspecting the inside of a bin for me. Clearly, the raccoon vibes of my desperate searches were strong.

I was now starting to panic a bit, and I have to say, this one was one of the most stressful experiences of the trip. I had neglected to pay the extra for insurance, the last boat home was leaving soon, and the bike had to be back at the shop by 8. My head hurt and my chest felt rather tight. In desperation I asked a traffic officer if they had seen a key where I was earlier, and she said no, but I could phone the police department to see if anything had been handed in. That just made me more stressed, as the thought of having to talk to more people and explain the situation once again was not something I wanted to do at that moment. Especially loud American cops with their shooty bois.

I was very angry at myself for losing the key, and I took a seat by the water’s edge to search my bag one last time. I did so and then gave up, contemplating what the hell I was going to do. And then I looked over my shoulder, and I saw the American dad and his son walking in my direction. Surely not.

Low and behold, they had found my key. It had been where I put my bag down by the bike ticket machine. The relief of holding that key in my hand was like heroin. It flooded through my veins, and I could feel the stress of the situation escaping out of my body and into the atmosphere. It was very much like the passport incident in Queenstown, but much more intense. I thanked the dad, who said no problem, and rejoined his family. I couldn’t believe they had kept looking long after I had been raccooning next to their picnic.

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Font game strong.

If somehow you’re reading this, American dad, I am very, very grateful. Thanks to him, I was able to make the ferry home, and dropped the bike off at the shop in time. That was enough cycling for this trip.

The Quiet Traveller: Day 35 – San Francisco

Alcatraz was the name of the game today, and I was excited to visit the notorious prison which had become the stuff of legend. Being a bit of an Xbox geek as well, I was interested to see how similar one of the Call of Duty zombie maps was to the real thing (very similar, excellent design work).

En route to the ferry departure place, I spotted a doggo. Not much surprise there you might say. A dog. In a big city. Pretty standard stuff. Alas, this was no ordinary doggo. This specimen sported sunglasses – yes, actual sunglasses specifically for said doggo. They must have been from ‘Yap’, the dog clothing store mentioned previously, and they only served to reinforce my assessment that there was no point trying to understand America.

It was quite a complex process to get to the island. Pre-booked tickets and an extensive queuing system was all part of the fun, and I found myself standing amongst a coachload of silver surfers led by an all-American tour guide. However, it was quite nice to hear the English accents from within the group, knowing that they were just as baffled by this country as I was. Although they may have lived before the invention of the kettle, so perhaps they were not as enraged as myself at the lack of them.

As my British soul heartily enjoyed the fantastically organised queue (a zigzag layout with divider ropes – top notch stuff), I thought about the sea lions which were the residents of Pier 39. The pier used to be in use as a marina I believe, but since the seals took over, it’s now theirs. Quite literally, they have taken it over, forcing out yachts for good. These whiffy, loud beasts spend their days sunning themselves and pushing each other off the jetties. As I have previously stated, being a seal sounds great, and from my observations at Pier 39,  being a sea lion sounds even better.

The ferry was quite packed, but it was a short journey to the island. Clambering up the steep hills towards the jailhouse, you get a sense of the isolation and mental torture that it must have been for prisoners, being able to see the mainland so close yet so far. Entering the Cellhouse, I picked up an audio guide and starting making my way round. Audio tours are always a bit hit and miss I find – sometimes they are excellent; other times it’s like watching James Milner watch paint dry. Luckily, this was the latter, and very informative and interesting.

There also was written information alongside the audio tour, and with this came the people who take pictures of the information and move on, in order to read them later. This baffles me, as they don’t read them later. And if they read them in the moment, they might actually understand what is in front of them. Rant over.

The coolest part of the whole island was the story of the notorious escapees. You get to to see the cell where an inmate used spoons to widen an air vent and escape the Cellhouse, making off into the cold blue waters of the bay. An impressive feat indeed.

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The bit below the sink on the floor is the spoon-escape-hatch.

Perhaps the most chilling part was the solitary confinement block, at which I took a photo of one of the cells, and walked inside. I later found out that this very cell, 14-D, was the most haunted of all. Allegedly people often find it to be a lot colder than the normal temperature, and hear voices and noises emanating from within. I did not experience this when I was in the cell, but I must admit I did feel a bit uncomfortable standing inside it.

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No editing or filters and it still looks creepy.

Thinking about it, solitary confinement is a bit of a blessing for an incarcerated introvert. Obviously not for an extended period, but if I was in a crowded prison and given orders to spend time in solitary for a day or two, I would be perfectly happy I like to think. Unfortunely I don’t think confinement is for just one or two day.

Confinement was probably beginning to appeal to me because of a new addition to my hostel dorm – an old bearded snorer. He had a slight whiff of beer about him, and when asked where he was from, he replied ‘here’, which led me to believe he was on the streets a lot of the time. I kept talking to him to get a better measure of him, ending up discussing Trump, and luckily he seemed to be relatively sane, albeit an interesting character. Unfortunately however, this man could snore. I lie. He did not snore. He throttled like a motorbike, like the thunder of a thousand thunderstorms, like the roar of all the lions in the world. I had never experienced anything like it. I dealt with it by learning to fall asleep to my iPod at a very loud volume, which only just matched his thunderous tones*

All in all, Day 35 was excellent, and I would definitely recommend a visit to Alcatraz.

*Admittedly this was an issue, but don’t let this put you off sharing hostels dorms. At the end of the day, you’re only in the room to sleep (ok, on this occasion it was difficult to), and you can always find restorative niches somewhere when you are out.

 

 

 

The Quiet Traveller: Day 34 – San Francisco

Venturing into the city centre, away from the coastline, I intended to visit the Beat Museum, which chronicles the Beat Generation of the 1950s living in San Francisco.

My observations of the day made me realise that America was a rather strange place. Something which struck me as rather backwards was the lack of PIN needed when using your card. Which meant you could simply find a card, and use it, feigning signatures if necessary. Although I suppose the introduction of contactless has created a similar issue. To be fair cards usually get cancelled very quickly once lost anyway.

Before setting out, I decided to grab some snackage from the hostel vending machine. I was delighted to see a classic KitKat on offer, a delicacy rooted in traditional English cuppa break culture. However, this was not just a two finger job. It wasn’t even a four finger job. This was an eight finger beast. Only the American nation would even think to create such a monster. I felt this summed up America, over the top to the point of being slightly impractical, and meaning that ‘have a break, have a KitKat’, was more like ‘have a lunch hour, have a KitKat’.

Interestingly, I found the wide streets of the city a lot less stressful that the packed shorelines. They were also a lot less busy, although I feel this may be because the rents and houses are so expensive that real people don’t actually live in these areas any more. As I would find out over the next few days, this was a major issue in the city, and one that also plagues a lot of central areas of UK cities as well. Nevertheless, it was nice to recharge and walk around freely after the intensity of the tourist areas.

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Bansky style streetart near the Beat Museum summing up US foreign policy.

I spent a good hour or two at the Beat Museum, which was a very reasonable $8, and I learnt a bit more about the Beatniks like Kerouac and Ginsberg. It turned out that the beatniks were the foundations of the hippie movement that exploded in 1960s California, but the hippies were much more loud and hedonistic. I got the impression that the beats were much more internalised characters, although I’m pretty sure a lot were just as hedonistic as the hippies that came after them.

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Complex reasoning was not one of Ginsberg’s strong points.

I exited the museum through the gift shop, which also functioned as a second hand book store. I stumbled across an old edition of 1984, something I had been meaning to read for a long time. Happy with the $5 price tag for a rather cool find, I took it over the till, where the cashier complimented my choice. However, he also charged me an extra 37c, which was because I had forgotten that in most US states, tax is not included in the price. This was something that quietly infuriated me through a lot of my trip, as often it was akin to Ryanair making you pay extra just to breath their pestilence-filled cabin air.

I also decided to pay a visit to Lombard Street, probably one of the most famous streets in the world. This twisty-turny road is a bizarre phenomenon which is now packed with slow moving cars and pedestrians alike. Unfortunately, skateboarding and other similar activities are banned, meaning the only way you can skate it is on the original Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.

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On the way back to the seafront hostel, I stopped at a shopping precinct type thing to have a browse. Upon encountering a shop that solely catered to the clothing needs of dogs, I gave up trying to understand America.

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Yappin hell.

 

 

The Quiet Traveller: Day 33 – San Francisco

As always in a new city, the first day was to be pure exploration. To wander around the neighbourhood and get a feel for the metropolis. As I set off in the direction of Fisherman’s Wharf, the main seafront area of SF, I couldn’t help but observe a few oddities from a British perspective.

Firstly, there were several instances whereby Americans would simply say ‘Excuse me’, and then make their move past/through. This was very bizarre, as the appropriate protocol is to say ‘Excuse me’, followed by at least 47 utterances of ‘sorry’, and finally topped off with a varied menagerie of diplomatic hand signals. But alas, these savages were very to the point.

Secondly, something which I noticed before even setting foot out of the hostel, was the lack of kettle. That’s right. No kettles. This was supposed to be a developed, first world country, yet to my dismay there was no rapid boiling facility available to make a fresh brew. This was a red flag that I was venturing out into a very strange country.

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Blue skies, blue water.

Walking through Fisherman’s Wharf was a bit overwhelming, as the sun was shining down and thousands of people were milling around, browsing the tourist tat shops. I wasn’t as tired as when I arrived in Australia, but I still felt like I needed a day to fully realign my body clock to Cali time. Sporting my resting bitch face, enhanced by my tiredness, I was approached by a man who waved an official looking badge in front of me. Slightly alarmed, I snapped out of my stupor, wondering what I had done wrong. It turned out that this man was claiming to be the smile police, and he had stopped me for not looking happy enough. Naturally, this made me very unhappy, and so I grudgingly accepted some smiley face stickers he was waving at me and turned on the afterburners, not wanting to be conned/mugged/forced to smile on my first day in the States.

Eventually, I found something right up my street, the WW2 Liberty Ship SS Jeremiah O’Brien, and the USS Pampanito, a WW2 submarine. I took the opportunity to explore both, finding the sub absolutely fascinating, but the ship a little overpriced. I thought they would be packed, given the huge crowds on the Wharf, but it seemed the public had no interest in history. For me, this was ideal, as the vessels provided a quiet refuge from the baptism of fire into the country.

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America HAD to come to the rescue. Ok guys, we get it. Yeah but we HAD to.

My day was completed with a shopping trip to Safeway, something which I had not done for a long time since the brand had disappeared from the UK a long time ago. This was a rather confusing experience, as there were a lot products which I simply did not understand what they were. The biscuit selection was also pitiful, but I managed to curate a small basket of produce that looked edible. One thing I also noticed was the sugary milk. What’s up with that?

It had been a mixed first day in the States, but I was looking forward to the prospect of exploring beyond the local tourist vicinity and seeing the city and surrounding area proper over the next few days.