8. In search of the sun in Europe

Barcelona, Spain & Paris, France

My travels were, undoubtedly, to continue, but where ?. It was Easter time so flying anywhere at short notice would be difficult ant very expensive. With limited time and on a limited budget I decided to travel through Spain and France. I could get a cheap flight to Barcelona and back through France on the train, giving me the opportunity to experience deep sea transit !. – The channel tunnel.

The precedent had been set, early starts had become the travelling reality. A 6am start and another airport run. Once we disembarked from the plane there were language difficulties, from baggage handling staff to taxi drivers. The problems faced with trying to handle, position, dismantle my wheelchair were very difficult with not being able to explain what to do.

The hostel was a large renovated monastery which looked pleasant and but was a long way from the centre – peaceful but isolated, not my scene. The language problems also became apparent at the hostel, it was really depressing me that I couldn’t listen too or converse with other fellow travellers. I then had a terrible institutional style dinner – in silence. The entire atmosphere made the hostel feel like a prison. I just wanted to return home – very very soon.

The sole good point that day was meeting one of the very few wheelchair travellers I have met. His name was Alan, a lawyer from Brazil, who was travelling Europe by train – he was an inspiration about Barcelona – he told me about wheelchair accessible buses and where to go.

I went down the steep hill to catch the wheelchair accessible bus. I took the bus all the way through Barcelona to the centre, town hall square, which was actually a circle !. The atmosphere, people and buildings were typically European.

I still felt lost and had nowhere to go, with no guide book and no-one to ask, I got back on the bus to return to the hostel. I bought some bread and cheese from a very European style patisserie. My thoughts were still of how to get home.

I sat on the balcony at the hostel in solitude, it was a warm sunny day and I looked out over the beautiful Spanish country-side. I sat and thought about my trip and realised that, although Europe was distinctly different to my travels in America, it wasn’t necessarily worse just different. I was actually enjoying my travels in Barcelona, despite the previous days negativity.

This was Europe and most people could speak some degree of English plus it was a multi-national hostel where many people’s first language is English, so blatantly I was worrying about nothing and any language problems were immaterial.

With the gloom lifted, I headed for the personal disabled shower. I must mention that, even to this day, I have never known a better shower, the water was steaming hot, the water pressure was so strong, I sat in the shower for nearly 1 hour, being massaged by the water.

The next morning, I woke with a fresh sense of vigour. Again I took the bus into the centre but this time armed with my tourist map of Barcelona with accessible bus routes marked. I wheeled down to the beautiful old cathedral then down to marina, which had some amazing yachts on show. I could really see the beauty of Barcelona with the warm sun shining. I then wheeled through Barcelona park and through to the Spanish version of the Arc de Triumph. I then took the bus to the Olympic village and wheeled along the beach front, where topless beach babes adorned – although the sun was shining the wind made it nippley, sorry, nippy !.

After a very busy and fulfilling day, I returned to the hostel where I ate a weird combination European style dinner of cheese, salami, turkey burgers and croquette’s. After dinner had an informative chat with Alan about travel in a wheelchair. I went to bed exhausted but having had a wonderful and fulfilling  day.

Took several buses to the station to get a train ticket to Paris, a sleeper train the following evening. After a long search to find the hostel booking office and a disaster from wheeling through dog mess, I joined the booking queue – the 2 hour queue. Eventually it was my turn but all the hostels in Paris were full which would mean either staying in an expensive hotel or not staying in Paris.

I caught the bus back to the beach, where I hoped to see more topless girls. Sadly it has too windy so I sat at a promenade restaurant where I tried a traditional seafood paella. Before returning to the hostel and the fantastic shower !.

I checked out and took my bags to the train station to leave in the lockers. I took the bus to Mount Conjuric, where the Olympic stadium are then a tram to top, where there was an amazing view of Barcelona.  I took Metro to Sagrada Famila, a half finished cathedral then a bus back to beach – Where there was more topless young girls. I then took a bus to top of, the supposedly famous, Les Rambles, I wheeled down Les Rambles and saw the amazing sunset.

Supposed, the bus stop at the bottom of Les Ramble was where I could get a bus to the train station, I waited for 90 minutes and still no bus. I had just enough time to make it under my own steam so I hurriedly wheeled to station. I arrived with minutes to spare,  I looked at their clock – 21.13 – I looked at my watch – 20:13 – I had missed the train !.

An hour of panic ensued but I decided to get the same train the following night, I changed my watch and returned to the hostel.

I checked out, again, and took my bags to the train station to leave in the lockers, again. I spent several hours ‘people watching’ at town hall circle !., then took a bus down to the beach where I spent the rest of the day ‘people watching’.

I arrived at station with train leaving earlier than I thought, so another rush down the platform to my carriage – the last of 87 carriages !. The train had just started to move as I was being ‘manhandled’ to my sleeper compartment.

After a reasonably good night’s sleep, the train pulled into Paris station at 8:15am, I was to spend the day in Paris and get an evening Euro star train through the channel tunnel back to London. Paris, being a huge city, had multiple stations and I had arrived at a different one to where the Euro star trains departed. I took a taxi past the cathedral of Notre Dame to the correct station, bought an evening Euro star ticket and took another taxi to the Eiffel tower. The view from up the famous Paris icon was amazing, although the city wasn’t as classically European looking as my view of Barcelona. I then sat in the sun in the park below the Eiffel tower ‘people watching’ before taking a taxi to the Arc de Triumph and wheeling down the Chanes Ellysae.

My train was booked for 8:15pm, being rush hour in Paris, I decided to head back to the station at 5:15pm. I waited an hour for a taxi, but nothing so I decided to hurriedly wheel back, after wheeling for an hour and a half, I found a taxi which only just got me to the station in time. I hadn’t enough French Francs for the fare so I convinced him to take double the fare in Spanish Paesators.

Going through the channel tunnel means a border crossing with passport control and customs officers. For an unknown reason the customs officer decided to search me, unfortunately I had bought a souvenir knife in Barcelona – he found it. I missed my train, got a telling off, a fine and a record on my passport that I was trying to bring an illegal weapon into the country !.

 

I caught the Euro star an hour later and arrived back in London at 11:15pm. Only 8 days after my initial flight to Barcelona.

My first European experience taught me many things ; Barcelona is a beautiful city, the wheelchair accessible public transport makes it fantastic. Although Paris is one of the great European cities, no wheelchair accessible transport makes it less accessible and more expensive in taxi fares.

I hated Spain for the first 24 hours due to the language difficulties, but after 24 hours I realised that full verbal communication need not be necessary for enjoyable travelling experiences. Only knowing the words yes, no and thank-you made me realise language difference is immaterial

But the most important being that solo travel = freedom and challenges make travelling enjoyable.

9. Around the world- Experiencing unknown delights

The United States and Canada

With many itineraries tried, a viable route was decided upon, dates set and a round-the-world airline ticket purchased.

My first destination Would be the United States, starting in Boston and ending in Hawaii, travelling to as many towns or cities as I could. I would get a 3 month VISA for the United States and I intended to utilise it all.

23rd of July As my travels had started over a year ago, it was yet another early start, 6am at the Airport at Heathrow. I started my round-the-world adventure as I intended the entire trip to be, a life enriching experience, so with confidence I asked about a free upgrade to business class. They weren’t forthcoming but as I looked like a budget traveller wearing trainers, shorts and a t-shirt I wasn’t surprised. This became standard practice as the years went by, I would invariably ask for an upgrade but looking like a budget traveller not a business executive, I was always refused.

Once in Boston, I took a taxi to the hostel. Right away I felt the hostel wasn’t going to be to my liking.

After a good night’s sleep it was time to explore Boston. It was cloudy and wasn’t very warm which didn’t endear me to Boston. The closest ‘point of interest’ was the library, which didn’t make for a very exciting start.

I then looked around a shopping mall before catching a bus to Harvard. I inquired about a possible future entry. The high-light of the day was seeing a street performer performing uncovered escapology, the crowd witnessed his double jointed’ness’ and ability to dislocate joints at will.

Thankfully the day ended in a far better light than it started.

The following day I took another bus to Harvard to see some more of the campus, a metro to a touristy shopping area, another metro to the J.F.K. memorial, yet another metro to Boston Common and finally a metro and bus back to the hostel. A busy but uneventful day.

2 months previously I had arranged to meet a friend from university at a famous bar in Boston at a set time on this day. It took me 2 hours to find the bar but I arrived on time, I waited and waited, I even phoned his mum in England but to no avail. I then proceeded to the Greyhound bus station, where I had to wait another 6 hours for my overnight bus to Niagra Falls.

I went to the Canadian side of the Falls which despite being very touristy was quite a built-up town. There was only one hostel at Niagra and it had steps everywhere but my choice as a budget traveller was limited to the hostel or sleeping rough !.

I had a stereotypical Canadian breakfast of pancakes with maple syrup before going on the tourist’s favourite, Maid of the Mist, a boat ride around the base of the falls. I then went up the street full of shops selling expensive tourist tack and into the huge newly built casino. The fact that people would sit in-front of a machine for hour upon hour feeding it dollar after dollar amazed me.

As I mentioned before, Niagra is very touristy but I thought it had a very friendly atmosphere and was a great little town.

One night in a hostel full of steps was enough. I got the morning Greyhound up to Toronto, where immediately I got the impression of cleanliness and modern environment of Toronto. I checked-out the main street and the huge Eton centre (a complex full of shops, entertainment, restaurants, etc).

I found a hostel which is a university dormitory for most of the year but for the summer vacation it becomes a hostel. It was a huge place with only a few guests so I got a private room. After my dinner, one of the best street vendor hot dog’s I have ever had, I decided I wanted some beer. Off I went to find a liquor store, I knew general stores couldn’t sell beer, but I had no idea the liquor stores in Canada were so few and far between. I wheeled round for an hour and still no liquor store, I returned to the hostel tired and with no alcoholic refreshment !.

I had only been travelling for a week and already I was exhausted, too much wheeling and too little relaxing, so I had a very quiet day. I got out of bed at 1pm, went out to eat and resumed my beer hunt – this time with success. Then sat watching US sitcoms on TV all evening with, my favourite, cheese puffs and alcoholic refreshment !.

Checking-out a Canadian Chinatown was the day’s mission, would it compare to San Francisco’s ?. It did, it wasn’t as big but the colours and smells of all the weird and wonderful products were as vibrant. The Chinese characters on the many signs and Chinese language being spoken gave it that authentic ‘oriental feel’.

Despite the previous days rest I was still getting pain from my wrist due to too much wheeling. So I spent the evening at a strip club watching Canadian flesh and drinking over-priced beer !.

The CN tower was the following days adventure. Going up the tallest structure in the world is a very touristy activity but it was worth the expense as I got a great view of the ‘Great Lakes’. The glass floor area which allows you to see the ground far, far below and the muscular German tourist who pulled me up a flight of stairs to the upper outside viewing platform, at the time, were worth noting – But are pointless details now !.

I took the metro to the inaccessible Eton centre station. Then spent 5 hours in the strip club watching more Canadian flesh and drinking more over-priced beer !.

Another lazy morning in bed, a 3rd and final visit to the strip club and this time a free hot dog from my new friend, the street vendor. That evening preparations were being made for the following day’s Caribbean street carnival, I could feel tension in the air, a physic feeling !. I watched more American sitcoms and went to bed.

The next morning I woke and immediately put the radio on, my physic feeling had been correct, someone had been shot and killed just 2 minutes from the hostel.

It was time to leave Canada and re-enter the United States, I got a Greyhound to Buffalo. This time there was no mention of wheelchair access at the hostel so I decide to stay just one night. However, when I arrived the hostel had recently been modernised and the bathroom wheelchair access was second to none.

I saw a sign advertising a free Shakespeare in the Park concert – being a budget traveller, the word ‘free’ is highly appreciated and therefore a must do or must see activity – It turned out to be a quite professionally performance of different Shakespeare plays. It was an outdoor concert, the stage area at the bottom of the hill and the audience sat on the grassy slope leading up the hill. It was a warm evening but earlier that day it had been raining which meant the grass was wet and very slippery.

Sitting half way up the embankment, I suddenly felt my wheels slip and soon I was skidding down the hill in a 4 wheel drift position. The performance was still going on, the people sitting below me were sent scattering, as I picked up speed to the point where it was all going to end horribly. The performance had stopped and at the velocity at which I was skidding, it was looking like I could end up on stage in a pool of blood. Luckily or unluckily, I hit mound of dirt and I was sent flying like a projectile from my wheelchair, I hit the ground and bouncing twice. I was physically unhurt but my pride was severely bruised.

The performance, on stage, restarted. But my stunt driving show, the show of the night, had finished. Two guys helped me back into my wheelchair and I went to sit with them, this time heavily secured half way up the embankment. We sat and drank beer while watching more of the performance, as the beer effects increased, our conversations became more frequent and the volume amplified. Despite my earlier magnificent stunt show, we were ‘encouraged’ to leave, our amplified voices were causing annoyance. Even the actors on stage were being disrupted by our “un’Shakespeare’like” talk of fast women and fast cars !.

 

We decided to head back to the one guy’s house for refreshments. I choose the wrong time to voice my adverse and immature opinions on Marriage. I never got the refreshment, When I saw his wedding ring and wedding photos I knew I had said the wrong thing to a newly-wed and instantly his previous beer generosity became dislike !.

As planned, next day, I got back on the train and headed for New York where I immediately transferred to a Washington bound train. As I took the efficient Washington metro to the hostel, I was stopped and, embarrassingly, someone tried to give me money much like a what homeless tramp would beg for. When I found the hostel, I immediately located the hostel, showered and changed my clothes !.

To recover from my ‘incident’ in Buffalo, I spent the morning in bed. In the afternoon I went on the FBI tour, like many things in Washington, it is free – a budget traveller’s favourite word, free. I queued for hours but it was worth the wait, I saw the American public’s worrying fascination for guns.

The tall, pencil shaped structure of the Washington Monument, made famous in so many American movies, is nothing more, nothing less than it looks in movies. I returned to the hostel too find row and rows of people sitting on the door step, the reason being is that it is not advised to walk the streets at night because, despite being Americas capital, the high number of police a

 

day I couldn’t go on the tour inside because of some garden party celebration. I then went to the Air and Space Museum, I am not normally a Museum loving person but this was the best museum I had ever seen. Then to the Capitol Building, famous for its dome roof, where all the big American government department heads and state senators meet. For an unknown reason, people in wheelchairs got a free private tour, I tried to sound invested and ask questions but 2 or 3 times I could not refrain from yawning !.

The following day I went on a tour of the pentagon with other people from the hostel, going through the ‘corridors of power’ in a building which has restricted public access was exciting. I then returned to the Air and Space museum to see some more of the exhibits which I failed to see in this expansive building the previous day, before returning to the hostel with a punctured tyre.

After repairing and re-inflating the tyre, next morning, I  woke to visit the white house. A huge advantage to being in a wheelchair is that there is a separate queue, bypassing the 5 hour queue which everyone else has to join for the limited number of tour places available. To get a tour place able bodied people must arrive at 5am for the limited number of tours between 9am and 11am but being in a wheelchair I can and did arrive at 8:50am, just 10 minutes before the first tour. The tour was worth my 10 minute wait but if I had queued for 5 hours I would have been very disappointed.

Later on, I got the train back to New York, all the stereotypes of New York taxi drivers being crazy and dangerous are correct. my ride to the Banana Bungalow hostel in New York was over quickly, with no respect for the rules of the road and weaving through holes in the congested traffic seemingly half the size of our car. Despite being advised that the hostel had wheelchair access, it didn’t – it had a lift but I could not get into the bathroom – This was Banana Bungalow, a party hostel so I didn’t care. Characteristically for Banana Bungalow, the hostel was very dirty but had big comfortable beds which provided me with a good sleep.

Breakfast – New York style. I went into a general store for a sandwich, I knew sandwiches in America were large with generous filling but this was New York a bigger and better America than normal. The sandwich I got was obese and not with copious amounts of salad, it was 2 regular, meagre slices of bread with a light covering of mayonnaise and then an inch thick ‘door-stop’ of meat. A sandwich – New York style.

I had 2 days in which to explore New York, the famous icons around New York my itinery. I went to the epicentre first, Times Square, The chaos of New York became evident with over 10 million people passing through Times Square every day. Then Broadway and 42nd street, the birthplace of so many musicals. I then went down to see the world’s financial hub, the Wall Street stock exchange. From there the free Stratton island ferry past the statue of liberty, the symbol of American freedom. Finally the, not so famous, Battery park market. I went to bed exhausted.

Although American’s speak English, New Yorkers, appear, only to speak it to a small degree they appear to have picked up a ‘regional dialect’ which makes full understanding impossible.

My sleep had not  given me sufficient rest so still exhausted I left the hostel to explore some more of New York’s famous icons. 5th Avenue, New York’s up market shopping district then the Empire State building, with views of the sprawling metropolis with the contrast of the huge ‘green’ Central Park. Finally Macy’s, reportedly the largest department store in the world, but it must recently have been on a diet !.

I returned to the train station, where I had come from only 2 days previously, exhausted after my 2 day world-wind tour of New York. I was taking a short ride down to Philadelphia where I intended to relax after the hustle and bustle of New York. As I should of known by then, my ‘travelling plans’, more often than not, don’t always happen as I intend.

This time it was the sleeping arrangement at the hostel in Philadelphia. It was about a year before I was forced to sleep on the floor in a hostel TV room, now it was to happen again. All the bedrooms were upstairs so my only option was to sleep on the floor in the TV room downstairs, albeit on a mattress. Thank god for small mercies !.

Sleeping as the last person went to bed and waking as the first rose, I managed a precisely a third of the amount of sleep I needed. Doing nothing would mean wasting possible new unchartered travelling experience so I headed down to the US Mint, the American coin makers factory, albeit with my eyes only half open.

It was a very uninteresting activity, but I wanted to record the record the interior exhibits, for what ?., I don’t know. As my flash went off to take a photo of an impressive looking eagle statue, numerous flashing sirens started and piercing alarm bells ringing. I assumed that I might see some action from an armed gang trying to rob the factory, but no, no armed gang, just me and my camera trying to take an innocent photo. 2 security guards sprinted into the room and started to interrogate me about my criminal act of photography !.

My sleep deprivation explains how I missed the numerous signs that prohibit it photography. So I spent an easy afternoon at Penn’s landing, a semi-famous harbour and another evening watching TV, with my favourite, ‘cheese puffs’.

Sleeping on the floor in the TV room was not an ideal situation to aid relaxation, so I took a Greyhound bus to Atlantic City, a tame Las Vegas on the east coast. I needed to find a budget hotel to ail my tired limbs !. I found a good cheap room above an Irish Pub which was in an ideal location, virtually on the beach.

In Atlantic City I gained the immediate attention of all the unsavoury characters – tramps, drunks and general weirdo’s. But the privacy of a hotel room gave me the time and space I needed to unwind and relax.

The next morning, the aging lift had broken which meant I was stuck upstairs. Within 45 minutes it was fixed but the hotel staff offered me a free night for the inconvenience caused – for only a 45 minute wait I could break the lift everyday and stay there for weeks for free every night !.

That afternoon, I wheeled down the rest of the old style wooden boardwalk and saw some of the many casinos. Across the road from my hotel was a strip club which, being so close, I felt it my duty to explore !.

The following day, unfortunately, the lift was working so I proceeded down the boardwalk to a casino which offered free bingo, free with a catch !. I decided to see how free  it was. I was taken right through the casino, past all the slot machines, card tables, roulette wheels, restaurant and bar, so I could see how fantastic  the casino was.

The free bingo was upstairs so a blond casino Barbie doll took my free card upstairs to play for me. I assumed I couldn’t win, nobody would win. But I was wrong, the Barbie doll came down stairs and told me I had won, not too much, but enough for 2 more nights’ accommodation. Of course the money was on a card used for credit on their own casino slots but I used a tiny amount on the 5c slots and cashed in the rest. Maybe it wasn’t so unfortunate the hotel lift was working, if it hadn’t, I’d have missed the lucrative free bingo.

Later, I saw an unimpressive Las Vegas style cabaret and again, drunk way to much at a strip club resulting in me collapsing on the floor in my room, which is where I slept. Surrealistically, my reason for staying in a hotel was to avoid being forced to sleep on the floor !.

Nursing my hangover, I headed downstairs to the Irish Pub where their hangover cure was aptly named a ‘Poor Richards Special’ – it was a surprising good hangover remedy of soup and steal sandwich.

 

Atlantic City had proved to be a cheap destination, with free accommodation and a casino win.

Later that day I took a Greyhound back to Philadelphia where I slept on the floor in the hostel before catching a train back up to Buffalo. I wanted to re-experience the good times which I had on my previous visit, I should have known the previous spontaneous visit couldn’t be repeated.

In New York a stereotypically obese black lady sat next to me. Remember, America is bigger, so this woman wasn’t just fat but overly obese. She used her seat and half of mine. After 10 minutes of agony, my confidence kicked in and I asked her to move.

I arrived in Buffalo with a sense of expectation. The blisters on my hands were of no consequence, I wanted more fun travelling experiences.

I soon realised that my previous past experiences in Buffalo were just that, past. On my first of 2 days I did nothing but see a movie at the cinema and on the second day all I did is go to see a movie at the cinema. The most interesting thing I did was eat at McDonald’s 3 times in one day without throwing up !.

My initial sense of expectation about fun travelling experiences hadn’t materialised. I didn’t want to stay in Buffalo for a 3rd boring day so, stupidly thinking the train would be more exciting, caught the train east bound to Albany where I caught the west bound train at back through Buffalo to New York and on to Chicago.

Arriving in Chicago 22 hours later, after sleeping on the floor of the train, I swore never to catch a train one way then come back along the same route again, total stupidity !.

In Chicago the buses are different to any others in America, they still have the same wheelchair lift but they have a different clamp mechanism to secure wheelchairs. I got the first one during the busy rush hour – I got to my stop, the driver got the lift ready for me to dissent, but I couldn’t move the clamp mechanism was stuck. I was wrestling with the clamp release mechanism, lifting it is the usual way to release the clamp but nothing happened, I was pushing down, pushing it forward, left and right but still nothing happened. The other passengers were getting annoyed at the delay. Other passengers and the driver were trying to help but to no avail they were even trying brute force to open the sturdy clamp mechanism. The driver eventually asked all the other, infuriated, passengers to get off and catch the next bus. The driver phoned his manager and an engineer to come down in a car, they got on the bus, walked over to me and pulled the release mechanism backwards, towards me. It opened, easily. I was free despite causing much rush hour commotion. The manager and engineer just stood there with a puzzled looks on their faces, as if to say ‘What ?.?.?.’.

I found the hostel which was similar to the one in Toronto, a university dormitory for most of the year but a hostel for the summer. They gave me a 2 bedroom self contained flat with bathroom, kitchen and living room all to myself.

4 weeks had gone by and surprisingly it had only rained once, my first day in Chicago was the second – Chicago the windy city or should it be Chicago the rainy city !.

It was only midday which gave me time to explore Chicago, albeit in the rain. My first stop was a very impressive, newly built, all marble building which uninspiring turned out to be a library. Then up and back down the 2 main streets of high-rise Chicago.

The following day I saw a free outdoor jazz jam which was so informal that it had to be the work of musical geniuses. I then went to a Nike Town store which is a 3 story shop devoted entirely to anything and everything with the Nike brand and next door the Sony Centre which is the same but exclusively Sony products.

A morning trek to see what I hoped might be an interesting spectacle, was a waste of arm power. I went to see the largest commercial building in the world, Merchandise Mall. It is a very touristy activity to go and see ‘the largest something’ or ‘the tallest something else’. I didn’t know what to expect but it was a very large grey rectangular block type building, it looked very much like a prison. It had only 2 floors for shopping and 13 floors of ……. other commercial stuff.

The building of Illinois of the other hand was architecturally interesting, it was also a shopping mall but it had strange inverted curved walls and weird sculptures outside .

I bought some beer so I could drink and watch TV that evening at the hostel. There wasn’t a TV in my flat so I went down to the TV lounge, opened my first beer to watch the movie, no sooner had I done so than the security guard came over to me and told me alcoholic beverages weren’t allowed. Hardly a security matter but I decided I would take the beers up to my room finish the one I was drinking and put the other 3 in my bag for consumption at a later date, but  he was adamant, he was going t confiscate all 4 beers now. I was equally adamant that he wasn’t. I eventually decided my arguments were falling on deaf ears so I wheeled off mid argument with all 4 beers. The Security guard didn’t follow so I went up to my room and consumed all 4 in quick succession for maximum effect while listening to music on the radio.

Having not learned my lesson from the previous morning’s unsuccessful outing, I went to ‘the tallest building in the world’, Sears Tower. In fact, that was an interesting experience, looking over Chicago’s network of canals, the other high rise buildings, dwarfed by their ‘grand-daddy’ and beautiful lake Michigan.

I went to the stock exchange, absolute chaos, then the beach, deserted, then to Hooters, a restaurant with big breasted Barbie doll waitresses. As I waited for the bus to return to the hostel, someone tried to give me money much like a what homeless tramp would beg for, this for a second time. When I found the hostel, I immediately returned to the hostel, had a good shower and went to bed.

With only a month gone and only the beginning of my first world trip. The metropolis of New York and Washington, the nation’s capital, were long gone – my writing becomes shorter in descriptive content but faster and easier to read with-out any loss of detail.

 

There was an air show advertised, which was very impressive. 2.5 million people were expected to see the vast array of flying machines. The highlight being a thunderous and very low fly-past of a Stealth Bomber. The following day I visited the Planetarium, which to be honest, was a waste of time because firstly, it’s a museum and secondly, I had no interest in its contents. Sitting       in the warm sun on the banks of Lake Michigan over-looking the Chicago skyline was much more relaxing.

I then took the over-night train to Memphis, luckily for me but unluckily for everyone else, I found a bag of pillows and before the attendant could give them out I tipped them all on the floor near my seat to make myself a comfortable mattress. In Memphis, I found a cheap hotel so I could rest in privacy and watch TV in bed. Watching TV was the best thing I did in Memphis, my exploration revealed that Elvis is still alive !. Maybe not physically but Elvis mania is Memphis’s  over-powering theme. I only spent one night there before taking the train down to New Orleans.

I had learnt of a cheap hotel in New Orleans, it had no TV or private bathroom but I got a private room with air conditioning, a necessity in New Orleans. The tourist’s favourite street in New Orleans is named Bourbon Street which has an amazing party atmosphere. After a good night’s sleep I went down to the huge Riverside mall made famous by a recent accident with a colossal tanker. I then took a ferry back and forth across the Mississippi River. While wheeling through the park beside Mississippi River I met a blond, big breasted lady named Jill. I took her address in Las Vegas and promised to visit her (This was the first meeting of a good, long lasting friendship). I then went to the French Market before partaking in drunken activities on Bourbon Street. I started my escapade in a bar with a 3 for 1 happy hour, after making some friends in that bar a bar crawl ensued.

Suffering a major hangover, I went back to Bourbon Street to ‘people watch’. I met a pimp and his prostitute, they were an interesting pair, very ‘cool’ and had money to burn. That evening I could drink with last night’s new group of friends or hang around with my new pimp friend, I ended up missing them both and getting drunk alone.

After only 3 hours drunken sleep, caught the train to Anniston in Alabama where I had arranged to meet Garry (The ex-US marine who I had met in San Diego the previous year). We drove for an hour to reach his small, wooden house on the Georgia-Alabama border, I had arranged to stay with him, his wife and beautiful daughter for a week. That week I really felt the Southern hospitality I had heard so much about, spent a day with Garry and his wife’s parents, went fishing on the colossal lake on Garry’s door-step, was a guest of honour at Garry’s church, had barbecue party, ate at a Korean restaurant which turned into a full day’s excursion, went shopping at a tax-free military base supermarket, shot Garry’s two guns – the easily obtainable and perfectly legal 38 Smith and Wesson sent me deaf.

We had an interesting and expensive day in Atlanta. The trip started well with a look around ‘underground Atlanta’, the problems started when we decided to take the metro to Centennial Olympic Park. A long journey made us realise that we had caught the metro in the wrong direction, we crossed the bridge to the opposite track when a security guard came rushing over to explain in no uncertain terms to Garry that drinking soda in a metro station was strictly prohibited. after Garry’s telling off we got the reverse train to Centennial Olympic Park, we had virtually exited the metro station when Garry lit up a cigarette, another security guard rushed over, this time Garry was told off but also issued a fine. After seeing the Olympic Park we went experience a classic American phenomenon – ‘kerb service’ – greasy food served through your car window as you sit in nothing more than a car park.

After Atlanta we headed for Garry’s brother in law’s house to see his classic American hot rod. As could see the shining beast as we entered the driveway, a ‘71 Firebird with a modified 8 litre engine protruding from the ‘hood’. Garry’s brother in law had bigger and better competition cars so he offered Garry the keys to this illegal toy, illegal because of the omission of seat belts. The rumble of the engine, the speed, the acceleration, the power slide we pulled were all utterly amazing. The expense of playing with this toy for an hour were not bore by us, we took the car out with a full tank of fuel, we bought it back empty, with far less tyre rubber and the engine in a terrible state (it overheated and stopped twice requiring push starts).

Before I left Garry’s family home, Garry’s wife cooked me a traditional southern style roast dinner then Garry took me back to Anniston station to catch a train back to Washington.

I slept on the train floor again before the train arrived in Washington. On my second visit to Washington I visited the supreme court, the Capitol building and the Air and Space museum again. The next day I caught the train down to Newport News and then a speeding bus down to Virginia Beach. The hostel had no wheelchair access, reluctantly I choose to sleep out in the yard under the stars. Very  surprisingly I had 4 wonderful night’s sleep and many, many sweet

dreams.

On my first day in Virginia Beach I saw a charity parade of colossal proportions before exploring the beach, boardwalk and pier, as had become the ‘norm’ someone lent me a rod and I caught 3 fish. I spoke to a married couple from Washington, I talked to them about my experiences and adventures which I was having at that time and my future intentions as a budget traveller in a wheelchair, they tried to gave me $20, I tried to explain that charity is not needed or wanted.

The following day was spent at the beach, ‘baking’ in the intense sun, with the other hostel guests. After another dreamy night’s sleep under the stars, I was interview by a reporter from the local paper about my travel experiences and my intention, at the time, to find work. Again, I spent the day relaxing on the beach in the quiet and tranquil atmosphere of Virginia Beach.

After seeing the unimpressive sunrise I got the bus back to Newport News and the train through Washington to New York. I tried unsuccessfully to use my, expired, rail pass to get to a ticket all the way to California, I hoped they wouldn’t notice the expiry date on the pass but unfortunately they did and I was refused. I tried this procedure of trying to get a free ticket with my expired rail pass 3 times over the following 3 days but each time they noticed.

I had enjoyed my original 2 day stay in New York so I decided to stay for 5 more days. The problem was the complete lack of available hostel beds, I tried several hostels but to no avail. I went to see an old friend who lived in New York but I couldn’t stay there. I was highly opposed to staying in an over-priced New York hotel, so with no other option went to the biggest hostel in New York hoping for a miracle !. They were still adamant that they had no beds but as I had no-where else to go, but sleep on the street, I decided to wait in reception. At 1am someone appeared from behind reception and told us (me and other 5 people) that they had found some empty beds. We followed this person upstairs to an empty room with 12 mattresses on the floor which meant me and 5 other people had gone through utter despair for nothing.

After the relief of getting night’s sleep, I headed back to Times Square and Broadway, I discovered that people in wheelchairs could see Broadway musicals at a subsidised rate which was less than the cost of a cinema ticket. That day I saw the first of many Broadway musicals sitting next to people ‘dressed to the nines’ while I sit there in shorts, T-shirt and trainers only paying a tenth of their ticket price. That day I saw ‘The life’ before going back to Times Square .where I drank beer flavoured water in a strip club and then waited for a bus in the pouring rain for an hour.

On my final few days in New York I spent far too much time and money in strip clubs and porn shops. I did manage to get to a ‘Ricki Lake show’ TV show taping and see ‘Phantom of the Opera’ on Broadway.

I decided to get a train from the East to West coast, a trip of over 3,000 mile, stopping once in Glenwood Springs in the Colorado Rockies for a day. I boarded the train in New York bound for Chicago where I would immediately transfer to the train bound for the West coast. As was becoming a regular occurrence, I slept on the floor.

There was a ‘strange’ feeling in the air, I couldn’t put my finger on it but something was amiss. Then an announcement was made, The train ahead of ours had been derailed which meant a long delay. This meant more boredom, at least until I met the delectable girl from Ireland. We chatted and chatted for the length of the delay and the final journey into Chicago. We soon realised that we had missed the connecting train to the west coast in Chicago, Amtrak being responsible for 50 people missing the connection, offered us either a free night’s stay in a Chicago hotel and catch the train tomorrow or fly people ahead to catch the train in Denver. A night in a posh hotel and a night out with a delectable Irish girl was undoubtedly my preference !.

We went out for a meal and drinks to the Hard Rock Cafe, by pure chance, they were celebrating BB King’s birthday so party atmosphere was enjoyed. I got very drunk resulting in the inability to successfully transfer from my wheelchair to the bed so I collapsed on the floor which is where I slept, still clothed.

I woke early the next day, with a terrible hangover, somehow I found the courage to buy some more alcohol for evening consumption required for sleep assistance, before boarding the train to Glenwood Springs. The regular occurrence of the previous 2 nights became a reality again, sleeping on the floor in a drunken daze !.

My new, delectable Irish friend got off the train in Denver, leaving me to witness the natural splendour of the Colorado Rockies. For the first time the train arrived on schedule into Glenwood Springs. The hostel had no wheelchair access but I was getting used to that. During my dinner in Pizza Hut a had a severe attack of breathlessness or momentary heart failure so the hostel were called, they came to pick me up and put me to bed. The incident probably occurred because Glenwood Springs is located at 10,000 feet above sea level which means that there is less oxygen to breath.

The next day I felt fine so decided to go white water rafting on the Colorado river, as there had been no rain for the previous several weeks, the white water was virtually still so the ‘excitement’ and ‘thrill’ of white water rafting became more like rowing a boat around a lake !.

The reason for Glenwood Springs’s name is the natural hot springs. I visited the biggest, a man-made pool which is naturally heated to 104 degrees – Fahrenheit not centigrade or I would have been boiled alive !.

My dip in the hot springs pool had made me late to get to the station, but a lifeguard found me a lift across Glenwood. I boarded the train bound for San Francisco, I slept on the floor again for the fourth time in five nights.

I arrived in San Francisco having travelled for 73 hours and travelled 3,379 very long miles.

Once in San Francisco I became irritable and just wanted to find a bed. The only one available was up a flight of stairs, I had no energy to find an alternative so I got someone to carry me up so I could get some much needed sleep.

I spent the flowing day exploring the huge and magnificent Chinatown, the exquisite food being the highlight. The following day’s taxi ride to the station became my private sightseeing tour including a drive down Lombard St, the wiggliest street in the world. I missed the direct Amtrak train so caught a commuter train to Bakersfield then an Amtrak bus to Santa Barbara.

With 2 months of my 3rd trip to America but my first world trip gone, My life changed forever, I was no longer what you might term a “tourist traveller”, I became a lot more relaxed. Alcohol and parties were to become a regular occurrence and subconsciously I became a lot more relaxed.

I travelled a total of 11,731 miles on Amtrak trains.

10. San Fransico excert

For the first day in my American Adventure it was a cloudy and not particularly warm. I did the ‘touristy’ thing and went along the promenade, looking along all the piers and the harbour area. I also tried unsuccessfully to ride the famous San Francisco trams up and down the inclines. After queuing for almost an hour, was told there was no wheelchair accessibility on the trams. I got the supervisor from across town and had a huge argument about the wheelchair inaccessibility and the illegality under American law.

On a detour from the sea front into downtown San Francisco I got a glimpse at some of the inclines but later found these to be mere mole hills in a city of Everest’s !,

A new day, to feel a new way. Well, by the end of the day I would feel exhausted and have severely aching arms. I took the bus to the opposite end of the tram run, the bus circumnavigate around the base of the major San Francisco climbs so I had no real conception of the Everest directly between me and the Hostel. The first block was a hill, the second a steep hill, the third a mountain, the fourth had to be the mountain’s peak – but no, on it went, each block steeper and steeper and steeper, it was taking 30 minutes climb for each block. Many, many people offered to help push me up the ridiculously steep hills but each time I refused, expressing that it was a personal goal and I needed to prove to myself that I could do it – and I did !.

But 10 blocks of ridiculous incline skyward meant 10 blocks of ridiculous decline back to ground level and home-base. The easy part if walking, but if in a wheelchair a death run !. As I whizzed past moving bicycles and cars, I realised my gloved hands wouldn’t grip the my speeding wheels. Crossing several cross junctions while preying for a reprieve in cross traffic. At other junctions I left 30 foot rubber skid marks behind as I slid to a halt. This was my experience of San Francisco – exhausted and lucky to be alive I returned to the hostel !.

11. Bangkok excert

Being my first solo trip to Thailand, I didn’t quite know what to expect from Thai peoples attitude to someone travelling  in a wheelchair alone. Previously I had been with Justin and their reaction was one of utter disbelief,  to my surprise, their reaction was not one of inaction but of natural curiosity but also of wanting to help if or when I needed. Although at times ‘help’ is definitely not what I got, the intention was there but not the execution. I even had people in shops offer to to wash my dirt covered hands. The best description for Thai attitude, and throughout Asia, is of having no preconceived ideas  about people who use a wheelchair.

An inexplicable question is our desire to eat weird and, not always wonderful food when in strange countries. We feel the need to sample the local delicacies, in Thailand not simply rice dishes or noodles cooked with a new vegetable, but grasshoppers, plain and simple, no sauce – just a bag of bugs !. Which obviously, stupid me, has to eat – when all I really want is a hot dog from Seven Eleven.

As they say : When in Rome ………., But this was Bangkok – the sex capital of the world. So my obligation was to sample some of the infamous sex shows. On one of my trips to an area known as Pat Pong, I saw something which certainly wasn’t an everyday occurrence. On my obligatory post-drinking binge to McDonald’s I saw an elephant queuing to get a McDonald’s. Bangkok is a huge city which is highly developed, not a Jungle. But I swear, all this fully grown mammal wanted has his cheeseburgers, and we’re probably not talking a ‘Happy Meal’ !. Being the generous person I am, I shared my Chicken Sandwich with  him which I don t suppose did much to halt animal starvation !.

A Tuk Tuk,  a small, 3 wheeled, motorcycle carriage, type thing – Not the easiest form of transport for someone with a wheelchair. After a previous unsuccessful  attempt to ‘mount’ one on a previous trip to Thailand, I wouldn’t let the cheapest mode of transport beat me.  So hailing one to  take me the half mile to my favourite drinking haunt, I decided just to sit on the back seat and hang the wheelchair from the back. The plan failed miserably, I ended up perching on the floor holding onto the wheelchair for dear life – But did a tuk tuk defeat me ?, it definitely did not.!

12. Conclusion

I have done things and been to places that many people only dream about. Travel has taught me so much about life and that we should all love to live. The millions of people I’ve met have taught about the way we all think and behave. I have matured mentally and personally through the many experiences I’ve had, each and every day. I have lived a fantasy lifestyle in every respect and my Life has been Madness.

My favourite part of the worl12. Conclusiond is south East Asia, the most compelling reason why I find it so alluring is the positive treatment as a disabled person. The simplest way to explain this is that western over-education is a miseducation. The basic fact is I am disabled, in south east Asia I am not made to feel ‘different’.

I hope that after you read ‘My Mad Life’ you will get a brief mental picture of my 8 years of traveling. I need people to understand that despite being in a wheelchair, my life and anyone else’s life can improved with the freedom of travel.

My subconscious philosophy has always been : The more we experience and the greater we are  challenged – wheth enjoy the richness of life.

 

5. My American dream is realized

Western United States (Visiting Canada & Mexico)

June 29th : the first day of travel and the first of many early starts. 3:30am and I’m off down to Gatwick Airport, London, to catch my 10 hour flight to Houston, America – My first ever time out of the UK and my first ever flight. In Houston I changed planes and flew up to Seattle, that was my first real glimpse of America, it was a beautiful day and the views over the Rocky Mountains were magnificent. I arrived in Seattle at 4:30pm, 12:30am the following day in England. I found a cheap motel near the Airport and relaxed with my thoughts of my first ‘out-of-England experience’.

I awoke with a refreshing sense for adventure. Breakfast at ‘Denny’s’ was my first taste of real American food, with huge portions and refillable drinks, free refills, a concept unknown to the British. My second experience was tipping, a concept virtually compulsory in America and the tax applied after ordering left me utterly bewildered. I then checked-out of the hotel and decided to head into Seattle in a search for cheap accommodation in the form of a hostel.

I was told that wheelchairs could use buses, ‘how’ ?. I had no idea as it wasn’t possible in England. I approached the front door and shouted up to the driver “I need to get into Seattle”, I expected him to get off and lift me on, but no, he asked me to “move back”. I assumed that his reaction meant ‘go away’ but then a large mechanical platform slid out from under the bus. I steered onto the platform and the platform rose about 4 foot allowing me to wheel straight into the bus through the front door. A couple of seats were collapsed where the wheelchair was tied down for a secure ride. The entire process was safe, simple, effective and very easy.

We finally got into the centre of Seattle, where the bus lift system delivered me back to street level in the reverse manner to how it had lifted me. Unfortunately the idea of me towing my bag proved virtually impossible, thankfully, an Australian guy who I’d met on the bus was going to the same place as me, helped me the half mile. Seattle being built on previously erupted volcanic lava remains makes it very hilly, to the point of some hills being a stepped pedestrian walkway. Unfortunately this was the case for the hill leading down to the where I wanted to be but I could also reach my final destination from the bottom of the steep hill. So we took a long diversion to avoid the steps and wheeled up the steep hill.

 

My final destination was a hostel, previously unknown and undiscovered to me. A hostel is a cheap form of accommodation used by young budget travelers. Hostels are similar to hotels in that they have a reception and multiple bedrooms but you do not get a private bedroom or bathroom. Between 4 and 12 people sleep on bunk beds in each room, without conveniences such as a TV or fridge and maybe no other furniture. The room may or may not have a private bathroom so you could be sharing with only your room mates or there could be a larger bathroom to be shared by all guests. Seattle was my first hostel experience of many through-out America, Europe and Australia. In fact only on rare occasions would I ‘splash out’ on a hotel.

It took me 2 days to settle into the travelling life-style. My 3rd day ‘out-of-England’ was about seeing Seattle and doing the tourist ‘thing’. I rode the buses many times, cris-crossing Seattle. Rode the monorail, went up the famous Seattle space needle and tried a, supposedly ‘heart stopping’ fun fair ride. Due to the severity of Seattle’s hills wearing gloves to protect my hands from friction burns was imperative, the amount of rubber left behind after slides was enormous !.

I wasn’t sure of which form of long-distance ground transportation to use, buses, trains, car, minibus, etc. I decided to investigate buying a car to travel between cities. I got a bus to an out of town car dealer, I explained what I wanted and my budget, and he had only one car at a reasonable price – a 15 year old Cadillac. I decided to go to lunch and consider it, I went into a shop where they sold ‘sandwiches’, I decided upon a club sandwich, which was made for me and given to me in a carrier bag. In England a ‘sandwich’ is 2 pieces of bread with a single slice of meat or cheese with a lettuce leaf and a slice of tomato. In America, where everything is bigger, a sandwich is a foot long bread roll with half an inch of meat and half an inch of cheese, numerous sauces, piles of salad of every description and dressings. It is then impossible to eat, with any dignity but for anyone on a budget and not an over-sized American appetite, there was enough for 2 good meals.

Cadillac’s are big cars, huge cars, with equally huge engines and it was 15 years old, all 3 factors worried me. Could I drive  such a huge car in a strange country with vast mileages to cover ?. The engine was very big therefore unnecessarily fast and very ‘thirsty’ on fuel. Being 15 years old it would probably not have been too reliable. So I  passed-up on the car.

On the bus back to the hostel, it occurred to me that I could buy a van, travel in the van by day and sleep in it at night, hence saving money on accommodation and therefore giving me more money for an initial outlay. Another guest at the hostel was selling one after travelling from the south to the north of the west coast. I checked it out and it was fine, he even offered me the mattress from the back to sleep on. But there was 2 problems, number one because of the vast distances which needed to be covered (Even in England I did not like driving for 2 hours at a 9time, in America I could be talking 10 hours at a time). Problem number two was the wheelchair, travelling alone how would I get into the relatively high driving seat of a van and how would I get myself and my wheelchair into and out off the back where I would sleep, So I passed-up on the van and the idea of buying any vehicle.

One thing America is particularly famous for is it’s ‘mall’s’, in England, a shopping centre. The largest ‘mall’ on America’s west coast, I was told is near to Seattle. I got on the bus and 30 miles later, we arrived at the mall. 30 miles is not near !. In England, 30 miles is a long way to go for, what is, after all, only a group of shops. But at least, it was a free ‘day-out’ because I got free bus rides, on the entirely wheelchair accessible bus fleet.

All around Seattle they were advertising ‘The American War Veterans Games’, which were a smaller version of the Wheelchair Olympics. It was the first time I’d seen people in wheelchairs playing basketball, tennis, rugby – I was amazed.

I then came across a theatre performing ‘Cats’, assuming this was the Broadway version, I paid for a budget position seat ticket then was lead to wheelchair accessible seating area which was in a prime viewing location. I don’t know whether or not it was a Broadway travelling production, but I was very pleased when it ended. I was bored to tears. Outside it had started to pour with rain but I didn’t want to hang around or pay for a taxi so despite the problem of wheeling on the very wet and hilly ground of Seattle, I did. The 10 blocks could have been walked in 15 minutes but it took me an hour and a half, on the slippery hills.

July the 4th – Independence day, a big day of celebration in America. The hostel was having an all-you-can-eat barbecue outside the hostel and I definitely ate all I could. Me and a couple of Australian guys decide to round off the meal with a couple of beers at a near-by bar, this was not a particularly good idea because a full stomach and beer do not suit me, so my half digested barbecue ended up on the floor of the bar !.

Back at the hostel, with nothing to do, I began talking to a very attractive girl. We talked for hours, I hoped there might be something there, something more than just friends !, there wasn’t. My only consolation was that we then went to see the 4th of July fireworks together, with America trying to do everything bigger, the display was amazing with a constantly lit up night sky.

For a second day I went to watch the Veteran’s Games and for a second day was equally amazed. On my way back to the hostel, I stopped at the supposedly famous and supposedly wonderful fish market – I was very ‘un’amazed at what was less interesting than my home town market.

Back at the hostel I settled back with my bag of ‘chips’ (crisps in England) in front of the communal TV. I flicked through all the channels, in England we got 4 or 12 on Satellite, here 55 channels, in America where bigger is supposedly better, but there was just 55 channels of crap !.

Due to the severe tyre rubber loss from skidding on Seattle’s hills my wheelchair tyres were becoming thread-bare. It should have been simple to find and replace wheelchair tyres in wheelchair friendly America. After phoning every bike shop in Seattle, I discovered that the people from the Veteran’s Games had bought every wheelchair sized tyre in town – big problem !.

The following day, after a filling and very cheap all-you-can-eat (America’s favourite past-time) pizza and drink buffet, I went to the Veteran’s Games, once again. They were behind my problem and therefore were in a position to resolve it. After watching the virtual impossible wheelchair assault course event, I made it known to the appropriate people that I had a big problem because of their, supposed, ‘need’ to buy every wheelchair tyre in Seattle. Although they were reluctant, they gave me (for free) and fitted a new pair of my required tyres.

Having decided not to buy my own vehicle, I decided to check-out the possibility of using trains for long-distance ground transportation. I took one of the trams up the hill to the train station,

 

 

 

there were a variety of tickets or passes with numerous discounts, I took all the information to consider on what appeared quite a good means of transport. Later that day, I decided to go and sample the beer in a local bar but America has a drinking age restriction of 21. Like most underage people, I had fake ID but the ‘numskull’s’ wouldn’t accept it !.

I had been in Seattle for 10 days and decided the following day I should leave. I purchased an Amtrak (The American train company) 30 day west coast rail pass which would give me unlimited train trips up or down the west coast. I got my first ticket leaving the following day at 9:30am, going to Eugene in Oregon. I bought some much needed new gloves & a new back-pack and packed ready to leave the next morning.

I woke at 8am to catch the 9:30 train, it left Seattle on time but, as always, it arrived late into Eugene. At 5pm I had missed the last bus to the hostel, the hostel in fact was not in Eugene but in the surrounds. This meant I had to take a long taxi ride to the hostel, which was very expensive. The hostel was my idea of ‘hell in a forest’. The small community in an isolated forest was run by a group of self-sufficient, gypsy, veggie, hippy types. Due to the fact there was no shops or restaurants, I was forced to eat their expensive home grown meal – berry juice, doll, chutney, rice, etc. The worst thing was that the telephone wouldn’t accept coins, so I was – stuck in hell !.

With nothing to do, I spent the morning in bed, I ate home grown French toast and honey – somehow, not made with milk or eggs ! – but surprisingly it tasted very good. That afternoon I went to look to the fresh-water creek, although only half a mile, in my wheelchair, became a marathon off-road trek !. Happily on my return to the hostel, met an American family on vacation, who offered to share their dinner so I wasn’t forced to eat more gypsy, veggie slop !. Being far too early for bed, I went in search of entertainment. I found a hippy type music and dance concert which, I must admit, was quite good.

I needed to leave the ‘hippy commune’ so got a lift to the local village with the head gypsy and caught a bus back to Eugene in the hope of getting a seat on the southbound train. Thankfully the train was empty, so I got a ticket down to Sacramento in California. Sacramento would be my first stop in California, the State on which my American dream was based. It was the first of many over-night train journeys but with 2 seats I slept in a right-angle fashion, for 2 whole hours !.

My first impression of California was in the cold early morning. The train arrived at 6:30am and it took me an hour to find the hostel, a beautifully restored 18th century mansion, in my half-awaken state. I then had to wait another 45 minutes before the hostel opened and I could shower in the huge wheelchair accessible shower. I then spent the day exploring the city and gaining my first impressions of my life-long dream location, California – it lived-up to my dreams expectations and in many ways, far exceeded them. After drinking 2 pints of beer at the free outdoor concert, I returned to the hostel and slept soundly at 8pm.

Not wanting to waste my ‘Californian Dreams’, I decided to purchase a new camera to record the sights. A 15 block trek began to find the second-hand camera shop, was embarked upon. Going round in circles, up and down, back and forth and eventually with police advice, I found it. I purchased an Olympus zoom camera which due to its size, I assumed that originally it would have been expensive and advanced. Since then I have discovered that it was large because it is very old and neither good nor advanced !.

It was a very hot day so after having 4 large cokes (taking full advantage of the free refill policy), I decided to escape the heat and check-out an air conditioned ‘Virtual World’ computer game arcade. I spent 3 hours out of the midday heat in air conditioned comfort. Returning to the hostel I had my first of many ‘falling-out-of-wheelchair’ incidence’s – down a busy 4 lane one-way road, I ‘capsized’, as cars whizzed by on either side until eventually some good citizen came to my rescue !.

All around town were references to Old Sacramento, so I took a trip to this famed area of town. It was modelled as an old wild west town but with modern chain shops and restaurants in restored wooden buildings. A particular observation in the fast-food restaurants was the signs saying ‘No loitering – 10 minutes eating time’ which meant I couldn’t finish my meal without eating like a pig ! – Seriously, the policy was to dissuade the many tramps and beggars in Sacramento, in fact a nationwide policy to dissuade the many tramps and beggars everywhere in America.

At 5am, Sacramento looked decidedly eerie but with a 7am train booked to San Francisco the day ahead looked rosy. A 2 hour train journey to Oakland then a bus ride to San Francisco. The chartered bus for the journey to San Francisco had no wheelchair lift, so Amtrak paid for a private taxi to take me from Oakland to San Francisco. Once in San Francisco I needed to find somewhere to stay. I had heard of a hostel overlooking the Golden Gate bridge, although it was often full, I hoped they would have a bed at 10am. However it took me 3 hours to find the hostel, which was located in a beautiful park which overlooked the Golden Gate bridge, but at 1pm would they have a bed ?. Yes, they did but it was the last one and in a 22 bed dormitory.

For the first day in my American Adventure it was a cloudy and not particularly warm. I did the ‘touristy’ thing and went along the promenade, looking along all the piers and the harbour area. I also tried unsuccessfully to ride the famous San Francisco trams up and down the inclines. After queuing for almost an hour, was told there was no wheelchair accessibility on the trams. I got the supervisor from across town and had a huge argument about the wheelchair inaccessibility and the illegality under American law.

On a detour from the sea front into downtown San Francisco I got a glimpse at some of the inclines but later found these to be mere mole hills in a city of Everest’s !,

 

A new day, to feel a new way. Well, by the end of the day I would feel exhausted and have severely aching arms. I took the bus to the opposite end of the tram run, the bus circumnavigate around the base of the major San Francisco climbs so I had no real conception of the Everest directly between me and the Hostel. The first block was a hill, the second a steep hill, the third a mountain, the fourth had to be the mountain’s peak – but no, on it went, each block steeper and steeper and steeper, it was taking 30 minutes climb for each block. Many people offered to help push me up the ridiculously steep hills but each time I refused, expressing that it was a personal goal and I needed to prove to myself that I could do it – and I did !.

But 10 blocks of ridiculous incline skyward meant 10 blocks of ridiculous decline back to ground level and home-base. The easy part if walking, but if in a wheelchair a death run !. As I whizzed past moving bicycles and cars, I realised my gloved hands wouldn’t grip the my speeding wheels. Crossing several cross junctions while praying for a reprieve in cross traffic. At other junctions I left 30 foot rubber skid marks behind as I slid to a halt. This was my experience of San Francisco – exhausted and lucky to be alive I returned to the hostel !.

Back at the hostel I had a nice surprise waiting – A very attractive Australian girl was to share my bed !. Unfortunately, 4 foot above me – in the top bunk bed !.

With my San Franciscan experience being cloudy, cold, exhausting and far too death-defying at 11am the following morning I decided to continue my southbound travels. With the freedom of solo travel, I was on my way within 30 minutes. I didn’t want to miss the picturesque California coast road so I found the bus that would take me south down highway 101, past the Golden Gate bridge. I was heading to a place called Montara, about 3 hours south of San Francisco. Montara is in an idyllic location which over-looks the Pacific Ocean on a rocky out-crop, the hostel which was a renovated lighthouse was equally magnificent.

Montara is, in fact, only an area of coast line, there is no town, no shops, no beach, no people  it’s just in an idyllic location. ‘Traveller protocol’ says : if there’s nothing, keep going. So at 6:30am the following day I’m outside, waiting for the first bus. I arrived in Half Moon Bay at 7:30am to catch the connecting bus to Santa Cruz. 8am, 8:30am and still no connection. My enquiries revealed I had missed the bus, probably by about 30 seconds, the next one was at 3:30pm – in 7 hours time.

Half Moon Bay is a town, no, small town, no, small village with 2 shops and in a less than idyllic setting so the prospect of a 7 hour wait was mind-numbing. A thought sprung to mind – Half Moon Bay is a major intersection for 2 highways so it gets plenty of traffic. My question to myself was “Am I a man or a mouse ?”, A male budget traveller without 7 hours to wait, my answer. I found the southbound highway and sat there in my bag laden wheelchair thumbing for a lift !.

20 minutes is all it took, A van pulled in, 2 German guys jumped out, helped me into the front and ‘threw’ the wheelchair in the back – Quick, easy and, best of all, free !.

Santa Cruz is a typical beach resort, it has lots of ‘touristy’ things to do, but it’s got ‘California style’. It’s got a good beach with wheelchair access (plastic mats down to the water’s edge) and ‘wall-to-wall’ bikini clad babes. After my ‘Californian style’ experience of the beach and boardwalk, I found the small and homely hostel. After dinner I went to a ‘big named’ local concert on the beach – Jefferson Starbuck !.

With 3 weeks of my travelling dreams behind me and my ‘Californian experience’ in full swing. I went down to an expensive beach front restaurant and ‘splashed-out’ on a smoked salmon Omelette which broke all ‘budget backpacker protocol’ rules but, hey, I was happy. I then spent the day lying on the beach in the sunshine among the bikini clad babes – ‘Baywatch is not a fantasy – Bikini clad babes are a reality in California !’.

By 4pm I was very sun burnt, but stupidly, decided to go out drinking in my new bright red skin tone. I went with 2 lovely Spanish girls to a local bar, drank 2 pints of beer, saw a live band before returning to the hostel and seeing the contents of my stomach reappear all over the bedroom floor !.

The following morning, after removing last night’s half digested food from the floor, I went to have breakfast with a travel writer. He was the first of many people who believed that my travels were worthy of scripture.

To escape the heat, I ducked into a movie theatre to watch the recently released blockbuster, Independence day. The audience reaction, I decided, was far greater than the English cinema audience reaction because the entire story is based upon American patriotism.

The hostel had got 3 new guests, female guests, very attractive female guests – the ‘travelling way’ is to drink, heavily. And drink we did. The ridiculous 10pm curfew (lock out) at the hostel wasn’t appreciated but in attractive female company the windows of neighbouring rooms could be rattled thus waking someone to open the front door. We got back to the hostel at midnight, we rattled the neighbouring bedroom’s window and 4 very drunken travellers were let in.

Time is precious so I decided to move on again. I took the early bus to San Jose where I picked up the train again, down to Santa Barbara. All the way down the coast I had been hearing tales of the chain of hostels called Banana Bungalow, there was 4, three in California and one in New York. Banana Bungalow is the place to be, where anything goes – the guys are hunks and the girls are babes !. I had not stayed in this style of hostel before, I had stayed in institution style clinical hostels where alcohol is banned. In Banana Bungalow alcohol is mandatory and parties are the lifestyle – ‘If you go to bed sober, there must be a problem’. I arrived at 8pm and it is an old aircraft hanger full of bunk beds for people to sleep on but without segregated bedrooms.

I woke at 9am, the crack of dawn for most Banana Bungalow party guests. I spent the day checking out Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz had just been an introduction into ‘California style’, Santa Barbara oozed it. The cosmopolitan atmosphere created by the shops, beach, ocean, climate and the friendly people combined to make me feel as if Santa Barbara was where I wanted to live.

I tried parasailing which was very relaxing but I had expected thrills or a bit of excitement but unfortunately, only slow and gentle. I saw many stretch limousines presumably of the rich and famous who presumably choose to make Santa Barbara their home. I got into a conversation in the street with two guys who owned a wheelchair shop, they offered to lend me a hand cycle so I could get around to see more of Santa Barbara. The real bonus was that they had new tyres and gloves that I desperately needed, after my tyre rubber loss incurred on San Francisco’s hills !.

For the second day, I went to the wheelchair shop to look at ex-demo sports wheelchairs. They were nice, very nice and at half the cost of a sports wheelchair in the UK – I would return here in a couple of years when I would need a new wheelchair.

As prearranged, I met the 3 very attractive girls from Santa Cruz, and as in Santa Cruz we went out drinking but this time on a bar crawl. The number and choice of bars was amazing, we went in one with 85 beers on tap, one was a gay bar, one was an English style pub but my fake ID was terrible so my entry to one bar was refused.

I decided, I must keep moving, so I tried to book a train down to San Clemente leaving the following day. I was told there was no wheelchair access off the train in San Clemente – this turned out to be the best decision anyone ever made for me, as the next day turned out to be the best day of my life.

At 10am I went down to the beach with the 3 attractive girls who I met in Santa Cruz, each one clad in tiny bikinis which showed there stunning figures. ‘Heavenly bodies in a heavenly location’. We talked till 3pm when I asked the most attractive girl out for dinner, my intention was for a date, but she invited her friends along. Not a date but dinner with friends, never-the-less, sounded good.

Dinner with 3 beautiful women ; a mouth-watering prospect or a disaster waiting to happen. We went to eat at a local bar – all 4 of us. The conversations just died and I even failed to impress her with talk of my new toy, my Jaguar. The disaster was initialized at 10pm, happy hour. 2 for 1 vodka and orange were my downfall, I drank my cocktails at the same rate as they drank beer – a disaster waiting-to-happen. By midnight I was ‘chucking my guts’ in the middle of the crowded bar. The girls took me home and put me to bed, my bed – not the desired outcome !.

The following morning I awoke with a ‘killer’ hangover. My 3 new friends left for Hawaii so I went back to bed. That afternoon someone working at the hostel at the hostel told me about 2 second hand wheelchairs in a second-hand shop, I assumed that they would be old folding type wheelchairs but I went to look anyway. To my utter amazement they were sports wheelchairs. They were the identical model to the ex-demo wheelchairs I had looked at the previous day. At a tenth of the price of a new one or a fifth of the price of the ex-demo ones, I made them an offer for the pair, they accepted – I then had 2 extra wheelchairs to take home, sell and profit from.

The following day, I went down to the wheelchair shop to see if they wanted to buy my newly acquired second-hand wheelchairs. The people at the wheelchair shop knew that the wheelchairs were there and very cheap but they hadn’t bought them because they had the serial numbers scratched off meaning that they were probably stolen.

A sign reading ‘Banana Bungalow Keg Party’ ‘$5 all you can drink’, ‘why not’ I thought despite still being hung over from the night before. This being the first of many such keg parties in locations through-out America. A keg – A steel barrel of beer is fitted with a tap, then whenever you want more beer, which tends to be quite often, you go and refill you glass. Everyone parties in a very drunken state until everyone collapses into bed !.

The following morning, I woke with the worst hangover of my life. Undeterred, I rose to find  I had a severe lack of energy, so back to bed it was. I awoke again at 10:30 and decided not to waste my holiday and by noon I started to make my phone calls to Amtrak, the American train network. I wanted a ticket for San Louis Obispo (Just south of LA) but all the southbound trains were full. Although I wanted to continue on my ‘travelling way’ in a southerly direction, an idea came to mind – Bungee Jumping. I had previously seen a leaflet for a bungy jump site in Canada. I could get a train back to Seattle then a ferry to Canada. The northbound train had seats and there would be no cost for the train ticket. So I quickly packed my bag, and nursing my hangover, I left for the station arriving with 2 minutes to spare. I boarded the train, took my seat. Only then did it dawn on me that I would be in that seat for 34 hours.

34 hours passed. People left the train, people boarded the train, I ate, I drank, I even slept. Then more people left, more people boarded. I ate more, I drank more and eventually the train pulled into Seattle. The train arrived at 21:34, ten minutes before I’d of exploded through boredom. I was going to stay in the hostel in Seattle again, where I had stayed 3 weeks previously, so I knew exactly where I was going. As I reached the steep hill outside the hostel, I asked a Mexican bloke for a shove up the hill. This was a big mistake because he was very drunk and started talking about boxing – so I asked someone else.

Saturday morning came far too soon. I left the hostel at 7am and discovered it was pouring which had turned the hill into a slope of Death. If I had problems getting up the hill, getting down would be death defying. To walk down it would be fine but to do it trying to use wet hand rims on wheelchair wheels would be virtually impossible, however the ferry was going to leave in 30 minutes so it was a case of ‘now or never’. As I hit 20 mph I tried my braking process. Nothing. The only way to stop was to jam my bag into the wheel !. It worked after 3 near collisions !.

I boarded the ferry to Canada with 3 minutes to spare. During my journey I took a good look around the ferry where I changed some US Dollars into Canadian Dollars and decided that I couldn’t afford anything in any of the 3 on-board restaurants. As the ferry docked in Canada, we were told of the exceptionally strong undercurrents which made the trip very hazardous. ‘Thanks for the warning, but 6 hours too late’ I thought.

As per normal, I headed the wrong way down the road outside the ferry port. With no bus stop in sight, I turned round and headed back uphill to the bus stop, 100 yards from the ferry port. To my delight, I discovered that Canadian buses also had wheelchair access and the driver knew where I needed to get off. When I got off the bus, I sped down the hill hoping that the hostel was at the bottom. Thankfully it was.

 

That afternoon I explored Victoria, the shops, the market, the government buildings and the quay. As I was returning to the hostel, I saw a poster for a band which was appearing in a local bar that evening. So after finding something to eat at the hostel, I returned to the bar where the band was playing. My intention was to stay for a couple of songs then leave but they were a great band and although the crowd only just reached double figures, I stayed ‘till the end.

The following morning I woke to the prospect of hurling myself off a bridge that was higher than Dover’s, white cliffs. As the shuttle bus pulled up, the driver jumped out and shouted,

“Right, who’s jumping today ?.”

To her surprise, I was her answer; me and my wheelchair.

Two hours later we arrived in Nanaimo. As we drove into the bungy site, I caught my first sight of the bridge and valley. The high bridge and deep valley !. My first stop was the cabin where I was weighed and briefed on the jump, before I made my way towards the bridge. It only then struck me how magnificent the site was, the scenic bridge straddled the lush pine tree covered walls of the valley with clear blue water running through the valley.

My final problem was still to be encountered – four flights of stairs. Stairs and a wheelchair don’t mix, so climbing a stair at a time on my butt was the only option. After thirty minutes climbing time and a sore rear end, I reached the summit, the bungy platform.

From the platform, I looked down with only one intention; to descend much quicker than my ascent. I was up there being attached to the harness and being watched by a group who dare not jump themselves but appeared to get pleasure from watching other terrified jumpers.

I launched myself on the count of three. My only comforting thought was that I was attached to the bridge therefore it should be safe. Plummeting down the valley was exciting, invigorating, exhilarating, stimulating but most of all it felt like life should !.

When the bouncing had ended and I had done my impression of Spider man, I dangled from the cord much like a spider would. I then was lowered to the security of my wheelchair, where, not only did I feel physically safe but I felt mentally satisfied.

After another 42 hours travel, through Victoria, Seattle, Oregon and California, I arrived back in Santa Barbara on Thursday, where there was another ‘Keg Party’…. where another hangover surely followed !.

Another early start, this time 6:30am. I arrived at the station with just seconds to spare, the 6 hour journey bought me into San Diego at lunch time. Enough time to find a hostel, which had really modern facilities and was in a great location. I dumped my bags and headed off to explore San Diego, A very big city with a large downtown area and mile upon mile of beach.

I discovered the Planet Hollywood restaurant and remembering a ‘Special Friend’ coupon someone had given me, I jumped the cue and expected some free food or something special but no, I just ordered my food (the cheapest thing on the menu), a not so special burger and given a the large bill. Before I left I ducked into the toilets a butler awaited to wash my hands and spray me with after shave, for which I presume he wanted a tip – which wasn’t forthcoming. What I didn’t realise was that Planet Hollywood is a ‘classy’ restaurant so didn’t I feel like a ‘prat’ in shorts and t-shirt !.

San Diego being beside the Mexican border, makes it a favourite trip for anyone visiting San Diego. I took the tram to Tjuanna, the Mexican border town, I wasted my day in Mexico. I stuck to the ‘touristy’ market which was 100 meters from the border crossing and didn’t even get into Tjuanna town. However, I enjoyed the market where I had my first real haggling experience which is so common and ‘later’ to be enjoyed in Asian countries.

Back at the YMCA hostel in San Diego I went to use the extensive gym facilities. There was a fitness room, weights room, swimming pool, sauna and steam room – I left exhausted !.

The following morning I checked out of the YMCA hostel and caught a bus down to the beach area to find return to the more relaxed and informal Banana Bungalow. Banana Bungalow in San Diego was previously a small hotel on the beach but the 6 bedrooms have been crammed full of 8 or 10 bunk beds. It wasn’t easy to find a place on the floor for bags, never mind my wheelchair, so I was constantly wheeling over clothes and shoes. I won’t even mention the cockroaches. But hey, that’s half the fun part of budget travel !.

Along the old wooden pier there was many fisherman, fishing is something that I’ve tried on many occasions but with no success. One fisherman asked me if I would like to use his spare rod, ‘what the hell’ I thought, I picked up the rod and through the line into the ocean. 20 Minutes later I had caught a 6 inch Mackerel, 5 inch sea bass, and one big ‘un that got away when the line broke.

To celebrate I spent the evening drinking Budweiser and people watching from the beach front patio at Banana Bungalow.

After the previous days success, I returned to the wooden pier where the fishermen were. But far more fun was watching to other guys trying to fish as they smoked pot and drank whiskey. There ‘master-plan’ was to use whole fish as bait to catch a shark, unsurprisingly they caught nothing.

Back at Banana Bungalow sitting on the patio, I got talking to a guy walking down the boardwalk. He turned out to be a US marine, after sharing a beer he took me on a personal tour of a restricted Marine base. To thank him we then went to a Thai restaurant with excellent food. Finally we sat drinking beers together at Banana Bungalow watching the sea.

Again, it was time to leave, this time to Los Angeles. I took a bus to the station, train to LA then another bus to the hostel. The hostel was in an idyllic setting on a rocky outcrop in an isolated area not at all what I thought LA was like. The hostel was inaccessible for a wheelchair, which is totally illegal under American law, I expect it in relaxed informal hostels like Banana Bungalow but not in this formal official hostel. My only option was to sleep on a mattress on the floor in the reading room.

With 6 weeks past, my pace of travel was exhausting me but yet another early start and busy day ahead. On the way to the bus stop, I had another wheelchair accident which left me lying on the road with cuts and grazes but nothing too severe. I took the bus to Long Beach which is an area not a just beach and not a very long beach. I spent all day exploring this heavily industrialised area. Back at the hostel, I spent the evening eating cheese puffs while watching American sitcoms and talking to a sexy Australian girl.

Unhappy being forced to sleeping on the floor, I ‘headed for the bright lights of Hollywood’ not to find fame and fortune but to experience the ‘glitz and glamour’ of LA. The 4 hour bus ride across LA, showed me the sheer size and number of people in LA not to mention to the grime and pollution caused by the traffic density. “LA Sucks !.”.

I stayed in the central YMCA hostel, 2 blocks from Hollywood Boulevard. I explored the touristy and famous section of the Hollywood Boulevard – ‘The walk of stars’. My evening excursion onto Hollywood Boulevard revealed the seedier side of LA.

Staying in hostel has its advantages but also disadvantages. On the plus side, it is easy to meet people and it is a cheap form of accommodation but negatively you get no privacy. Which, as that night proved, if your room mates snore or wake up and have conversations at full volume, you get no sleep.

As in San Diego, hostel guests get free use of the up-market YMCA gym. Hollywood being the stars home, I got speaking to another English guy who lived near to me in my home town but now plays a large role in a classic American sitcom.

I took the highly congested bus to Beverly Hills. I checked-out the secluded residential neighbourhood where the stars live then down the exclusive and very expensive Rodeo Drive. I even considered buying something as a souvenir, but even cheap ties were 250 dollars which is definitely not ‘budget traveller’ money.

The vastness of LA means long bus rides but also variety. So I headed to over to the coast, I would stay in a hostel in Santa Monica, with Venice beach and Malibu to explore. As I wheeled through Santa Monica I felt an entirely different atmosphere to in-land LA – it was more relaxed and not so polluted. I arrived at the hostel with a fresh sense of being about LA. There was only one hostel in Santa Monica so when they couldn’t find my reservation, I was faced with the prospect of having to go back to dismal in-land LA. It took them an hour but they eventually found me a bed. I explored the shops, beach and the pier. I watched them filming ‘Star Trek’, they were getting extras from crowd and I wanted to use my ‘killer’ line, “You couldn’t afford me, darling”.

The famous Venice Beach was my next excursion. Venice felt even more relaxed than Santa Monica, with its huge beach, stalls selling a variety of items, street performers and the famous muscle beach gym. I wheeled along the concrete beach path not knowing whether I was a pedestrian on the left or bicycle on the right !.

That evening I ‘vegged’ in-front of a movie back at hostel with my favourite, cheese puffs.

I planned to wake up at 8am to spend the entire day at Universal studios but sleep took preference. 2 hours later I awoke again and hurriedly made my way to the bus stop. Stupidly, my destination was back in the dirty and polluted Hollywood, a 2 hour bus ride from where I came from 2 days ago – Universal Studios. Backtracking had become my travelling speciality !.

Universal Studios theme park was a thriving mass of white-knuckle rides and entertaining shows. I didn’t know where to start but what I didn’t realise was that being in a wheelchair I wouldn’t queue for any of the rides. For example the new Jurassic park ride had a 3 hour queue which I just skipped. The most memorable thing was the ‘back lot tour’ which was a tram ride around sets and studios from movies and TV shows, also several special effect shows taken from movies. I didn’t stop, didn’t eat and didn’t queue all day – I did most rides and saw most shows but 1 day just wouldn’t be enough if you queued, relaxed a little and ate !.

At 11pm I took several buses with transfers back through the, quite frankly, scary LA night to Santa Monica.

My last day’s stay on the LA coast, I decide to have a lazy day in Malibu. Well it may have been Malibu, I may have got off the bus too early because it wasn’t at all built-up as I expected but where-ever I was it had a great beach. Back at the hostel, socialised and ate the ‘all-you-can-eat’, America’s favourite pastime, barbecue.

My fast pace of travel had left me exhausted so I made my decision to return to England, I needed to recuperate before I returned for my final year at university. So I made phone calls to the airline to reserve my flight home as soon as possible. I would leave LA and the United States in 2 days time, on the 17th of August. The problem was my newly acquired wheelchairs were still in Santa Barbara, the cheapest and easiest way to get them to LA would be to collect them myself. My rail pass would allow me to get the tickets for free and travelling with me, should, have made loss impossible.

I took the long bus ride across LA to catch the train to Santa Barbara. At the second-hand shop in Santa Barbara, picked up my 2 new wheelchairs to take back to the station where I would check them in for transportation to LA with me, the following day. My initial idea was to pull them in ‘train and carriage’ fashion back to the station but towing 2 wheelchairs behind my own wheelchair proved impossible. Thankfully, a good Samaritan offered to help and took me and 3 wheelchairs, in her car, down to the station.

Obviously, I choose to stay at, my favourite hostel, Banana Bungalow where there was another infamous ‘keg party’ in full swing.

My final day’s schedule had to precise and if I was delayed at any point, I would miss my return flight to England.

I needed to be at the station in Santa Barbara to catch the train back to LA at 7:45am

Get into LA station at 10:15am to reclaim my check-in wheelchairs

Get my pre-booked airport shuttle bus at 10:45am

Check in at the airport at 12:30am for my flight to Houston

A 30 minute flight connection time from Houston to London

It wasn’t my day, travel wasn’t fun if ‘everything’ went smoothly but for nothing to go smoothly was way beyond fun.

I very nearly missed the train leaving Santa Barbara, for which I take the blame, the previous nights intake of alcohol had taken its toll and I left the hostel late.

The train was delayed on its journey so it arrived 15 minutes late into LA station, I still had 15 minutes to collect my 2 checked-in wheelchairs and bag, so this should not have been a big problem. Amtrak, thankfully, had remembered to bring the wheelchairs and bag to LA, they had been bought down on an earlier train and were waiting for me in the baggage office. Amtrak, proving their total incompetence, made my nightmares a reality, they had lost the key to the locked baggage room. Most of my possessions, a bag and 2 wheelchairs were unreachable.

The airport shuttle bus I had pre-booked was not waiting to take me to the airport, but this was probably a blessing in disguise, because I had time to wait for Amtrak to bring in a locksmith. After nearly an hour of extreme anguish about missing my flight departure for this, my first ever trip out of England. The shuttle bus eventually arrived at 11:15am and my only option was to leave my bag and wheelchairs in America, and trusting Amtrak that they would send them by courier to England.

The airport shuttle was, again, held up again in traffic arriving at the airport with only 10 minutes before my flight departed.

It was too late, the airline staff tried to get me on the plane, but it wasn’t to be. My worst fear had become a reality. It was my first time out of England and I was destined not to return.

I was worrying for nothing, A flight via Newark to London was leaving later that day. A phone call to my parents explaining I would be arriving home late was all it took. Amtrak had time to send my missing baggage to the airport so I could return to England complete !.

I caught my flight via Newark to London with no further ‘hick-ups’. My days numerous problems were behind me. The return flight to England gave me time to reflect on my many great experiences, my travels and even my future.

My travelling experience opened my eyes to the world and its people, my life and future had changed forever. I would return to England to complete my university course before continuing my travels in either Europe, America or Australia.

The realisation had been more than the dream ever was.

6. Europe – like it or not ?

Belgium, France and Spain

With no reason in the immediate future for me to return home, I decided to embark upon a world trip. Firstly Europe, because it has a well travelled budget travellers route – America, the country I would always love – New Zealand, because of its reputation for extreme sports – Australia, because of the weather, easy going lifestyle and all travellers from England seem to go there.

My plan was to go all around Europe visiting a bulk of European countries before returning to England for a matter of days before flying to the United States.

A new trip but the same early start. I had to buy an Inter-rail pass from one station then get across London to catch the Euro star train at a different station. Again, as with many train situations, I arrived with moments to spare. For the second time, I was seated in 1st class, this time with carriage empty bar me and ate prawns, salmon, strawberries and cream. I arrived in Brussels, Belgium at 2:30pm and immediately made a reservation for Koln, Germany.

I checked-in and paid for the hostel on my VISA card. 20 Minutes later my card had disappeared, after an hour of frantic searching, I phoned the bank to cancel the card and order a replacement.

I went out later and my previous expectations of Brussels were correct – it was a cold wet city with little or nothing to do. What made it worse was that the hostel was in an area known for riots. The rain made the entire atmosphere depressing.

To end a not so perfect day, I had a stomach upset, probably due to the Euro star prawns.

The next day I stayed in bed till 3pm, not feeling so good from the previous days, not so 1st class, prawns. I managed to venture down the road to buy some ‘iced gems’ which I ‘scoffed’ while watching Wimbledon on the BBC.

At 9:30 the next morning a courier arrived with my new visa card, which gave me the chance to check-out and leave this cold and wet hell hole. At the train station decided to enquire about a train going south to Barcelona to escape the rain of central Europe. I took a train to Paris hoping there might be a seat on a train going south to Barcelona. I hurriedly boarded a high speed Thalys train to Paris, mistakenly in first class, being first class of a high speed train, the ticket shouldn’t have been free with my inter-rail pass – but I refused to pay. I had a 6 hour wait and changed stations in Paris but then got a sleeper train to Barcelona.

Early next morning, as the sun rose over the Pyranesemountains, We had to change trains at the Spanish border. As we approached the top of one of the mountains the train got slower and slower and then stopped, the reason being that the train couldn’t get traction dew to the due on the track. Everyone got off the train, onto a bus to go by road over the mountain crest, then board another train to get to Barcelona.

Barcelona – an old friend !. To welcome me back I fell, unceremoniously, out of my wheelchair onto the busiest road in Barcelona. I returned to the renovated monastery hostel where I stayed 2 months ago and I headed for the disabled shower as I mentioned before, this is the most relaxing, hot, massaging, power shower I have ever had the privilege to use !.

The next day I took the bus into the centre, sat ‘people watching’ at Place Catalunya then went down Les Rumbles. An unforeseen disaster then happened, it started to rain, heavily. My initial reason to come to Barcelona was to escape the rain, it had followed me, so I returned to the hostel depressed and dejected.

The following day the weather had improved. I took the bus and then the metro, first in the wrong direction then back to the mountain, where I took a tram up the mountain and a cable car to get a great view of Barcelona. I took another bus to the station to enquire about trains to Marseille in Southern France, Outside the station I saw a huge, and, to be honest, scary 100ft puppet suspended in a scaffold frame being paraded down the road while crowds amassed, very strange !.

Despite the depression  and dejection of the heavy rain 2 days ago, it was another sunny day. I headed to enjoy the beach for the day.

I needed to get on my ‘travelling way’ so took a bus to the station to book the following day’s train to Marseille in France. Somewhere and somehow I lost an all important glove meaning my hands would be unprotected from friction burns caused by hills and within minutes they would be black with dirt, which put me in a bad mood from the outset.

Then deciding to make the most of the warm weather so decided to get another bus to the beach, now with one very dirty hand, I boarded the bus. As was normal, I didn’t pay, I think the drivers expected me to have a free disabled pass, but of course I didn’t. This time an official looking conductor boarded, I had seen the large red signs, warning of a hefty fine, I expected the worst. Surprisingly and very thankfully I only had to pay the regular price for a ticket.

I then proceeded to get very sunburnt on the beach and pier before returning to the hostel for a fantastic massage shower.

An early check-out and bus ride to the station to catch the train to Montpellier then transfer to a 1st class train to Marseille. Marseille was cold and wet, it looked ‘drab and dreary’ not as I had expected the south of France.

The cheapest way to get to the hostel was on the Metro, which had no lifts just stairs and escalators. But being a budget traveller I wasn’t about to let it beat me. I got people to carry me and my wheelchair down flights of stairs, down escalators and onto the train – then up again at the other end – all in broken English !.

I got a Mercedes 600 taxi to the hostel, a supposedly wheelchair accessible hostel, which had no access to the toilet or bathroom.

As my European travels weren’t going well, the weather was and it wasn’t fun or exciting, so I decided to return home the following day.

I checked out, took a taxi to the metro where I caused the same amount of havoc as the previous day. Getting people to carry me up and down stairs and escalators, this time I was told off by an official who told me I couldn’t use the Metro unaccompanied – Simple, get a lift and there would be no problem !.

I got a high speed TGV train back to Paris, 1st class, changed stations in Paris and got the Euro star back to London, 1st class, again.

I only spent 11 days in Europe, visiting only a fraction of the countries I intended.

For many of my train journeys I travelled 1st class. I paid no more than the regular fare (in fact the tickets were free, I bought a cheap student inter-rail pass). It is a policy of all European train companies to put wheelchair passengers in 1st class. 1st class for free – a budget travellers dream !.

Europe – like it or loathe it ?. – Loathe it, Unfortunately Europe was too cold & wet, it wasn’t fun, I was spending too much money, it wasn’t exciting but worst of all I wasn’t meeting and interacting with people which always has been my main reason for travel.

My European travels ended prematurely allowing my 3rd trip to the United States to begin earlier than I predicted.