Sunday, August 28, 2011

niagara falls disco, part 2

we embarked bright and early for our nine hour drive to boston. i made quick evenly spaced stops on the clean well-maintained new york state turnpike. we arrived on time.

my group wasn’t feeling group dinner so i let them loose on the city. i gave them a quick overview of sites and prepped them for their free day. told them i would meet those of them tomorrow without baseball tickets for dinner/drinks across from the ballpark. i ate dinner with harry and chris at a thai place around the corner from our hostel. the food was tasty but spicier than expected. drops of sweat dabbed my cheeks as i sipped my first beer in two weeks.

when we met up again, the group again split off to a table away from myself so i conversed with lindsey and her group. i had an expensive whiskey on the rocks and a half-price burger.

then, the weather changed. furious phone calls made - me to dan, dan to lindsey, dan to me, lindsey to dan. a hurricane was coming up the coast. and was headed right towards us. with a departure for nyc in the future and the whole east coast on tornado watch, we were forced to make changes to our original plans. plans and rumors filled the ears of our passengers. another game of telephone carried the news to our hostel where, unknown to me, my pax started panicking.

a missed phone call. another. and another. all in the span of five minutes. when i called the mystery number back, it was rachel, almost in tears. her, paul, lydia and charlotte were worried about reservations, hotels, flights and money. i rushed back to the hostel. in a flutter of conversation, tears and split second decisions, the four decided to leave the trip. they signed some forms, packed their bags and departed on a late night bus trip into the city in order to beat the storm. i let them go with apprehension. i slept poorly.

in the morning, we scrambled with reservations, rearranged rooms and tried to rebook flights. we drove inland toward a small town in massachusetts. the group spent the day in an outlet mall -- movies, internet, shopping. the evening was pizza, beer and weather channel. the group was loud. i was sober. when they finally left our room, i slept soundly.

we gathered late in the morning, ate, and decided to head into the city. the early driving was wet and windy. gas stops were met with frustration - power outages, no bathrooms, empty gas stations. but finally, we were back! i left them in a strong wind on the streets of ny. they left me with garbage, crumbs and thank you cards.

tonight, i sleep at the motel six trying to recover from a trip gone on too long.
tomorrow, i start it all over again.

niagara falls disco, part 1

my niagara falls tour was quick out of the gate. we met up at 8am in the lobby of the columbus circle hostel, my pax filtering in slowly, mingling in and out of the mix of hostellers and fellow trek passengers. after a flutter of papers and introductions, we drove off to philly for a lunch stop to sample the famous local cheesesteak. i followed directions i was unsure of. i scanned worriedly for parking. and after dropping aimless wanderers, i settled on lunch myself at an unsuspecting pizza place. surprisingly, almost everyone was there. i ordered a hot slice and inserted myself awkwardly into the group. conversation was short, answers curt. in a crowd of early 20-somethings, i felt like i was back in high school; unsure, uncomfortable, starving for acceptance. i ate quickly and excused myself, claiming to look for my last 2 passengers - an older couple from australia already on their 30-something-th year of traveling the globe. my stomach in knots, i wandered the streets of philly until it was time again to pick them up.

we pulled into washington dc early evening and i circled the one-way streets to find the best drop off place for my people. they scattered before i could address them. i telephone-passed a message to meet back at 6 for dinner. at 6, we met up with our paralleling group in the lobby and, with a 24-strong group, we crowded the sidewalk and bus to make our way to georgetown. stuck at the end of a long 12-person table, i conversed with harry and chris as they regaled me of their years of travel. i strained to listen to talk farther down the table to make connections with the rest of my group.. to no avail. i nodded and laughed appropriately.

i announced a meeting at 9am in the morning to hopefully get more of a hold over the group. they agreed and split up after the meal was over -- lindsey’s group still chatting, drinking and generally getting to know each other. i met up with austin and summer, having a beer or two on the second floor of an open air bar. we chatted about where we’d all been in the last few years -- surprised at how much time had passed between our last meetings.

in the morning, i awoke as lindsey (occupying the bunk below me) was getting ready to meet her passengers. “oh,” she remarked offhand. “a few of your passengers are coming with me since i was actually able to get more spots on the capitol tour this morning.” i inquired as to how many but she didn’t know. i asked if everyone knew about it and if everyone had the opportunity to go on the tour. again, she didn’t know. i hopped quickly and bleary-eyed out of bed and went on a mad hunt for everyone. i tried knocking on room doors and scouring the kitchen. i did this for close to a half hour. in the end, it turned out everyone was going on the tour. by now, i hadn’t brushed my teeth nor eaten and it was time to head to the capitol. i grabbed my bag, wallet and maps, and piggybacked on lindsey’s walk/tour of dc. as she spouted amazing knowledge and tidbits, my self-consciousness squeezed at my insides and i felt inadequate.

after dropping them off and leaving lindsey to eat with her friends, i sat down and cried on the capitol steps. the washington monument mocked me in the distance.

i wandered through a random sculpture garden and dried my tears. i spent the rest of the day trying to put together a shopping list that would satisfy my random group of travelers -- trying to appease their tastes, trying to stay within their tight budgets. i napped for ten minutes and woke up exhausted.

in the morning, my copilot - rachel - helped collect our $20 food kitty and opted out herself. i adjusted the list last minute to accommodate the fact that people just wanted to do group dinners.. not all meals. i split up the remaining items and handed out slips of paper for each of us to buy. unbeknownst to me, a slip or two fell under my feet. our drive was long -- longer than expected -- and we reached the finger lakes around 4:30 in the evening. the group was tired and weary. as was i. they split up immediately as the van doors unlocked, leaving harry, chris and myself to unload the van, the cooking equipment and our gear. they headed for the water and to tan in the sun. i sat atop a picnic table and talked with harry as he sipped his whiskey. we stared out at the calm lake cayuga. in front of us, chris curled up on the shore and stared at the slowly lapping water.

that night, i slept alone in a cabin for two as outside a party raged. i was awoken by the drunken laughter of the cabin next to mine. i tried to roll over and rest up for my long drive the next day. 6:30 came too fast.

the next day brought: a short drive to niagara, getting soaked under the magnificent horseshoe falls and making phone calls in the hot hot heat of my sun-baked van. that evening, at the koa camp, we cooked out - none of them knowing how to simply cut up veggies and boil noodles. the girls sneered at every turn. scowled at the final result. in the end, they went back for seconds. i snuck in on a game of cards, semi-feeling included, semi-feeling pitied. we retired when the wind picked up and the temperature dropped. i slept in the back of the van, the wind and rain beating hard on the metal roof. the sky lighting up and the thunder rumbling.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

into the fire.

tour number one began with circles around the 2-block radius of union square scouring for parking or loading zones to accommodate my 15-pax van.  my first passengers stood, side by side, behind large luggage in front of the hotel stratford, eyes scanning for their pickup.  the woman - shoulder-length blonde hair, short stature, aging but vibrant good looks - recognized the logo on my vehicle and motioned to the main next to her.  he - shorter in statue and donning a black cowboy hat, cigarette in hand - acknowledged and nodded in my direction.  as i wrapped up their paperwork, a third joined - young, long blonde hair, full makeup and amply breasted.  and lastly, our final straggler - thin, long face and tired eyes - arrived.  we exchanged 'hello's, loaded up their many (heavy) bags and quickly headed out of the city.  

my speeches were short, the car rides awkward; i worried they could see how green i was.  dropping them off at the santa cruz beach boardwalk, i made a mad dash downtown for a mission impossible-style bank errand.  complications arose, tempers flared and i panicked.  tears. on a rescue mission later in the day, my pax roamed downtown SC while i attempted to finally accomplish my goal.  an hour later -- success!  

two hours down california's pacific highway, we stopped at monterey's cannery row and split up.  lisa (the young german au pair) and i hit up the expensive but nice aquarium.  together we stood inside a giant wave, pet sting rays and stared amazed at the glowing neon orange jellyfish.  for dinner, we all dined randomly at the boar's head in carmel, a restaurant owned by none other than clint eastwood.  lisa, penny (the aging beauty) and i all tried the dirty harry special.  frances (tired eyes) perused the menu for something she could eat -- no eggs, no meat, no fish, no cheese -- and finally settled on locally farmed artichoke soup and salad.  roger (our own personal cowboy) removed his teeth and gnawed on his pork chop dinner, washing it down with 5 cold budweisers.  

at night, i stayed up later than planned arranging details for the next day.  my eyes closed to the comforting sounds of my long lost food network.

day two started with a $2 banana and an equally priced hot chocolate.  after multiple photo stops on the picturesque big sur portion of the CA-1, we turned down the long, one-lane road to our picnic lunch stop.  the van bumped uncomfortably and we stopped often (and treacherously) to make way for oncoming traffic.  our destination was a wonderful pocketed beach area surrounded by sharp volcanic expanses of large rock.  the waves splashed forcefully through the large openings in the rocks as we admired the vast pacific ocean behind them.  the group vetoed lunch on the beach so we ate in the parking lot - our cooler as the prep-kitchen, our laps as our table.  

another long silent van ride.  lisa slept in the passenger seat as the radio station she had selected faded more and more into static.  we arrived in san luis obispo in only enough time to barely walk the main street before the sun set.  we suppered at a local thai place with a multitude of vegan fare and a never-ending supply of buds for roger.  as we left, he lovingly kissed our waitress on the cheek.  surprised and with both hands full of food, she ducked, squirmed and shut her eyes.  the restaurant watched our group as we walked past the window to our hotel.  

again, the soothing sound of ted allen lulled me to sleep.

day last, i ate a well priced $3 cheesy egg plate to kick-start my energy.  we hit the road in order to arrive in santa barbara at the perfect lunch hour.  the day was sunny, hot.  

for lunch, we ate leftovers out of the side of the van.  our cooler prep area spilling into the sidewalk.  by the time we left, it was 2PM.  as we approached the timesuck that is LA, we were met with slow crawling traffic in malibu.  towering multi-million dollar houses and vast ocean views pacified the pax.  worried about time, i bit my nails and nervously drummed on the steering wheel.  once we hit the highway near hollywood, traffic was a standstill.  frances called her airport shuttle to reschedule but we denied.  we inched down sunset boulevard.  0.7 miles away from the shuttle, we were still 10 minutes too far.  they graciously deigned to wait.  by now, it was 7PM and we had just sat through 3-4 hours traffic.  

i cringed on the inside at the disappointed looks of my left pax while i told them we wouldn't be able to finish our hollywood tour.  over promised. under delivered.  i left them with a plethora of apologies.  i left them alone with their luggage in front of the motel 6.  

more traffic to my hotel.  tired, i entered my room to a non-talkative roommate who was glued to her smartphone.  i ate my cold leftover thai food in silence and worried that my pax hated their tour.  more work.  more papers.  at 12:15 i set my alarm for 5:30AM.