Monday, 31 December 2012

'Looks Just Like Devon'. Welcome to Californishire.

Shooting across Death Valley, leaving glittering Las Vegas behind, we headed to one of our final states and the Pacific Ocean. California, once governed by Arnie, home to Hollywood, land of sunshine, medicinal weed and beach bums.

The plan was to skirt around Los Angeles and head north, taking our time meandering up the Big Sur coast - a stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway that National Geographic voted a Drive of a Lifetime. 
We had set aside days to visit San Luis Obispo (the happiest place in America) and Monterey on the map, but had a week to fill with whatever else took our fancy.

Along the way, we stopped off at another roadside attraction, an old mining town called Calico, a couple of hours west of Vegas.
It marketed itself as a ghost town but unlike Steins, was still home to a collection of workers and gift shop owners. It was tidy and neat with a wide main street, souvenir shops serving Starbucks coffee and those old time saloon swing doors that we so longed to see. While it was fun to wander around and look at all the Western kitsch for ourselves, it lacked the soul and eerie-ness of Steins, New Mexico.

We stayed until sundown and headed further west, ending up at an appalling dive of a motel out in the Santa Clarita woodlands. The carpet was littered with the detritus of previous occupants that clung to the soles of our feet after we had wrenched our sweaty All Stars and socks off. There was also a mysterious smattering of dried blood in the shower. Luckily the TV offered some respite by allowing us to view the latest episode of Jersey Shore so we could watch Snooki, Deena and Mike 'The Situation' et al and forget about our glum surroundings.

It was probably one of the only mornings we were up, packed and on our way before 9am, such was our desperation to get out of there. We pointed the car up to Lompoc for the night and then San Luis Obispo the day after, where we explored bubblegum alley, a revolting piece of audience participant 'art'.

The short alleyway was completely covered, top to bottom, in millions upon millions of coloured gum. Some had been squeezed into tiny models and statues before being pressed onto the wall, displaying a weak stab at creativity, while others had been allowed to dry and then decorated with permanent marker. I had the strange sensation of being in Ms Trunchbull's torture chamber so hastily took my shots and made like a tree out of there.

The Californian countryside looks a lot like southern England. There was an abundance of lush green hillside from which I expected a Teletubby or Hobbit to come bouncing down, along with paddocks of lazy cows and fields full of chestnut-coloured horses. Very pleasant on the old eyeballs indeed.

We rolled into a car park on the side of the highway, facing the ocean where we had been told a seal sanctuary lay. Sure enough, there they were glistening in the winter sun, fat and slug-like, rubbing their eyes like teenagers suffering hangovers after an illegal house party.

Elderly volunteers in blue windbreakers were on hand with factoids about the creatures - the males entered into vicious battles for sexing rights with the females, and sometimes they broke free of their fenced pads and wiggled along the highway. I never saw this for myself but the lady was the expert so SHUT UP.

We stood cooing and calling to them from the elevated walkway, attempting to engage them in conversation and clapping like excited toddlers when they bothered to raise their heads in our direction.

And then we drove up in a leisurely fashion to Monterey, where using her top notch booking skills, Leah had secured a four night stay in a motel for a ridiculously cheap amount. We took it easy, sliding into holiday mode, mooching in and out of 'treasure' stores (secondhand shops), eating clam chowder on the sea front and fresh samosas in the local market and perching on the bar at various British pubs where the owner got us free entry into the 17-mile drive, a scenic route through the north end of Monterey. All we had to do was say at the gate that we were there to see our Uncle Iain. Easy as.

As the 12th of December 2012 grew closer, discussions of how to mark my 26th birthday became more persistent. What did I want to do?, Leah asked. My mum also rang from India, bellowing down the phone (which is the way most Indians talk to people on international calls) demanding to know the ins and outs of my celebration schedule. In all honesty, I wasn't bothered. I'd be happy stewing in a bar for the entirety, slowly mourning the loss of my early twenties and wondering once more, how I'd become so bloody ancient. Melodramatic.

In the end we settled on kayaking in the open sea and I'm glad we did. We saw a wild seal in action, mauling a crab in its sharp, slippery claws as if it was a cheeseburger. I stuck my feet in the terrifically cold Pacific ocean for the first time, dangling my toes in the seaweed and freaking myself out by imagining a shark gnawing my leg off, while quietly trying to race ahead of the Gass; Expert Kayaker.

the Gass fails to give way. OFFICER!

In the evening we made use of the motel's hot tub and sat drinking $7 Californian champagne under a clear sky, making absurd wishes whenever I caught a shooting star.

'I wish for a tumble in the hay with Captain America!',

'I wish for the power to command all the creatures of the sea!',

'I wish for a real-life hoverboard!',

'I wish for more champagne. We've bloody run out'.

Et fin.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

WE AT THA' SLATS! - Las Vegas

Las Vegas; a theme-park for adults, where the ride is a rollercoaster of your personal finances and thousands of dreams are crushed and reformed from a pile of smouldering betting slips in a heartbeat.

It's not for the faint-hearted, but even those who detest extensive neon lighting and unrelenting garishness will find a soft spot for this city of the perpetual weekend in the Nevadan desert.

Because we had the foresight to book about five months in advance, we were able to secure a room in OAP Central, The Flamingo on Las Vegas strip for about £115 for two of us for a four night epic.

We crawled into the city, our flame red Dodge Avenger inching past landmarks like the MGM Grand, New York New York casino and the legendary fountains of the Bellagio.

The pavements were crammed with all kinds of curious creatures that form the spectrum of humanity; it was like Noah's sodding Ark for delinquents. Tramps and vagabonds battling for supremacy over the bubble-gum stained pavements in front of McDonald's, rich kids sweating the previous night's champagne indulgence into the doorways of Gucci and Prada, studded motorheads chewing on leathery cheeseburgers at the Harley Davidson casino and bumbag-wearing retirees on holiday from their Florida sheltered accomodation, trying their luck at a game of craps and sucking faces after a few hours at Margaritaville. All were there, all were hopeful.

After throwing our stuff in our pink-fluff bedecked room, we headed out to join the masses, clucking in annoyance when small children and pensioners got in our way. Long gone was the slow, easy stride we'd picked up from the desert. We had a session to get on with. Didn't these slow pokes know there was FREE CHAMPERS to be had on the casino floor?

After submitting ourselves to a screening for the pilot of a TV show at the MGM Grand (the show, starring McLovin of SuperBad, was okay, but a little too try-hard with the jokes) we made it to the glitzy, ritzy and snazmattazmic Bellagio and slid onto the faux leather stools in front of the penny slot machines, trying not to flag down the gliding waitresses too enthusiastically.

I fed the machine a $1 note and slowly tapped the 'Place Bet' button, making sure the 1 cent light was lit. Finally, after losing a dismal 43 cents thanks to my paltry bets, my peripherial vision detected a middle-aged blonde woman picking her way towards me, red-lipsticked mouth stretched into a smile that didn't quite meet her eyes and order book at the ready.

'Drink, honey?' she asked.

'Yes please', I showed her my teeth and said in the hesitant Hugh-Grant-in-Four-Weddings-manner that foreigners associate with every Briton that ever lived, 'erm... Would it be alright if I had a glass of champagne please?'

'SURE! 'Course you can hun', she beamed, properly, genuinely now. 'You want the same sweetie?' she looked at Leah, who was aghast at my request for such extravagance. 'No problem, I'll be right back. Love that accent'.

living the high life
And that was how we whiled away the first portion of our evening in Vegas: playing the pennies but only as a front to attract more waitresses and their seemingly endless shipment of alcohol.

When our bums got sore and we tired of winning scraps on the machines, we made our way to Caesar's Palace where a suited and booted man named Jesus stood guard at the gates, armed with nightclub fliers for tipsy girls on a mission to spend as little green as possible. HELLO.

Despite our jeans and jumpers combo, Jesus flagged us down and furnished us with little pieces of card that entitled us to free admission to PURE, Caesar's nightclub, with free drinks until midnight. Now, under normal circumstances, we're not the kind of girls who go and do MTV-dancing in dark, anonymous nightclubs where banter is out of the question and the primary aim for most attendees is to attract a mate. But, open bar. 
A friend from home was also in town and planning to make a beeline for the same club later that night. So it made sense to go, load up and leave like the casual Cinderellas we were when the clock stuck twelve. How bad could it be?


It was a master remix of a night out in Watford, Chingford, Newcastle and Glasgow rolled into one atrocious bump-and-grind session. The women wore tight bodycons (even those with a few extra lumps and bumps had ill-advisedly managed to winch themselves into one, doing that shallow, quick breathing thing to ensure their lung capacity stayed at a minimum and they didn't tear their side seams) with deep necklines. Ankle-breaker heels on, hairspray threatening to breach health and safety regulations, faces frozen somewhere between trying not to shart and utter disdain for anyone that dared to so much as glance in their direction.

Then there were the men. Oh, the men. Some of their shirts where buttoned lower than the girls' necklines, occasionally revealing a perma-tanned peck, but more often than not, a gristly moob. Their eyes hunted the women, searching, waiting for the first wobble that signalled the free drinks were working on lowering their inhibitions, and hopefully their pants too.

Leah and I commandeered a table at the edge of the dance floor and enjoyed our new powers of invisibility. We tried to get as many drinks to our table as we could, racking them up for when they would no longer be free and doing some fantastic comedy R'n'B dancing to the poorly DJ'd music. I bumped into my chum from home, Jeremy, who was thrashing out some shapes on the dance floor and adding his own rap to the smoke and music that swirled above our heads:

'Yeah we're in Vegas! Whaddya make of us? Yo, don't be hatin' on us! We're just happy to be here, don' want no freakin' fuss!'
(Or something along those lines.)

Leah bowed out at midnight but I stayed on for another hour, bouncing around the rooftop bar, paying a painful $10 per beer and watching Jez chatting up the laydeez, fall over and make me try on his glasses.

Then I headed for home, weaving my way out of the throng, through the casino, onto the road and into the Flamingo where I fully expected to open the door to a slumbering Gassonimator. SHE WAS NOWHERE TO BE SEEN. Awol! How could this be? Perhaps she had been talked into a game of Craps, misunderstood the concept and required assistance and a well-planned exit strategy. Should I contact her relatives? The A-Team? Call a plumber?
No, it transpired that that evening, she was simply more double hard than me and had continued to happily trundle along the Strip, muttering to herself, ordering more complimentary drinks and writing abusive messages on Facebook.
What a trooper.

crab legs, prawns, grilled fish, salad, mexican rice, sausage

nachos, salsa, sesame ball, roast beef, bun
Food was the activity of the day, we decided when we woke up feeling bruised and confused the next morning.

Vegas, the most excessive city in the nation of excess, offers unlimited buffets for every tastebud, every wallet, every fancy.

A welcome pack from The Flamingo in our room contained vouchers for a discounted meal at Flavor's buffet located in Harrah's Casino, so we decided to head over and fill our boots.

sushi, fish, prawns
Snow crab, prawns, sushi, vine leaves, spare ribs dripping in chemically-enriched gloop, fortune cookies, fajitas and thick slices of honey-roast ham, it was all there for the taking. And boy, did I try. After all, there are children starving in Africa. I owed it to them to eat until it started to feel weird around my heart.

I managed three plates and then a dessert plate as well before I admitted defeat. In the battle against Abha and the buffet, this time, the buffet had triumphed.

watermelon adds balance

The next couple of days were lost to Vegas where most buildings have neither a clock or windows, travelling out to Fremont Street on the Deuce, watching free shows outside Caesar's Place and the Bellagio, gawping open-mouthed at cowboys in town for the Rodeo at the Convention Centre and catching Mardi Gras beads at the Rio casino. It was during Rio's Show in the Sky performance that a pudgy, scrunchied she-beast very nearly gouged out my right eyeball, such was her desire to take home some strands of the cheap gold beads herself.

Over the course of our stay, I found myself pushing more and more dollar notes into the slots, placing larger bets each time. There was no point playing a penny a go, you'd never win anything. No, to win big you had to bet big. TWENTY CENTS A BET. That was how I began rolling, Leah clucking in disapproval next to me but egging me on too. My risky stance paid off for a few jubilant minutes, taking my winnings up to a dizzying $15 before the House began to claw back the cash.

Hey ho, that's how Vegas goes. For small fry like us anyway. Leah had somehow managed to transform her 30 cents in credit to $5.45 in real cash and was buzzing with glee that she'd now be able to purchase her dinner as well as a pack of sanitary towels. Some people might have riches, others fame, we're happy with the smaller pleasures in life.

Monday, 24 December 2012

There's Beefsteak in Them There Mountains!

So we were about halfway through our desert drive and had crossed cactus, ghost towns and cowboys off our list. Next stop on the road trip express was Sedona, Arizona.

It was while watching Leah's actress chum get done up for the filming of her TV show back in Philadephia that the make-up artists had practically made us take a blood oath to visit a small town called Sedona, a short drive away from Flagstaff, Arizona. It was the gateway of Grand Canyon territory and as the car shot along the motorway past cactus forests and seas of sand and dust, the red clay mountains began to rise out of the horizon.

'They look like steak', I observed loudly to Leah over the seventieth replay of Maroon-sodding-5 on the local radio. I feasted my eyes and my tummy rumbled in agreement. It looked good enough to eat.

stop and stare

We stopped for lunch on Sedona high street, splitting up for Starbucks and hamburgers respectively. I sat chewing on the meat, watching black crows dancing across the azure sky dive-bombing in and out of the cotton puff clouds. The tundra looked raw, like a newly formed graze on a clumsy knee. I wanted to run out and play in the red, cracked rock, Cowboying and Indianing with Leah or pretend to be an outlaw on the run from a bureaucratic sheriff and his deputies. Unfortunately neither of us had come prepared for playtime so made do with fingering Western trinkets and tat in the stores and shoving each other into the doorways of the numerous psychic stores that offered tarot readings and healings.

There was more rock gawping the next day at the Grand Canyon. We skirted around the western rim counting the layers of ancient rock and craning our necks trying to spot the Colorado river that runs through the bottom of this massive crack in the Nevada earth.

There was excellent people watching to do too. Hilarious parents were dangling their distressed children over the cliffs, their wails echoing superbly into the rocky abyss. Japanese tourists were out in force, displaying posing skills the world's best supermodels would amputate a limb for. One fellow had forced his mother-in-law to take a snap of him posing with his supercharged megabucks long lens camera, the wind ruffling his hair as he positioned himself on a dusty red overhang. Ridiculousness of the highest order.

While waiting for one of the shuttle buses to come and shunt us over to the next officially-approved photo spot, a bandy legged, full antlered young moose came ambling towards us slurping at the leaky water tap and looking at us in a less than AMOOSING manner. I scuttled fearfully behind the massive rocks that acted as a fence but Leah had her Mother Nature hat on and was clucking at Lady Moose encouraging the beast closer and putting herself in serious danger of becoming impaled in those thorny antlers.


There was a tense stand-off during which I yelped as quietly as possible for Leah to move back. She took no notice. The moose's eyeballs glistened menacingly, her hoof scraping against the concrete, pissed off that we weren't moving out of her territory. She staggered forwards drunkenly, like a flock of Hen Party wenches on their way home from a Billericay kebab shop. Gently, gently. Finally, with a generous heap of British swearing and passive aggressive muttering learned from eons spent on a rush-hour Bakerloo line, the moose backed off and took her rightful place in the shuttle queue where we waited in harmony until the shuttle finally, eventually rocked up.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

A Dusty Fairytale

There was no way we could have driven through the desert without visiting at least one ghost town. We'd been given advice on the best ones from all the people we'd met so far on our travels. Marfa was supposedly pretty cool, while Shakepeare near Lordsburg in New Mexico was another name we'd had slung at us over a few beers. 

However, tourist-gawping season was over in Shakespeare and they weren't inviting people in over the winter. But there was a place just twenty miles down Interstate 10 from Lordsburg named Steins (pronounced STEEN) in Hildago County that was open and happy to allow us to poke around. 

Steins Railroad ghost town is fantastically preserved, thanks to the efforts of the town's current guardian Melissa Lamoree and her late grandfather Larry Link, who bought Stein back in 1988. 

Larry worked on this town his whole life, living out of a trailer at first when there was no electricity and then eventually moving into one of the timber houses with his wife. Their grandkids would come and play in the abandoned homes that smelled like a thousand musty charity-clearance-rail jumpers, littered with rusting horseshoes, spiky cacti and toys that were last played with by children of the frontier. 
Larry rebuilt the schoolhouse and was fixing up the blacksmith store when he was murdered in Steins last year. No one knows why, and the culprit is still at large. 

The incident made international headlines, even finding its way into the Daily Mail's website (who in its signature style pointed the finger at illegal immigrants from Mexico). 'I don't think it could have been', Melissa explained. 'We're ninety miles from the border so if any illegals do come our way, they just want food and water and for us to call Border Patrol to take them home. They're that tired'. She believes the murderer was someone her grandfather knew, and that he had to die because he'd seen and recognised their faces. 

Melissa made the tough decision to continue preserving the history of the town and reopened in May this year. She's a lovely lady - sharp in her knowledge and articulate with her storytelling - blonde and petite with a cheerful four year old, who scared the beejeezewax out of me in one faded forgotten room by pulling at my dress and singing nursery rhymes, and another little 'un on the way. She led us through the gated-off remains of Steins, revealing tidbits about each of the buildings as we passed by, into and through the guts of them. 

Steins was abandoned in the mid-1940s when Southern Pacific railway switched from using steam engines for its trains to diesel. It had a population of just over 1000 and helped trains along their way between the Gulf of Mexico and the Californian coast. 

Chinese labourers were made to live outside the city (where they were vulnerable to attacks from surrounding Indians), in the foothills of the mountain where they quarried stone. When they did the census, they counted the Chinese and their families as livestock. Deep

The last train going through the town offered people a ride out, but there was no time to pack the delicate lace and silverware. They had to leave then and there. The entire community upped and went, carrying what they could and left behind.
Steins vanished. 

We walked around, fascinated at the things people had chosen to abandon and yelping with surprise when we spotted familiar, used-in-2012 homewares. 1940 isn't that long ago and there's stuff here that you probably still use at home. 
An iron sits on the board, clothes are laid out on the bed, spices in glass jars topped with four inches of dust sit waiting for their long-dead (probably) cook in the pantry. Prostitute's knick knacks lie on the beds of the Bordello and yet more dust coats the kitchen tables, like icing sugar on a birthday cake. It's the worst case of housekeeping I've ever seen, and I used to cohabit with three footballing boys. 

This was not a Disney'd up, cartoon version of the West. There were no cardboard cutouts for cheesy photo opps, artificially faded posters of John Wayne, air-conditioned gift shop stocked to the rafters with cowboy tat or cafe set up next to restrooms. 
Steins was, by and large, exactly how it was back in the '40s. 
Wild West proper. 

A number of the original buildings, made of timber, adobe and railroad ties, are still standing including the Bordello, a room where they prepared bodies for burial, laundries and some apartments, as well as the town's outhouse and communal kitchens. Cactus' stretching into the cobalt sky, reaching heights of a London double decker, sprout from the perimetre of the wooden shacks, cracked and dying in the New Mexico sun. 

However, the hotel on Main Street which used to run alongside the train tracks, burned down years ago. All that remains are some sad stumps of foundation, left to the mercy of the desert winds.  

It's an amazing place that really hits home how hard it was back in the day, for the poor and ethnic minorities in particular. 
Melissa allows visitors to make their own donations for the Steins tour, staying true to her granddaddy's vow to keep the town preserved for history's sake, not for profit gains. 
It sees its share of visitors over the course of the year, but as tourists are its lifeblood, Steins is a ghost town that could always use a couple more to keep it alive.

Who: Melissa Lamoree (operator) or Linda Link (owner)
Where: Steins, Hildago County, New Mexico
When: Fri- Sun 0900 -1700
Don't miss: The outhouse!
Call: 001 602 821 8495 

Monday, 17 December 2012

Desert Drive: The New Mexico Crossing

ONWARDS to New Mexico. To get there, we took the I-10 which gave us the gift of actual tumbleweed sightings but also took us to El Paso, Texas, on the TexMex border, and from across which Ciudad Juarez lay. Filled with thick mustachioed hombres all hellbent on beheading their drug smuggling competitors, Ciudad Juarez has made the papers A LOT in recent years and earned the accolade of Mexico's deadliest city thanks to its penchant for female homicides and hoardes of lawless drug cartels.

I spent a significant majority of the drive mewling in fear and imagining that the Texans would take me for a Mexican runaway, disregard my British passport and mercilessly throw me over the barbed wire into Ciudad Juarez where I would have to toil illegitimately as a jalapeno harvester or sombrero weaver until somebody notified the Embassy, and sent in the SAS to return me to the quiet suburbs of North Wembley. My imagination works harder than Kris Jenner at a US Weekly press conference.

In the end we made it through with barely a glance and jaunty tipping of the hat from border control. And then, finally, in New Mexico, in a pastel-coloured town called Mesilla, we found that cowboy we'd been searching so long for. A real-life, swear-to-God cowboy.

We were innocently stuffing our faces with the best steak tacos in the world in this small cafe off the town plaza when a bespectacled, white-Stetson'd young buck rode up on his chestnut stead. Cheeky mare leaned right over the white picket fence and tried to have a gnaw on my nachos.
a horse walks into a cafe..

Anyway, we conversed genially in the late November sun ('How you doin' ma'am?' 'GOOD FANK YAAAW') and as I went over to stroke his horse, he pulled out what looked like a bottle of Gatorade and offered me a sip. IT WAS FILLED WITH GIN. Straight up. Alert the Sheriff, someone's poisoned the waterhole!
Which led me to mull over the following questions: Can you get done for being inebriated on a horse? Is it regarded as the same as drink driving, or is this another shifty misdemeanor protected by the elderly and creaking US Constitution?
Whatever, it's not everyday you get the chance to drink gin with a loitering cowboy so I slotted this in my valuable cultural experience mental compartment and got my swig on.

Things moved quickly after that, and the Bespectacled Cowboy offered me a trot around Mesilla on his Mandy. I blame that steak taco for hindering my leg swing over the horse's rump. I just couldn't get enough range to slide on. I don't feel too badly - there was a smattering of faecal matter where he wanted me to sit, being picked at by hungry flies, and I was wearing cheapo Primark leggings which weren't thick enough to provide an adequate barrier against equine anal seepage, so I politely declined and went to look at where Billy the Kid was hanged instead.

Then, in the local craft store I found a tiny Day of the Dead diorama depicting a skeleton giving birth to a baby skeleton. The artist had bothered to paint in blood and everything. Marvellous. This, along with the warehouses of fireworks sold at every petrol station, and dots of tumbleweed marooned on highway fences, is my everlasting memory of New Mexico.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Desert Drive: Kiss My Texas

We started our Desert Road fairytale in Houston, TX crashing at Friends House Downtown hostel. Run by a couple so sweet you might need an insulin shot after leaving reception, Danny and Leah were sympathetic to our horrendous night's sleep in the dorm and moved us into a spare private room the next night for no extra charge. We had been sharing our dorm with a bunch of hugely irksome manchildren who shot each other over-playful jibes and spent most of the night shouting their heads off to illustrate how amazingly fun and party ready they were. Leah and I were becoming telepathic with our constant shooting of annoyed looks. For the forty-eighth time in my life I cursed the Gods for failing to bless me with Carrie White's telekinetic powers. I could have exacted fiery revenge on these dweebs. It's Sunday night - DIAL IT DOWN.

Thanks to our over-exertions in NOLA, neither of us had the sufficient number of functioning electrodes to operate properly. So we went to Macy*s, where we found the shelves stocked with cowboy boot Christmas stockings and racially segregated Santa Claus's. Then we went to Walmart to balance everything out.

It wasn't until we were leaving the city that we actually got it together enough to see some sights. First stop was the Beer Can House.
Built in 1966 by John Milkovisch, who still lives there, the house looks like the secret den of a bored alcoholic. We stood outside on the pavement marvelling at yet another American roadside oddity, this one  created by approximately ten million cans of Texas Pride.
The Beer Can house sits weirdly among the other suburban homes and even in a gentle breeze sounds like an elephant trampling on a hot tin roof. It's only open on the weekends though, so we loitered outside gawking for ten minutes before heading on out to...

sleeps three. cosy.
The National Museum of Funeral History! You can't spell funeral without a smattering of FUN. We pulled up outside a suitably sombre building on the outskirts of Houston, ready to delve into the macabre world of the Grim Reaper. The museum began predictably with the funeral traditions and corteges of late US presidents and the lives and deaths of various popes (this exhibit's only draw being the actual POPEMOBILE! Duhna duhna duhna duhna POPEMAN!) before dissecting the Mexican's Day of the Dead ritual and the oddball world of Ghanaian fantasy coffins first chiseled by sculpturer Kane Quaye. They know how to go out in style those Ghanaians, commissioning coffins styled as cockrels and rockets and rowing boats to capture the essence of the departed. Why go for boring ash or dry old oak when you can travel to the afterlife in a marfuckin' lobster?! 

There was also a coffin covered in dollar bills and coins, protected from grave robbers' sweaty paws by three inches of impenetrable perspex. For those who believe you can take life's riches with you. It's the Kim Kardashian of deathware - flashy, trashy and without a drop of soul, but super photogenic and strangely desirable. It's really shiny.

There was also a section on celebrity passings, focusing largely on US entertainers and accomplishers but also a death wall dedicated to The 27 Club featuring our very own Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain. No idea what Christopher Reeve was doing there though. 

Austin next. We drove west under skies that seemed pregnant with rain but never came good on that threat. We'd been in Texas for three days but as yet had no recorded sighting of that elusive rhinestone cowboy. Or any cowboys at all for that matter. I'd been expecting a line of John Wayne look-a-likes lassoing cacti in perfect synchronicity on the Louisiana/Texas border, but to no avail. Oh well, life can be hard, that's one thing this trip has taught me. That, and that Britain has the best selection of salty snacks in the world. Took me near on two months to find a pack of salt and vinegar crisps, yet pickled pig lips are freely available at farmer's markets across the land. What kind of world is this?

In Austin we met up with a teacher we befriended back in our hostel in Boston, Marcela. She had entertained us the weekend before Halloween with stories of gangland kidnappings in her Mexican homeland. Austin, a tiny drop of blue in an otherwise hardcore Republican state, was now her town and we arranged to liaise at a bar called the Lustre Pearl on Rainey Street  for a few drinks and a chit chat. Rainey is lined with houses renovated into bars, so that the entire street looks like it's in the running to host the world's biggest house party. There was one bar fashioned to look like the White House with an alien landing on its lawn and another that felt like the inside of a gentleman's country cabin. The Lustre Pearl was doing drink combos including a can of beer and measure of whiskey for three bucks (named Long Hair Don't Care. Charmant) and it sounded like Austin was a hip little town too. Marcela told us about the cute boutique stores and shops making me wish we could have stolen another day from our tight travel schedule and stuck around for longer, but the clock was ticking and our desert trek still had a way to go.