In and Around Tucson: Hiking Mt Lemmon

I may be in the middle of the desert, but Tucson is actually surrounded by the Catalina mountain range, home to Mt Lemmon. Mt Lemmon is the most famous peak in the Tucson area, and is somewhere that travel websites all over the internet say you must venture up before you leave the city.

Last weekend, thanks to a trip organised by my university, I made the 6 mile trek up the ‘Butterfly Trail’ of Mt Lemmon. Now, I know what you’re thinking – ‘hiking up a mountain…in the Tucson heat??’ Yes, it was very very sweaty. And hot. And tiring. And did I mention sweaty? Still, we soldiered on and completed the trail, which rose up roughly 1000 feet in elevation as well as being considerably lengthy.

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It took around 6 hours to hike the route – we started around 10am and finished at 4pm, give or take 30 minutes. More experienced and determined hikers could probably have completed it in much less time, but for us, there was no rush. Especially on the last part of the ascent, we stopped every few minutes to just take in the views around us. Most of the day we had our heads glued to the ground, watching for any uneven ground that could sway our footing. However, the nearer we got to the top the more beautiful it became. Thanks to the recent monsoon month, the mountain slopes were painted green and smelt fresh. It was a magnificent contrast to the orange desert bellow, and one I’d never thought I’d see in Tucson. Around us were plants are all different colours and varieties, which made for a more interesting hike. We even found some wild raspberries – although they were much smaller than our beloved British ones.

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Whilst the trip may have left me scratched, bruised, sunburnt and achy for the next few days, I can’t say that I regret taking the plunge and doing something I wouldn’t usually do. The views were spectacular and it was nice to spend some time away from the dryness of Tucson. Besides, popping on your iPod and trekking through the mountains really isn’t a bad way to spend a Saturday.

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Stargazing in Los Angeles – A Californian Labor Day Weekend

Another pro of living in Arizona? We share a border with California, which means long weekends in L.A.! This Labor Day Weekend, me and my girlfriends did exactly that. We packed our bags, booked our hotel and hopped aboard the Greyhound bus, ready for our 10 hour journey to the City of Angels.

First up, the Greyhound. For some reason, the coach company has become one of the icons of American culture. When I told my friends back home I was catching the Greyhound to California they responded with ‘Oh cool! I’ve always wanted to get a Greyhound!’ Now I only have one response: why? Whilst it may be significantly cheaper than flying (our round trip was $120, about £78), the experience is just that…an experience. We left Tucson at 11pm Friday, in order to cheat our way out of a hotel night and arrive fresh Saturday morning. However in hindsight maybe the extra hotel night wouldn’t have been such a bad idea. American’s reading this are probably laughing at my naivety in thinking that the bus would be ‘fine’ and ‘a right laugh’. To sum it up (and prevent myself from ranting on the American system of queuing i.e. they don’t) the Greyhound is unreliable, uncomfortable and most definitely not ‘a laugh’. Fly, hitchhike, take a private jet if you have to. OK…maybe not that far.

As you can imagine, we were pretty exhausted after a sleepless night and 10 hours of travelling. Only one thing appeals to four girls, tired and in need of a tan – the beach. So off we went to Santa Monica pier. Santa Monica kind of reminds me of an English costal town…a really good one. It has the pier, the rides, even the nifty little stores selling shells and keyrings. However, you can’t beat a Californian white sand beach. It was there that we slept for a few hours, burning and crisping under the hot sun. Did we get bad sunburn? Yes. Was it worth it? Now, I can say yes…if you asked ‘tomato-faced’ me the day after, probably not.

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Santa Monica is also a great place to start off your shopping adventures in L.A. The pier offers souvenir items that are essential for any tourist – key-rings, t-shirts, novelty mugs, you know the sort. However if you head down to the pedestrianised 2nd street, you’ll find high-street shops as well as an array of affordable restaurants. We spent the remainder of our day prowling the shops and spending money we didn’t have in Victoria’s Secret (7 undies for $27…come on who can resist?!). To top it all off, we dined out on my favourite cuisine, and one that you don’t actually see a lot of here in Tucson – Italian! It was nice to get away from the fries and Mexican food and just sink my teeth into a cheesy slice of pizza.

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Thankfully, our hotel beds were a lot better than the coach seats of the Greyhound, and we slept like logs our first night in L.A. The hotel (Hotel Solaire) was located in the lesser known ‘Korea Town’, that we later found out was also home to many USC students. This meant that the area was relatively safe to walk around at night, even if a little sketchy. Having spent so much time in London, you would have thought I would be use to sight of homelessness on the streets. However, it is on a whole different scale in Los Angeles. Whilst the city may boast of great new beginnings and attract many migrants a year, the effects of this is short-lived. People literally had their entire life in boxes and shopping carts. Not far from where we were staying, a row of tents lined the pavement resembling a small community. You had to remind yourself that you were still in the developed country of America and not a war-torn village…

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Scenes like this were less common as you got more towards the centre of the city though, where we spent the majority of our second day. First up was MOCA, or the Museum of Contemporary Art. For anyone that knows me, you know that this definitely wasn’t my choice of destination. Whilst I can respect that modern and contemporary art is considered good, I am still unsure as to why. I am the type of person that needs every piece explained to them – why have they chosen just paint a blue circle in the middle of a white canvas? However, MOCA is home to some of the most popular pieces of contemporary art in the world (Warhol, Lichtenstein), and I can say that most of it was at least interesting. It got me asking those important ‘why’ questions, which I suppose is the kind of the stimulation the artist wishes to provoke.

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Next up was the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels (COLA), and Grand Central Market nearby. The Cathedral was actually the first ‘modern’ Cathedral I had visited. Living in Europe, we’re used to the old designs of religious places – gargoyles, extravagant ceiling artwork, and intricate carvings. This one featured a lot of clean lines and an overall simplistic appearance. I am still undecided as to how I felt about it. It was interesting to see a different place of worship but it just felt too ‘new’ to be a cathedral (only opened in 2002) – however maybe that was me not being used such architecture. One thing I was immediately taken with was Grand Central Market. Located just across from Angels Landing (the shortest railway in the U.S.) and opened in 1917, this indoor market has all types of food on offer. You can do your grocery shopping or simply grab a bite to eat – we did the latter. Out of the selection of Mexican, Italian, and American food I went to a Mexican cevicheria, La Tostaderia, and got fish ceviche. Popular in the coastal regions of Latin America and apparently originating from Peru, the dish is typically raw fish flavoured with lemon and chilli peppers, served with side dishes of your choice. Mine was served with plenty of cilantro, avocado, red onions and tomatoes. Although I’m not the biggest fan of cilantro (and there was a lot of it) I managed to eat around half the dish and appreciate the fresh flavours the dish boasted. Besides, I washed away the cilantro taste with a refreshing juice from Press Brothers Juicery, again available in the market.

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Hollywood Blvd was our fourth destination of the day, something that you have to do on any visit to L.A. I had visited the Walk of Fame and Chinese Theatre a couple times before, but there is always something new to discover along the strip. We actually ended up going to the largest candy store in the U.S.A, where they sold European chocolate! However it was for a price…I paid $4.99 for a bar of Milka. Still, it was nice to see some Dairy Milk on the shelf; I’ve spent my time here living off Reese’s and Raisinets to satisfy my sweet cravings.

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The highlight of the trip though has to be our visit to Griffith Observatory. Located on Mount Hollywood, it’s not exactly easy to reach. We tried an Uber, but ended up trekking the remainder of the route up there. It was tiring, especially the final part going up the sandy hill to the observatory, but it was most definitely worth it. The summit offers spectacular views of the whole of the city in all its glory. It’s times like this that you appreciate the lack of skyscrapers in L.A., as the sprawl laid out before you is truly magnificent. We watched the sun set and stayed to look through ‘the most viewed telescope in the world’, set that night to be pointing at Saturn. It was a wonderful night and the perfect way to end our busy weekend in the city.

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After travelling another 10 uncomfortable hours, we finally reached our ‘home’ in Tucson. We were exhausted but satisfied with the eventful weekend we’d just accomplished. Los Angeles is one of those cities that keeps on giving. It doesn’t matter how many times you visit, you will always find something new and discover a different location. I definitely plan to visit again – next up on my list the Getty Villa, somewhere that we planned to go to but never got round too. Two days in the city just simply isn’t enough!

First Impressions…Welcome to the U.S.A

So it’s been a while since I’ve posted, and there’s a pretty good reason why that’s so…I promise!

Many months (and forms) after the whole year abroad process started, I finally departed for the U.S.A. Tucson, Arizona, to be precise. I’ve now been living here 3 weeks and boy, has it been interesting. Despite visiting the States a few times before, I’ve learnt so much about American culture since arriving here. As much as we like to think we’re similar in terms of lifestyle, I can assure you we’re not! I thought I’d start my blogging over here by listing some things I’ve already discovered about my new home in Arizona.

  1. The weather is kind of bipolar.

Apparently this is a norm of Tucson in the ‘summer’ months… every afternoon between 4-7pm we get a crazy thunderstorm, unlike anything we’d ever have in the U.K. In fact I think if we did get a storm of that extremity it would probably make national news. I’m not kidding. It can still be around 35 degrees, but hammering it down so hard the rain actually makes your skin hurt. And then there’s the lightening. Not lovely sheet lightening we’re all used to, but scary, gothic Poe looking fork lightening, coming from all angles. What shocks me the most though is the fact that it can be like this on one side of the city, but not on the other. My second day here, I was caught out in one of these awful episodes (never again). I was standing on one side of the street, where I was nice and dry, and I crossed the street only to be hit with gallons of rainwater, courtesy of the heavens.

  1. It’s true, Americans love a British accent.

I have to admit I’ve been using this to my advantage quite a lot. I actually feel myself speaking ‘posher’ when greeted with a new intrigued American, curious to learn more about our rainy climate. It makes for a great conversation starter and an easy way into parties – a vital tool for any under 21 out here. However, you do get some odd comments. One guy said to me that I could ‘say the weirdest or most disgusting thing and it would still sound beautiful’…OK then. Another girl found it absolutely hilarious that I thought she had an accent. I tried explaining to her that to me she does have an accent, as in England everyone sounds similar to myself. She genuinely laughed in my face, whilst turning to her friend saying ‘she thinks I have an accent!’ Sometimes America, you do live up to your stereotypes.

  1. I will never understand American football.

I tried, I really did. I went to watch our team (the Wildcats) do a practice game, with an actual American accompanying me. He explained the rules, but to me it just seemed like a lot of standing around, whistle blowing, and unnecessary chants (DEFENSE!). Maybe it’s just the reserved British coming out in me, but I find all the shouting, gimmicks and various flags somewhat distracting. Give me a quiet game of tennis any day of the week.

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  1. Europeans overdress…or Americans underdress…you decide.

In the U.K., I think I fit in pretty well with my dress sense – not too much, not too little, somewhat stylish and keeping up with latest trends that suit me. Here, I feel completely out of place. Everyone dresses as though they are either coming from, or going to, the gym. I’m talking short shorts, vest tops, bright trainers, and always carrying those sports bottles only athletes back home seem to use. ‘Well they could be doing just that’, I hear you say. No. Well, not in the girls’ case anyway. Hair perfectly straightened/curled, make-up fresh, eyebrows pencilled in, these ladies are not fooling anybody. It’s a stark contrast to myself, sitting there bare-faced and donning ‘straight out of bed’ hair because let’s be honest, make-up in this heat is lasting about 10 minutes. Beside, 9am is way too early for me anyway. I guess this is where we get our ‘ugly English’ stereotype from…and if it is then I’m proud!

  1. Manners are everything.

Never in my life have I had so many ‘thanks’ and ‘pleases’ and ‘your welcomes’ thrown my way. The Americans are manner obsessed. Doors as well – I could be a good 10 second walk away and someone will wait to hold open the door they are just passing through. It’s charming, but also somewhat exhausting. Where are the disgruntled teens angry to be woken up for their 8am class? Nowhere apparently, replaced instead by perky students joyously carrying a Starbucks smiling at every person they pass. It’s 8.30am. I am not going to smile back.

  1. College pride is real, and it’s big.

Back at UEA, you’ll see the occasional UEA t-shirt round campus whilst the richer of the students prefer the UEA tracksuit bottoms. However, most opt for the traditional ‘normal clothes’ trend, sold in the majority of high-street stores. Here, the high-street store is the UA bookstore. The ‘normal clothes’ look is a UA tank top, t-shirt, shorts, jacket, baseball cap, sunglasses…the list is endless. College pride is huge here, and it looks like it’s going to stay. I’m unsure yet as to how I feel about it – it looks quite cool seeing everyone in UA clothing, but do you really need to rep your uni 24/7? Although saying that, I’m ironically currently writing this whilst wearing my UEA top…Norwich for life.

Whilst my heart may still be in Norwich, I have to admit that I’m warming to my new university in the sun. Campus is beautiful, my dormitory has a pool, and I am close enough to Los Angeles that I can organise a trip there this weekend (which I’m sure I’ll update you on!). I’m sure there’s many more hidden quirks that this city has to reveal to me – the abundance of Mexican restaurants downtown seem to each have a story surrounding them alone. I’m looking forward to immersing myself into Arizonan life and seeing what the rest of the semester teaches me. But please, dear God, don’t let me go back with an accent!