There are only two types of cheese

I have to say I’m pretty excited right now. Something I thought was beyond the realms of possibility has happened; I’ve found decent cheese in America. And not only have I found decent cheese, I’ve found a mountain of deliciously enticing dairy goodness.

I’ll tell you where I am in a moment, but first let me take you back a few weeks, to when my pursuit of lactose began.

It started with milk. I really wanted just a small amount of milk to make a cup of tea. And I mean I really wanted it. I wanted the milky comfort that tasted like home to wash away some of my homesickness.

After several reconnaissance missions, I’d failed to retrieve a single drop of fresh milk. I’m not discounting the fact that being jet-lagged could have played a part in this, but it definitely seemed far more difficult than I expected. Whereas in the UK you can’t walk more than a few streets without passing a corner shop selling cartons of milk, stores selling food are strangely out of sight in the US.

It wasn’t until I needed something from a pharmacy that I discovered that they hide a shocking secret; they sell milk. They also often sell booze as well, but that’s for another blog on another day.

This discovery triggered an immediate addiction. I wanted to neck whole bottles of milk even before I’d got them out of the store. I wanted to wear a milk moustache all of the time. This created a new issue: saving enough milk to make cups of tea.

Even with this new insider information it’s not always plain sailing. I have to dodge the precariously similar products, wearing near identical packaging to make me think I’m buying plain old milk. Vanilla flavoured milk is one that’s caught me out, the sweet, sickly, flavour just isn’t right.

With one dairy craving more than satiated, a new one started bubbling. This time it bubbled in curdled milk form. Cheese. I wanted cheese.

Several weeks into my trip I made a decision to get milk and cheese. I would take the bus and get some dairy. Yes, that was the main mission for the day. Cheese and milk. Milk and cheese.

Imagine my horror when a large chain store which sold almost everything under the sun informed me that they don’t sell milk. On further probing they took me to an aisle where the cartoned drinks were shelved. In amongst the coconut milk, soy milk, everything-but-plain milk, I found a pack of six lunch box drinks of long life milk. They were almost out of reach, obviously not a big seller.

I share with you here a photo of the only cheese available in the store. It’s spray cheese. This was one disappointing day. I took the bus back to my hotel with a heavy heart and then drank UHT milk until I felt nauseous (three cartons back-to-back is enough to do that, if you wondered).

Fast forward several weeks, to a time when I’d given up hope. My cheese fantasies had died out. I had adjusted to the thought that I’d wallow in a vat of cheese when I got back to the UK. I’m in Eugene, Oregon, ordering a burger from a cart at the side of the road. I’m offered several choices of cheese to top my burger. I’m delighted. Is this really happening?

My cheese dreams are almost immediately snuffed out again. A conversation with someone that very evening contains this killer sentence from the lips of a fellow hostel guest ‘There’s only two types of cheese, orange and white’. I sob a little that evening as I fall asleep. Hope is dead.

Fast forward another couple of weeks and I’m in the supermarket buying a few essentials, when a display cabinet catches my attention. Is this a mirage, am I really loosing it, or is that really a counter with real cheese? I get closer, fearing the cabinet will vanish in a poof of smoke and be replaced by huge monotonous blocks of vivid orange rectangles which wear a label claiming them to be cheese.

I’m not dreaming – there is real cheese in there! I immediately buy a lovely piece. I am staying with some couchsurfers and I share my treasure with them that evening. Another delight- fellow cheese appreciaters! That’s when they tell me about the place I’m sat in right now.

Cheese Bar is heaven. Even the musty smells of the overripe blues smell delicious to me right now. This place is a gold mine for cheese lovers. I’ll be staying under the counter here until my flight back the UK or I eat their complete stock of cheese, whichever happens first.

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Cheese Bar, Portland, OR. The exterior doesn't really do justice to the awesomeness that is to be found inside

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CHEESE!

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Car-crash tourism

I thought Hollywood Boulevard was an assault on the senses. In comparison to Venice beach though it was a gentile stroll dressed in 1900s garb, gently twirling a parasol.

Venice beach is an experience. And I write this with the disturbing, yet oddly compulsive, images fresh in my mind.

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Sign at entrance to freak show, who knew freak shows still exist?

It’s hard to know where to begin, should I start with the guy holding a sign saying ‘will work for marajuana’ (his pitch was a very simple ‘marajuana – a little bit goes along way’), or should I start with the ‘stall’ – and I use the term in the loosest of ways – selling hobo signs, signs written by hand on scraps of card a la genuine homeless person style with phrases such as ‘hungry hobo’?

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Somehow this two-headed four-legged duck is still cute

Or maybe I should start with the guy holding the sign saying ‘donations for penis reduction operation’ and loudly shouting that donations would be a service to womankind, or possibly the guy selling magic wands (twigs with stones glued to the top).

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Conjoined lizards, look like they are cuddling, I just hope they like each other

No, wait, it’s got to be the guy inviting people to tuck dollar notes into his dog’s bikini. I am reliably informed by his handwritten sign that you can find his dog on YouTube by searching ‘Lisa Venice beach dog’ should you care to view this spectacle remotely.

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Two-headed turtle, they had quite a few of these

It’s crowded, it’s hot, it’s dirty, it’s smelly, it’s noisey and the likelihood of being pickpocketed feel way above average; yet it’s car-crash tourism, and I just can’t help looking.

I go one step further, I go into a freak show. Having thought these were condemned to the annals of history, I am surprised to find one on Venice beach. Although if there was going to be one, I couldn’t think of a better location for it.

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This chap is apparently in the Guinness book of records for his tattoos, he also has quite a number of facial piercings

Inside I find pickled corpses of various animals with more heads / legs / faces than they should have, accompanied by a woman with a beard (she’s alive, not pickled), a ‘wolf-faced man’ with hair over his whole face, and a dog with 5 legs, all of which are very much alive and kicking.

A fellow customer yaps excitedly about ‘a six-legged cow’ she’s seen on their TV show (apparently a series about the freak show is the most watched reality show on a TV channel I’ve never heard of), then pushes to get a view of the human freaks as close-up as she can get.

A short show where a man does hideous things with sharp objects, and a couple of other peculiar demonstrations and I’m herded back out, blinking in the bright sunshine and wondering what the hell just happened.

Enjoy is not a word I’d use to describe my Venice beach visit, but it’s certainly an experience unlike any other.

Making friends with the locals

I get a sense of toe-curling excitement when I can escape the city and immerse myself in nature. San Diego offers several perfect options, with beaches and ocean just a bus hop away.

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La Jolla, correctly pronounced ‘la hoya’, claims the most Northerly part of San Diego and is perfect for a retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city. But all is not as calm and peaceful as it on the surface appears. It’s actually a hot-bed of contention, with the key suspects in this drama being…wait for it…harbor seals.

Children’s Pool is a small sheltered beach and swimming area in La Jolla. A local philanthropist built the protecting sea wall and donated the area to the public as a safe area for children to swim way back in the 30s. All went swimmingly (see what I did there?) for over 60 years until the harbor seals took a fancy to the pool.

Having decided in the 90s this was a far more up market location to hang out in, the seals have been at the centre of a local divide ever since. Boot the seals out and risk disturbing their natural breeding patterns, or go without a safe place for kids to bathe? And so the battle continues, with the seals for the time being having the upper hand.

If the seals are aware of the upset their presence causes some, they do little to show it. In fact, they look rather pleased with themselves, with several courting what I would definitely describe as smirks.

They are so cute though that you could almost forgive them anything. Anything apart from their toxic smell.

Seeing them in zoos or on a windswept rock does not prepare you for the utter stench of seeing them in a confined cove. I don’t like seafood at the best of times, with the smell even in a supermarket regularly triggering my over-sensitive gag reflex. Imagine then, if you will, my reaction to the smell of fish that has been eaten and digested by a seal and deposited in great heaps all over the sand.

To get even close I had to wear my jumper over my mouth and nose. People looked at me strangely -but it was either that or deposit my lunch amongst the seals (and I’d just eaten a nice Thai lunch which I was keen to hang on to). If you happen to visit, take a walk along the sea wall rather than going onto the beach, the breeze from the ocean helps to take the edge of the seals’ unpleasant toilet behaviour.

The cliff tops in La Jolla are equally lovely to see, they are alive with sea birds and sweet-scented flowers. An idyllic escape indeed. But you don’t need to take my word for it, you can take a look at some of the snaps I took when I was there: http://s1213.photobucket.com/user/mangotree_80/story/16025

Goodbye, San Diego

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Me with SS Midway in the background

The self-appointed ‘best city in America’ has been kind to me, and I bid it farewell with a tinge of sadness. Further up the coast Dana Point awaits me, so leave I must.

As I take my first trip on the transportation that will form the backbone of my travels, Amtrak, I drink in my last glimpses of San Diego county and imagine the amount of water between here and the next closest neighbough to the West, China.

The sun peeps out from behind the clouds as if to tempt me to remain, and I take time to reflect on my five days in San Diego.

On arrival my brain was close to switching off completely and I was craving sleep. Simple tasks, like unpacking my toothbrush, took an age and felt unbearably difficult. 14 hours of dreamless face-down unconsciousness helped.

It was when I woke that I realised just how brown my hotel was. Every single thing in my room was a different shade of brown, the hallway is decorated in brown, the lobby is various shades of brown and to really take the brown biscuit, the entire outside of the hotel is painted brown. There’s also a pervasive smell throughout the entire place, that kind of damp smell washing left too long in the machine gets.

Despite these obvious downsides it’s my retreat, a place to hide from the world when those rushing waves of realisation wash over me: I’m here.

San Diego has a population of around 2 million. The sprawling city encompasses many districts with very different and distinct identities. Brown hotel is in the Gaslamp quarter. Named for its previous use of gas lamps (there are none remaining today, disappointingly), the area holds many hotels and restaurants. It seems that everyone in this area owns a tiny dog and runs vigorously for 23 hours per day (they’re stopping for their dogs to poop for the remaining hour). It’s an immaculately clean area – which defies the number of tourists and dogs.

Seaport Village is, as the name suggests, on the harbour. A 15 minute walk from Gaslamp, it has some cute shops and a nice small park right on the edge of the water. The cool breeze from the water and the large trees shading the grass make this the perfect place to doze in the sun and recoupperate from the stresses and strains of travel and dragging a bag the weight of a small car. There are a number of people set up with umbrellas and hand-drawn signs offering fortune telling. It crosses my mind that maybe day 1 of my trip is a good time to indulge in this make-believe, but the shady grass of the park is just too alluring.

Downtown unexpectedly received me as a visitor when my bank decided to stop my card for ‘suspicious behaviour’. An irritation that took a chunk out of my day which I could have spent doing something important, such as further recupperation in the shade.

The Old Town is mainly reconstructed buildings from the Victorian era when the town was beginning to take shape. The buildings are set out closely to the original layout around a central green. The respite from cars is welcome, but I didn’t find much to occupy me for more than an hour or so.

It was a slight wrench to leave my ‘retreat’, despite the colour and the slight smell, I’ve grown accustomed to it. Next stop: my first couch.

There’s always a slight nervous anticipation about meeting a couchsurfing host. I’m sure I’ll be safe, but will we get on? That’s the big unknown.

I have nothing to worry about, Melissa and Chapy are a lovely couple who welcome me warmly into their home in Pacific Beach. Pacific Beach fits with my pre-conceived stereotype of California, where people surf, bike, paddleboard, sail, skateboard and the like during the day, party at night, and manage to cram in a little soul cleansing at the local yoga or meditation center somewhere in-between. Bars and eateries are aplenty and the only worry in life is where to catch the best wave and which bar has the best happy hour. OK maybe I got a little carried away with the stereotype.

Chapy and Melissa live on a peninsula which juts out into Mission Bay. This means they can walk in two opposite directions from their apartment and both will lead them to golden sands and the sheltered bay which is a playground for locals and visitors alike.

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Me with seals at Children's Pool, La Jolla

I envy the beach-side lifestyle and drink it in while I can. The sun is hiding behind clouds on the days I’m with my hosts, but it doesn’t stop us taking to the water in their new inflatable boat. We notice as we hop out of the boat that the water is peppered with jellyfish and we make a dash for the safety of the shore. After all, I don’t want to have to ask my hosts to pee on me.

My five days in San Diego were wonderful, but it’s time to pack the heaviest bag in the world and head Northwards to see what Dana Point and then LA have in store for me.

A guilt-ridden dread

The happy gleam in peoples eyes when they’ve asked about my trip has been a tad uncomfortable over the last few weeks. I’ve unconvincingly feigned excitement about my imminent travel plans, as much to fool myself as anyone else.

It shouldn’t have been that way, of course, they asked with the obvious assumption that I’d be excited about my upcoming trip. I should have been excited, right? After all, it’s me who made these plans – getting closer to fulfilling them should surely be the best bit?

Instead I’ve felt a foreboding, a sense of rapidly-approaching doom. Travelling alone, to a country I’ve been to only once, for 3 whole months – what was I thinking when I came up with this mad-cap idea?

As the date of my departure loomed ever closer, the worry blossomed into outright terror. I’m still in denial now, as I write this on the plane. Seriously. Will the worry subside and be replaced by enjoyment – or at least a more manageable level of anxiety? I’ll let you know!