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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Contentment in Eugene

I waited for my luggage to appear on the single carousel at Eugene airport and wondered what this town had in store for me. My reason for being here was kind of whimsical, based on a recommendation by a stranger posted on a blog I’d written several months earlier. His enthusiasm for the place piqued my interest enough for me to add it to my itinerary.

The airport is possibly the smallest I’ve ever touched down in, but it has a few interesting items dotted about which filled my time before the carousel cranks into action. I can already sense the slightly quirky nature of the area from the airport decoration, which includes a lifesize model of a plane that will never fly, and two model ducks that tower a couple of feet taller than the people they greet.

Like most people I’ll meet in my time in Eugene, the shuttle bus driver can’t quite put into words what made him choose to settle in Eugene over 30 years earlier. An indescribable force made him put down roots and leave behind his native L.A.

The smell of incense drifts along the corridor as I make my way to the hostel reception. People wearing tie-die t-shirts sit behind a counter lined with an assortment of crystals, checking people in and smiling readily.

After dumping my bags, I explore the area. The pleasant smell of hops cloaks the streets around the hostel, drifting from the nearby Ninkasi brewery. I discover independent shops and eateries on my wander and take in the quirky houses and gardens.

People are cycling and I see more bikes than cars on my short walk, and I wonder whether I’m still in America. Front gardens spill onto the paths and everything appears a refreshingly verdant green after the dry conditions of California.

A large trumpeted blue flower helicopters from a tree branching over the pavement and comes to rest in my hair. I pluck it out and examine it, smiling. I realise I feel something I’ve missed in the hectic cities on my last few stops: contentment.

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Going nowhere fast

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Street-side seating outside a private home, complete with retro hairdriers

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The classic 'pair of shoes over a power line' gag, although I get the feeling this was probably the source of what was to become imitated around the globe

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Mosaic in the pavement, I don't imagine it's 'official', instead I think a local probably made the most of some wet concrete to make something beautiful

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And the award for the most unique front porch in Whitaker goes to...

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Even the missing cat signs here are kinda quirky

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An interesting front garden. Can you spot Mr Potato Head?

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Amazingly-delicious cocktail at Pizza Research Institute, Whitaker, Eugene. They also do fabulous pizzas!

A stroll with Yogi

A boy of about 10 says nonchalantly, ‘Hey Dad, there’s a bear over there’.

The father turns, as he replies with an obvious disbelief ‘Oh, yeah?’.

The kid points into the trees and the father’s eyes follow. ‘Oh there is a bear!’ the father exclaims.

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'Yogi' is a juvenile brown bear

And that’s how I came to have an unexpected encounter with a wild bear in Yosemite. Tourists were marching around in their hundreds to a nearby waterfall and all but the child had missed the real star of the show.

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Half dome is visible in the background. The more adventurous can hike to the top using the permanent wires bolted to the rock

Yogi was about half grown, and not in the slightest bit interested or distracted by the humans who began to line up to take a look.

He pottered around, pulling at branches and rummaging amongst the undergrowth. I imagine he was hoping for a pic-a-nic basket, but they are a tad out of fashion these days and most don’t linger long enough here in Jellystone, erm Yosemite.

Yellowstone was a natural marvel, and I feel sad to view it for such a short time on the tour. But as California’s 38th Governor once said, I’ll be back.

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El Capitan, the largest granite cliff in the world. The youngest girl to ever climb it is from my hometown, Sheffield!

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I think this was Hostel waterfall. This is close to where Yogi was hanging out

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Redwoods

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El Capitan, Half Dome and Bridal Veil waterfall all visible in this selfie 🙂

There’s never a good witness when you need one

The tour company had me over a barrel. The choices were to not pay any extra and visit the south rim, which entailed a 10 hour return journey for one hour at the canyon with a pretty poor view of it. Or I could upgrade and and go to the West rim. The extra $80 would reduce my travel times to 4 hours return and give me three hours at the canyon.

I didn’t want to be forced into this extra expenditure but the thought of 10 hours on that bus made me open my wallet. Although I seriously considered ditching the canyon altogether in favour of extra time in Vegas.

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I slump into an uncomfortable doze on the coach. As is common on this trip I am woken by crackly Mandarin booming out of the speakers above my head. We’re ordered off the bus to quickly take photographs of the Hoover Dam where we’ve made a very brief stop. I take a couple of photos as I look at the dam through bleary eyes, before being corralled back aboard.

The next time I wake my teeth are being shaken out of my head as the bus navigates along what seems too be an off-road route. I close my eyes again, fearing the travel sickness will take over.

The first stop is the gift store, which is filled with over-priced wares. I bumble around, disinterested, waiting for the guide to give me my vouchers for the shuttle and lunch (everything at the Canyon is apparently based on voucher-exchange).

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I hear what has become my name for this tour ‘VICTORIA! VICTORIA!’ and the guide impatiently hands me my vouchers. I try to get out a question, but she puts a hand on my back and pushes me towards the shuttle departure stop.

The second stop offers mediocre views and an eatery that looks distinctly unappealing. People elbow each other and sigh heavily, everyone trying to get a shot with a good background view and, the troublesome part, no one else’s head / arm / back looming into shot.

We’re penned into a fairly small area, and people queue to sit on a favoured rock which offers a reasonable photo potential. I line up with the rest, to take the exact same middle-of-the-road shot.

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Then there’s an option to either join the lunch queue, or join the shuttle bus queue. I hover close to the food area, checking if what’s on offer is even remotely appealing. It isn’t.

People working are busy handing out gruel in exchange for vouchers and their demeanour does not invite questions. I look around for anyone else working there, to see whether it’s worth me chancing the food at the third and final stop, Guano Point.

I see a man hovering close to the rope barrier. As I approach I start to question whether he does in fact work there, or whether the care-worn Grand Canyon jumper he’s wearing is simply a sign he’s been here before. He looks at me, sucking his lips into the gaps where his teeth once lived and confirms his employment.

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He struggles to understand my accent, but I get what I take is confirmation of the possibility of food at the next stop. I see him looking at the Union Jack emblazoned on my sleeve, with the words ‘United Kingdom’ across the centre. He reads is out, looking puzzled and asks ‘Where’s that?’.

‘United Kingdom, it’s in Europe. I’m from England’. I respond.

‘Oh. Never heard of it.’ He says, looking bored. Then he sees my camera and I can see the cogs in his mind begin to whir as he says excitedly ‘I’ll take a really good photo of you!’. He lifts the rope barrier and gestures for me to duck underneath. I look around, mildly panicked, looking for reassuring smiles from people.

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‘Don’t look at anyone else, just go under’, he instructs. If I’d been feeling a little tense, this sentence took anxiety levels to 9 out of 10. I needed witnesses, I was about to be thrown off the Grand Canyon and I at least wanted someone to be able to give a description of the culprit. Where has everyone gone – oh no, this is it! Despite my fears I compliantly go under the rope, although I do manage to splutter that I wasn’t going anywhere near the edge.

If you’ve read my camera bombing blog, then you’ve seen the result. All I needed worry about was an embarrassing photograph. I’m still not sure whether he worked there or not, but I was just happy to be alive and not plummeting to my death.

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The third and final stop was by far the best. The unobscured views to the base of the canyon and more freedom to walk around make it a far more satisfying stop. The helicopters flying around below look like toys, giving scale to the mammoth natural wonder.

A girl dressed in what I presume is an immitation of native american dress shivers against the wind and hugs her ski jacket around her as she counts heads onto the bus back to the main gift store which doubles as our group’s departure point.

Falling in love with a little town named Monterey

A weary passenger sat amongst her elderly travel companions on the final leg of what seemed like an impossibly long, hot, journey. As the minibus carrying the misfit companions rounded a corner, her eyes were greeted with a blazing orange sun sitting atop sand dunes the size of houses. She felt her throat tighten, taken aback by the sudden beauty which greeted her. That girl was me. This place is real. This is Monterey.

Today has been a nature-lovers dream. A wild deer trotted along a footpath beside me, I mistook if for a large dog for a moment as it overtook me on the path. A cyclist ahead of me appeared equally bemused. The deer, however, was just out for a stroll, ‘nothing to see here’ his nonchalance indicated.

The flowers are in bloom, the birds are nesting, the harbor seals are pupping; what a time to visit this magical place. Here are some of the many, many photos I took whilst I absorbed my surroundings with sheer joy.

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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