Category Archives: amtrak

Returning to Chicago and Back to St. Louis



We arrive in Chicago by 6pm, about 3 hours behind schedule. From Union Station, we must take the blue line to O’Hare, where our hotel shuttle will take us to Sheration Four Points. Since we will only be in Chicago for one night, we might as well stay comfortably. Besides, it was a good deal. Nothing downtown was available for less than $300 that night because of Lollapalooza in Grant Park. This is our second time in Chicago together, and the festival was going on then, too. It’s an anniversary of sorts because we had just begun seeing each other last year at this time.

We have a “full-circle” conversation on the blue line, assessing where we are now, emotionally, compared to then, when we were both freshly broken from long-term relationships. It’s been a whirlwind of a year that included healing old wounds, denying love, damaging our livers, touring Southeast Asia, maintaining communication internationally, surviving car wrecks, transitioning into new careers, moving across the country. It feels like a script of a movie I need to write one day.

~~~

At around 10p, we take the blue line back to the Loop for food and drinks. We are not surprised by the man in a plastic bag, asleep. And back of the train, a gay male couple are comfortably in each other’s arms. I love Chicago for its culture and 24-hour trains.

We go to Cactus Bar and Grill on South Wells. Their beer of the month is Purple Haze by Abita, which I’d first tried in Syracuse last year. We get some drinks at Bennigan’s. After, we walk a while to the lakefront. Because of mosquitoes, we decide to head back to the hotel.

~~~

We ask for a late checkout the next morning. We both wear dresses: green (mine) and plaid (hers). The shuttle driver seems extra nice.

Once we get to Union Station, I’m on a hunt for Italian Beef to take to my stepfather in St. Louis. Luke’s is about half a mile away, so I run, dress and flats and all. I grab cheese pizzas and pink lemonades for us since we haven’t eaten.

~~~

The ride to St. Louis was quick. We played Plants vs Zombies, which is incredibly addicting. As soon as we arrive around 11pm, my parents ask: “You guys wanna go to a party?”

“Sure.”

“We have to pick up 3 other people.”

There are already 6 people in my mother’s 5-seater SUV. We head downtown to pick up their “friends” who are Filipino immigrants in their 20s. Soon, we are cramped in a small SUV, heading to North County, where food, people, and karaoke await us. Welcome home.

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Seattle to Chicago: Empire Builder


We are prepared for this last big leg of the trip. Despite having to take two city buses to arrive at Amtrak and having a food bag tear open, we are early. We check our bags and take only our food bags and laptop. The Empire Builder train to Chicago will take 3 days, so says the attendant. It’s 2.5, really.

There are many things to laugh about during this leg. There is an annoyingly vocal, older transsexual across from us. Her travel partner–younger–sounds like Jennifer Tilly. In front of us, there is a group of Japanese girls with one Japanese man. The girls pull out tall cans of beer and bottles of wine within the first hour. We theorize that the Japanese man is their pimp. One girl gets in trouble, and we do not see her again until after the trip is over.

Through Washington, there are endless trees. Every so often, the train curves into the mountain before being swallowed in its darkness. I’m in awe of how these tracks were built.

We imagine ourselves in small towns, such as Skykomish, WA, and wonder if we’d survive being an interracial lesbian couple.

~~~

On the second day of the trip, I am vexed and slightly antagonistic. An old republican lady and the transsexual from Arkansas loudly discuss Obama, who they think is a Muslim, and illegal immigrants.

“They’re illegal for a reason. Why don’t they stay in their own countries and stop taking our jobs?”

Fifteen minutes later, I’ve had it. It is still morning.

“Excuse me, can you go to the lounge to finish your conversation? People are still trying to sleep.”

“You go to the lounge and stop eavesdropping. This is a private conversation,” says the old lady.

“The whole car can hear your conversation.”

“It’s a free country.”

“Yes, it is, but you’re disturbing people who don’t care to hear about your beliefs. I can hear you through my ear plugs.”

The transsexual asks if she wants to go to the lounge. They continue in an audible whisper, but they got the point. Later, we hear the transsexual talk to the lady about being experimented on when she was younger. After she asks for another seat assignment, we don’t see the lady again after that.

~~~

Montana surprises me. I’m expecting snowcapped mountains or more evergreens like in Washington. Instead, I see flatland and mesas, and I’m suddenly in the southwest again.


The rest of the trip is peaceful. We get absorbed in movies and computer games, mainly Zuma’s Revenge. The transsexual tries to make peace several times by asking about our activities and offering her splitter and extra set of headphones.

By the time we get to Minnesota, the train is 2.5 hours behind schedule. We’ll arrive in the afternoon, so this delay does not alter our plans much.

Portland to Seattle: Cascades

The trip to Seattle was short, a mere 3 hours, but we will be here for a total of 5 days. We wait a long time for my uncle (a long-time family friend) to pick us up from Union Station. We are starving, so we head over to King Street Cafe and are disappointed. (The Vietnamese spring rolls fell apart. The peanut sauce might have given my girlfriend hives. The chicken fried rice is the blandest I’ve ever tasted.)

My uncle lives in Bellevue, a more affluent suburb, across the bridge. We head to downtown Bellevue that night and go play pool and dance at a huge, heterosexual club. I see everything from 18-year-olds to 60-year-olds. We are befriended near the bathroom by two white women who hold us hostage with inquiries. One complains about her boyfriend. Another says it’s her first time out since having her baby daughter. We tell them about our around-the-country trip.

“So what do you do?”

“I teach.”

“Oh, what grade? 3rd? I teach, too.”

“No. College. Writing.”

She seemed perplexed. “How old are you?”

I tell her, and she’s still perplexed. I love surprising people. And countering stereotypes.

Eventually, we reveal that we’re a couple, and we excuse ourselves a few minutes later. My girlfriend and I talk about the two. We believe that they secretly desire each other, perhaps one more than the other. Just a vibe. Later that night, we see both of them, sitting on the curb outside. One has her head in her hands.

~~~

The next day, we begin exploring the city. We take the 550 bus to Chinatown and walk through Pioneer square where we discover a random flea market that encapsulates Seattle: music, hippies, dancers, air mattresses, psychics, a modified Big Bird costume.

 


We walk along the pier and eat amazing clam chowder, calamari with cheese aioli, and fish at Fisherman’s Restaurant in Miner’s Landing. We sit outside and enjoy the water and sun.




Next, we explore Pike Place Market. I find a Filipino restaurant there with a recipe for chicken adobo written out. Masarap, it says.


After, we lounge on a park bench with a view of Puget Sound and Mt. Rainier.


A seagull steals a sandwich from a picnicker. Everyone laughs has he struggles to get the bag open. Eventually, a man momentarily scares him off so that the sandwich can be taken out of the bag.


The day is winding down, so we walk over in the direction of the Space Needle. We discover that a parade, the Seafair Parade, is about to begin. We are very confused about the theme: Navy captains, pirates, ethnic youth groups, marching bands, firefighters, beauty queens, unicyclers, clowns, the whole Chinatown, the Seahawk Cheerleaders.


Seattle is interesting, indeed. After ice cream, we head up to the Space Needle. The sun is setting, and the sky is a deep purple. We tour the 360 degree view, and settle inside with some tea. Such a lovely nightscape.


We take the Monorail back to the Westlake Center, where our bus to Bellevue would depart.

 

~~~

On our third day, we explore Capitol Hill, the LGBT hub. I get lost in Elliot Bay Bookstore for hours. I spent two years working at a bookstore, and I’m nostalgic about its simplicity and lack of pressure.

We then try the famous Bill’s Off Broadway and fall in love with their 3-cheese spinach dip and deep dish pizza (Chicken, Roasted Peppers).

Later, for dessert, we go to Molly Moon’s. The line is wrapped around the outside of the building! I am craving something nutty, so I order the Maple Walnut and is not disappointed. Next time, I’ll give the Honey Lavender a try. We walk across the street at the park and watch a game of basketball between some locals and some Catalans who work at a nearby hotel for the year.


We stay in Capitol Hill for the night. We head to The Lobby for a couple of drinks. There is a pirate-themed birthday party going on. At the end of the night, we try The Honeyhole, because the name is interesting. The clientele (older, white) does not match the music (NWA, Fuck Da Police).

Heading back to the bus station, we miss the 550 by 5 mins. We have to wait another 40 minutes until the next one arrives. Public transportation is a hassle in Seattle.

 

~~~

 

Our fourth day in Seattle is relatively relaxing. We walk around Bellevue and watch Salt at a nearby theater. On our last day, we enjoy wine, watch Netflix, eat roasted chicken that my uncle cooked. We prepare for our departure the next morning: laundry, grocery store, packing. My uncle cooks chicken adobo that we can pack for our trip east through the mountains.

Oakland to Portland, OR: Coast Starlight

Aboard the Coast Starlight again, we are less comfortable. Perhaps because the trips are shorter, the seats appear to have shorter leg rests, thus causing our feet to be swollen. The view, however, was spectacular. We see Mt. Shasta in the distance.

Below is Lookout Point, OR.

 

The rest of Oregon is exactly how I’d imagine it: lush, tall trees, mountains, rivers. I want to visit Klamath Falls one day.

We arrive in Portland in the afternoon. It’s suburban, clean, but diverse. There are bicyclists all over. It’s cloudy but warmer than I expected. Below is a view of Willamette River near Union Station, which has a nice bike/jog trail around it.


It is a long walk from Union Station to the red line, but we figure out a shortcut the next day, via the green/yellow.

 

After settling in at a much better budget hotel, Econolodge, we head over to Laurelwood Brewery via the metro bus.


The food hit the spot. Parmesan Fries, Roasted Chicken over vegetables. The beer is superb.


We watch some baseball–our hometeam, the St. Louis Cardinals are playing. Over at the next table, we are a little disturbed by the trio raucously playing a “White Trash” board game. We suppose. Afterward, we walk to another bar to play billiards. The crowd was small, but the music was good.

The next day, we take the metro train to the Oregon Zoo on a very cold morning (55 degrees). We discover that the zoo is located 453 feet above the city’s center. The sun appears around noon, and we enjoy the rest of the day. We head downtown and walk. We get Mexican food from a truck and converse with a male, Filipino flight attendant, who asks if we are students here.

Later in the afternoon, we try Bailey’s taproom. The vibe is chill, and the beer selection was plentiful.


We meant to go to saucebox across the street, but it looks a bit too bourgeois for us. We discover a gay pub nearby called Embers. I was hesitant. There were American Flags on the windows. What finally convinced me were the drag queens standing outside smoking. The place was friendly, and the music was neosoul, underground hip-hop. We were pleased. Because it was cash only, we had to leave to find an ATM.

A young, heterosexual, couple stops us to ask if there was a Subway around. (Perhaps we looked like locals.) We thought they meant, subway, the underground trail system, but they were hungry. We point them to a diner we saw near Bailey’s taproom. They are thankful.

We walk around some more and discover Someday lounge, which had amazing djs playing underground hip-hop. The locals were friendly and open. The vibe felt exactly right. We are officially sold on Portland.

Returning to San Francisco

The first time I was in San Francisco was 16 years ago–new arrivals (FOB, if you will) from faraway islands. I took the 21-hour plane trip with my father, older siblings, and maternal grandparents. My maternal aunt and uncle would greet us and take us back to Los Angeles where we would stay for several months. I hated the car ride. While I was used to ferries, boats, and planes, there was something about a car’s motion that messed with my inner ear.

I look forward to exploring the city, now that I’m older with a greater sense of awareness. We get on the Alameda/Oakland Ferry at 9:15 am. One good thing about the shitty hotel we booked is its proximity to the train station and the ferries.

We get to pier 41 and purchase a CityPASS. We decide to do the Bay Cruise and the Aquarium of the Bay first. We are freezing because it’s 12 degrees colder than usual, per the ticket attendant. I purchase a scarf and a fleece jacket.

We take the street cars and head to Powell’s Square. We’re confused about the lack of efficiency of their transportation. So many lines and variations, all heading to the same place. We head to the SF Museum of Modern Art and spend some time there.

We head further south and go to Castro. We discover the same trends we’d already recognized in Chicago, NYC, Los Angeles: there are no predominantly lesbian hubs. A sex store on Castro, for instance, did not carry much besides male toys or hetero-geared female toys. Do we not travel or have much impact economically, that we’re essentially invisible in these historic LGBT places? We did see two girls making out in the middle of an intersection, but that’s about it.

We drink Spanish wine and enjoy the dusk at Pier 1, before the ferry comes. We grab some diner food near the hotel. I wish I can remember the name of the place because they have amazing, fluffy cheesecake that we ate for breakfast the next day.

~~~ 

Day 2 of sightseeing includes the California Academy of Sciences, which is my favorite, and the de Young Museum and Legion of Honor. We take the bus system to arrive at these places, but the city is not difficult to navigate with a map.

We head back to the Fisherman’s Wharf to grab the famous clam chowder in a bread bowl from Guardino’s, but before we get there, a drunk, homeless white man throws a fork at my girlfriend.

We also miss a ferry and have to walk from Pier 39 to Pier 1. We head back to Oakland to board our train to Portland, Oregon around 8 pm.

Los Angeles to Oakland/San Francisco: Coast Starlight

Along the Coast Starlight, we see some of the most stunning views between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo: bluegreen ocean, pristine white-sand beaches, dolphins, seals. There are massive kelp visible off the coast, and I discover that there are people employed as kelp cutters.


On my right, there are mountains, clouds, and golden fields. It is breathtaking. I wish it would have lasted longer. One day, I plan on camping out here.


We arrive in Oakland at night. We reserved a room at a budget hotel, Jack London Inn, and expected less-than-stellar but livable accommodations. I did not expect a bullet hole in the glass window and a dilapidated room on the 4th floor. The hallway smells like cigarettes even though we asked for non-smoking. There are stains on the carpet. The curtains and chairs are about 30 years old. The bathroom was mildewy and smelled like stale body odor. Our theory is that because we are young, and we did not look professional, we were given the run-down rooms. The Youtube video on the website is beyond misleading.

Returning to Los Angeles




Near Palms Springs or so, I wake up and look outside to see this windfarm. I’m amazed at our destructive innovation. Even this way of collecting clean energy corrupted this landscape against red mountains.

We pass through orange groves, and I think about structured rows and equal distribution of energy. In the jungle, in true nature, there are no farmer’s hands guiding our survival, only competition and natural selection. We’re clever to have gotten this far, to no longer be affected by such factors as uncertainty and low yield.

~~~ 

The Sunset Limited arrives in Los Angeles on a cool morning. Union Station is busy, as expected, and full of weirdos. A shoeless woman talks to herself: “You a lie, ho.”

I’m expecting a lengthy layover, so a friend picks up me for brunch at Basix in West Hollywood. Around 11 am, my girlfriend arrives from San Diego, via Amtrak as well. She’ll join me for the rest of trip north and east.

Our first stop is Las Vegas, or so we plan. Because there are no trains going to Las Vegas, we have to take a Greyhound bus, contracted by Amtrak. Along with 10 other passengers, we wait. And wait. And wait.

Three hours later, still no bus. We are told several different stories: the bus was searched in Fresno for a possible bomb threat. (Coincidentally, there had been a fatal Greyhound accident just two days ago.) Another story involves a fire. A third story seems more plausible: it broke down.

The bus coordinator, a short Hispanic man seems to be on our side at first. After hours of our complaining and waiting, he tells us that a van can take us over to the Greyhound terminal, from which our bus to Las Vegas will depart. Some passengers are willing to do that, but I am immediately suspicious. I say to the other passengers: “He just wants to get rid of us. I’m staying.” Other passengers agree: “How do we know they’ll honor these tickets from Amtrak?” The bus coordinator gives us no answers.

We are irate around the 4th hour. It would take 6 hours to get to Las Vegas, and by then, we will have missed our first of two nights there. It was pointless to go because we would be there for one night, then get right back on a bus to Bakersfield, and finally to Oakland. Our hotel reservations were non-refundable, too.

The bus coordinator offers us only 1 night of a hotel at Metro Plaza Hotel, across from Union Station. It was ok, except the second night cost us $100. (We could not leave any earlier because our itinerary was set for us to arrive in Oakland, CA on July 25th.)

Although this is an unexpected stay in Los Angeles, we enjoy it. I’d lived here for several months, in Culver City, when I first arrived from the Philippines. LA is not one of my favorite cities; it’s a visceral dislike that I cannot explain. It could be, too, that an ex of mine is moving here, so I want to avoid it.

We go to Truck Stop at Here Lounge that night with my LA friend and her girls. We bypass the line and get in quickly. The wet dancing girls on the bar did not disappoint, but it was ridiculously packed. I am told that there are really only two places on West Hollywood for lesbians. As big as this city is, why is that the case? If I were an entrepreneur with proclivities for nightclubs, I’d definitely fill the need. Alas, I’m much too deep in academia for such a change.

Later, we go to a karaoke bar, and I try soju for the first time. It was mixed with orange juice and deceptively sweet.

The next day, we head to a Mexican market across the street and find La Noche Buena, which has the most amazing, moist, well-seasoned fish tacos. If I return to this city, I will find this place again.


Afterward, we grab some churros from Mr. Churros, who overcharges us because I asked for it in English. The previous costumer received 4 for $4, while I paid $2 for 1. I decide to let it go, and we walk to an art gallery at la Instituto Cultural Mexicano, which was showcasing artwork on The Chicano Moratorium.


We take the subway, which is so clean, compared to NYC or Chicago, that I get an eerie feeling. The white security guard approaches us: “Where are you gals from?” and not in a friendly way. He was looking for information. We head to the Walk of Fame and do the usual tourist things.

Taking the subway back, we get a glimpse of the racial tension here.

A drunken Mexican is shouting: “This is our countreeeee!”

“No, you’re immigrants,” says a Caucasian male.

“We’re all immigrants,” says someone else.


Later that night, we see Inception at the Regal on Olympic. I’d like to see Los Angeles again, at another time. I can’t say I miss it, but it was a good visit.