Wednesday, August 18, 2010

SEATTLE, WA. – Another Visit Cut Short

(7/22 – 7/31/10. Seattle, WA., USA)
Our plan after Portland, was to stay in the Northwest, and head up to Seattle. Another City neither Nancy nor I had ever visited, let alone lived. We found a furnished short-term rental apartment on Craigslist, that was in the eastern suburbs about a 45min. bus ride into downtown. No problem for us, and it was a 2BR with balcony, complex swimming pool and party room. After some difficult negotiations, we reached agreement with the Owner for a 2mo. Rental. But, as has happened before to us during our travels, 2 days before we were leaving the Owner emailed to say he found another Renter (undoubtedly for a longer term), and reneged on our agreement. How sad how too many people have so little honor. But that’s life. As our Lease was up in Portland and we had no other viable alternatives at the moment, we elected to head up to Seattle anyway and purchased tickets on Amtrak for the 2.5hr ride. In addition to frantically renewing our search for an alternate apartment rental, we looked for more immediate temporary accommodations in a Hotel or B&B. Unfortunately, we discovered that this being the height of the tourist season in Seattle, not only were many places fully booked, but the rates were outrageous. Finally, settled on a small B&B in the Queen Anne neighborhood (a short bus ride or long walk into downtown), for an acceptable rate, albeit still well above our usual budget (for apartment rental). It did have free WIFI Internet, which allowed us to continue an intensive search for another apartment rental. But, as one might surmise, besides the fact that this again was the high season, short-term furnished apartment rentals are generally not voluminous. Over the next week, we just missed out several times on rentals that sounded good (even better than our original lost apartment). Frustration was mounting.

In the meantime, when not spending many hours of our day doing the Internet searches, we did have time to do some touring of the City. Saw many of the usual tourist attractions: the Space Needle; Pike Place Market; Pioneer Square; a Water Taxi cruise over to Alki Beach; the Olympic Sculpture Park; the architecturally stunning Seattle Library; and even the unusual Klondike Gold Rush National Historic "Park" (which is actually just a small building in downtown). Unfortunately, we did not have the opportunity to get out of the City and explore the beautiful surrounding areas, Puget Sound, the mountains, etc., which we understand is what really makes living in Seattle special.

Sadly, and to our utter dismay, after 9 days of staying in a B&B while leaving no stone unturned in our search, we were unable to find an available short-term furnished apartment rental. We even expanded our search to San Francisco, San Diego, Boulder CO, Vancouver BC, returning to Portland, and even our former home city of Chicago (came very close again more than once to renting something there, even one just a block away from my sister in Evanston), but alas it was not to be. Maybe just our bad timing in addition to budget constraints. Surely, if given another week or so, we probably could have found something. But, we our frustration of being ‘stuck’ in the B&B and striking out so many times, had reached our limits. Once again, we looked beyond the borders. Found an amazing one-way airfare from nearby Vancouver BC to Barcelona (and non-stop to boot) along with a very reasonable 2BR apartment rental from a Prof. At my alma mater, Univ. of Mich., through So we hopped a short Amtrak ride from Seattle to Vancouver, and jetted on off overseas once more. FYI – We also lost out on an opportunity 'settle down' for awhile, because before we were ‘forced’ to leave, I intended to pursue full-time job with the City as a Parking Enforcement Officer – the pay and benefits was ‘decent” starting at $45K + benefits, then $53K for promotion to Field Training Officer; and, ultimately to a quite respectable $90K position as a “Manager’ – which I thought I would be uniquely qualified for – plus benefits. I have always had a keen interest in Law Enforcement, as evidenced by my recent stint as a sworn part-time Police Officer in Chicago’s northern suburbs. In any event, due to civil service constraints for the City position, the hiring process was an arduous 4mos. long; and due to our inability to find housing, we couldn't stick around to see the process through despite my sincere interest. Maybe next year.


Thursday, August 5, 2010

PORTLAND OR. (and surrounds)

(5/11 – 7/22/10. Portland, OR., USA)
As many States as I’ve been in USA (almost every one) and as many places in the World I’ve visited, never before had I been to the Northwest’s Oregon or Washington. After spending 2 ½ mos. staying in Portland, I cannot believe it took me so long to see what may be the most beautiful part of the entire country. Granted we arrived just as summer was beginning and the supposed long dreary drizzly overcast fall/spring and winter months were coming to an end. But one has to wonder, if the ‘ole wisetale is true that Northwesterners merely made up that story to discourage the vast multitudes that would surely descend upon them if the real truth were known? Although we did see an unusual number of such drizzly days for the first 2 weeks after we arrived (they say it doesn’t usually rain too hard or too steady, just light rain and drizzle), once that cleared out it was clear skies and unending sunshine at a perfect temperature of mid-70’s to low 80’s during the day.

Initially after we arrived from more than 2years of living abroad, we were a little ‘giddy’ just to go shopping just for some of the simple American staples and favorite brands we could not find (or were far too expensive) outside the USA – e.g. strawberry licorice (believe it or not), underwear, hairspray, Aloe, vitamins, a backpack and carryon suitcase needed replacing, and even a good/cheap waterproof digital watch (sure we could find them abroad, but at a cost of $75-100 for the same watch that I bought in a Portland Walmart for only $14). Best of all the State of Oregon has no sales tax.

As always, for the first few weeks, besides shopping, we just wandered the city of Portland exploring every nook and cranny. Our immediate impression was how amazingly clean the city is (not just compared to some of the third-world places we’d been staying, but also to our old hometown of Chicago and elsewhere in USA we’ve been). The streets are kept immaculate, the air quality is awesome, and of course, even the water tastes so fresh. No wonder it is known as the most environmentally friendly ‘Green’ city in the USA. The second thing that strikes you is the liberal populace (at least in the central city), with an overabundance of young backpack adorned adventurers, not-too aggressive street people, a large vocal gay community, just generally ‘funky’ folks. The restaurants, brewpubs, bars and entertainment venues reflect this eclectic diversity. Commendably, the city is also very handicap-accessible, and this is reflected by the ever present number of disabled persons and elderly gliding around quite self-sufficiently on their motorized wheelchairs and special scooters. The fantastic public transportation system including electric trams criss-crossing the downtown and light-rail street cars stretching in all directions of the metropolitan area, make getting around a breeze for everyone, and of course have special motorized ramps and lifts for the disabled to easily get aboard. The City even offers free transportation on all of its street cars and trams throughout the downtown center. Finally, unlike Chicago, New York and other big city public transport drivers we are familiar with, here in Portland the drivers are friendly, patiently wait for people across the street or down the block to catch a ride, and offer directions and information with a smile. The City also extends a warm hand to all the bicycle enthusiasts with bike lanes trams that not only permit bikes aboard but have special ceiling hooks to stow them and all buses equipped with front-end bicycle holders.

The third striking feature of Portland is awesome natural visual aesthetics. To begin with there is the wide gently moving Willamette River that runs right through the center of the city, its 4 or 5 bridges crossing over at various points, and narrow green spaces and parks with nice asphalt trails for biking and strolling along its beautiful banks. Then there are the rolling hills just beyond the downtown center lined with many pretty Victorian style homes with fantastic views from their neighborhood heights. Lastly, you have Washington Park within the city borders itself, that holds within its confines the Portland Zoo, the world-renowned International Rose Test Garden, the similarly acclaimed Japanese Gardens, the Oregon Vietnam Memorial Monument, an Arboretum, and adjacent Forest Park with nearly 5000 acres and 75 miles of hiking trails through all different labeled sections of differing trees, including Sequoias and giant douglas-firs some as old as 750 years.

Finally, Portland’s attractiveness is also its close proximity to other areas of the State that permit some incredible day-tripping. First, there is the Pacific Coast and its coastal roads with views from above high cliffs looking down over pretty beaches, albeit mostly too cold for swimming but great for tanning and picnics. Then there is Mount Hood with its all-year snow-capped peak permitting the die-hard young snow-boarders to enjoy even during the summer months, complete with cute little bordering ski towns and chalets (see our photos in the summer snow). Last but most certainly not least (and understatement of epic proportions), is the absolutely jaw-dropping Columbia Gorge tour that begins with a ride down a country road that winds along the cliffs of the Columbia River obviously with amazing views down into the river gorge lined with endless forests and mid-river islands. Traveling further inland in a circular tour, you wind through a National Forest that passes one spectacular Waterfall after another, most even within view from the car and road itself, though all with hiking trails permitting 1-2hr easy-to-moderate difficulty hiking if one chooses (as we did a couple of times) for better views and pine-scented forest scenery. We’ve seen some really great Waterfalls around the World during our adventure, but really nothing like this with so many in one small easily accessible area. Best of all, each of these tours can be readily completed in a long full day. Talk about ‘weekend escapes’ for city dwellers. Wow!

Besides all of our wandering, hiking, touring, during our stay in Portland we were able to join an inexpensive but nicely equipped YWCA gym to workout every other day and get back in shape after a lapse in Mendoza. And I played several times at one of the legal Poker Clubs, allowing me to engage in some sociable live Texas Hold ‘Em play, after a long stint of internet ‘on-line’ play only. Downtown Portland also has a really nice large well-stocked Library which permits anyone (even temporary visitors) to join and get a Library Card to borrow books. So Nancy and I were able to obtain some novels from our favorite authors and catch up on some good reading. Lastly, now able to watch CNBC business news and shows including an old favorite, Jim Cramer’s Mad Money, I was inspired to renew some active investing and explore some new ideas, leading to what I believe may be a profitable technique I’ve just developed. So far, so good, but only been a couple of months … time will tell. Just might provide much needed ‘fuel’ to keep our adventure on track.

In sum, Portland has been a real eye-opener. After venturing round the World, I/we could definitely consider calling this our home --- or at the least, our summer home. Likely, we will return again next year, and maybe make year-after-year (or who knows, stay longer in the future, and see if it can serve as our new year-round home). Though we still do think highly of Chiang Mai Thailand where we are planning to return again for their dry season from Nov.-Feb. or Mar. And, then there is Buenos Aires our other favorite – although our current arrival in Barcelona might possibly eclipse now that we have surprisingly discovered it may not be as cost-prohibitive as we have always feared due to the poor $/Euro exchg. in recent years. That story is still unfolding.

NEXT UP: In the meantime, after our Portland apartment lease expired, we first spent 7 days in Seattle with the intention of staying the remainder of the summer. Never happened. Stay tuned for that episode coming up shortly.

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