31 January 2010

Lecture Tour part 2

I have spent the last week on the second half of my lecture tour of the US. On Monday I zig-zagged my way across the planet, flying first east to Copenhagen, then west to Newark and then back east again to St John’s on the east coast of Canada. The flight across was ok expect for my booze guzzling, farting and snoring neighbour.

Arrived in St John’s pretty late and headed to my hotel which turned out to be a historic, gothic style B&B. Next day an old friend, Duncan picked me up and we headed for a coffee and then he gave me a tour of the town. It was oddly like Bergen. Multi-coloured wooden houses, against a harsh landscape, caught between low lying mountains and the sea. I liked it. Apparently it was one of the first European settlements in North America.


St John's rather like Bergen

From Signal Hill, which has a majestic view of the town and from where the first transatlantic radio signal was sent (or received) we headed to the department where I met up with a couple of other folk from my past and they gave me a tour of their lab which involved tanks full of shrimps which they use to study bioturbation. It was great. Then I gave my talk, which went fine and we headed for the food and then beer. Ended up being out pretty late with Liam seeing some of St John’s finer drinking establishments.

When I got back to the gothic guest house the owners had left me a message saying “Do not wear your shoes inside, this is our house”, to which I thought, fuck you if you don’t want people in your house you probably shouldn’t be running a B&B. Not sure why this annoyed me quite as much as it did. I left St John’s early the next morning and never saw them again. The taxi to the airport was driven by a guy who claimed to be the ex-drummer for the Worzels and I must say that I have no reason to believe he was faking it, could anybody make that up?

From St John’s I went to Halifax where I met my host Grant, who then gave me a guided tour of the town and a potted history. Spent the afternoon meeting his students then gave the talk. We then headed to a very nice restaurant over looking the bay where I was grilled about the Company’s business model by one of his undergrads.

Another 4am start, but no ex-drummer taxi driver. At Halifax airport it was necessary to clear US costumes before getting on the plane. Things started going wrong at the security check. It was 5am and there were two lines. The line you took was determined by pressing a button and lighting a random arrow. Except the random bit obviously wasn’t working because there were 20 people in one queue and nobody in the other. Anyone who asked if they could switch queues was told firmly no! Then they decided to check all these potential trouble makers and terrorists properly and everyone had to empty their hand baggage, turn on their computer etc etc . It was extremely tedious.

Then at US immigration desk the brainless bitch behind the counter looked at my passport and said “when were you in Iraq?”. I calmly pointed out that I had never been there so she said “where is this then?”, pointing at a stamp with the word Syria across the top in large letters. I again calmly point out that it is Syria and she asks when I was there, it clearly says 2003 on the stamp and we could both see it, so I say 2003. I am then shunted off to a side room where I sit for half an hour until some guy appears with my checked luggage and rifles through it, before pronouncing that I can go. I just make the flight. I can never quite figure out where they find these people, but they do manage to pick a special breed that are both cretinously stupid and incredibly arrogant.

I changed in JFK, which is potentially one of the most confusing airports ever, maybe I am was just tired? Then I fly to Buffalo where my bag didn’t show up – big surprise. The baggage agent seemed much more interested in getting my advice on buying train tickets from Gilford to London, then taking the report, but eventually I got out and was met by my host who is a small Chinese chap. Chang is obviously very smart but speaks extremely poor English and drives even worse. It was snowing heavily and he twice tried to head the wrong way on a dual carriageway. It was scary but he is a nice guy and trying hard.

He toke me to lunch and force fed me Sushi, before we headed to the department and I met a few people and then gave my talk again. At the very pleasant evening meal that followed, two of my fellow diners, who work for a local oil company seem shocked that I would not get to Niagara Falls which is only 20 miles away. They insisted on taking me and I was happy to go. It had been one of those days anyway.

The area around in the Falls is surprisingly developed and also pretty run down. For some reason I was expecting majestic falls in the middle of nowhere. It was snowing pretty heavily as we drove up and down the empty back streets trying to find the falls. We parked up and walked, it was about -10c and blowing pretty hard, with wind chill probably about -20c. We only walked for about half a mile, but the exposed tops of my ears were burning and my legs were cramping up. We found the falls and it must be said, they are impressive, especially light up at night, with big chunks of ice and snow in the water of the river above and the plunge pool below. Ten minutes was enough to take some pics, before heading back to the car and to a bar until midnight. I was up again at 4 for the next flight but this time Chang has insisted on driving me, fortunately there are no more incidents.

Been there, done that! And it was freakin cold

Two flights brought me to Charlottesville in West Virgin where I was met by Steve, my jovial host. I was feeling pretty knackered but Steve does enough talking for both of us, almost non stop about everything from geology, to history, to his divorce. On the drive I realized that this is first time I have seen grass in over 6 weeks, it’s been a very white winter.

We crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains but I don’t see any lonesome pines. There is however frequent signs pointing to historic battle grounds. We arrived in Harrisonburg which is a very quaint town. This part of the US is very European, the streets and houses are chaotic and there is a real feeling of history. I got the obligatory tour of the department before giving my talk. This is the last one and there was an excellent audience and I even got an invite to be a guest speaker at a Google Conference next year. After the talk Steve talked we through some of his work and shows pictures of the local outcrops that we were going to see the next day. They are the worst outcrops I have ever seen in my life, shitty little road cuts and 1 m square patches of moss covered rock in between forests of vegetation. I was trying to see if there was any humour as he excitedly told me how great they are. I had just given a talk with pictures of the 150 km continuous exposures of the Book Cliffs, but there was no irony, just enthusiasm, so I made encouraging sounds.

I checked into another gothic guest house and we headed for a very pleasant dinner, where we discussed the next days field trip and the possibility of snow. By the end of the meal I was so super tired that I meant to bed at 9pm.

Next morning the World was very white and the guys called around to tell me that we can’t go to the field. Having seen the photos I am not to bothered and I spent the day reading, working on a manuscript and just relaxing. Sometimes when you are snowed in you just have to accept your fate and make the most of it.

Heading home tomorrow.

1 comment:

Liam Herringshaw said...

I suspect there are about half-a-dozen St John's taxi drivers who used to be drummers in the Wurzels. Glad to see the rest of your trip was action-packed - it was great to catch up.