I enjoyed the yacht ride, in spite of only getting twenty minutes sleep the night before

"BANANA BUNGALOW, HOLLYWOOD"

This is an extract from one of my stories. It begins in April 1992, arriving in the United States for the first time.

I think I had over indulged of the free drinks on the plane. It had seemed like a shame, after five weeks on a tight budget, not to at least try the airline's choice of Cab Sav, a few beers, their Scotch, some Kahlua and a little Bailey's. It was about three in the morning, and we were entering US Customs and Immigration at Honolulu airport.

"How much money do you have, sir?" she asked me.

"Heaps!" I said.

I have since learnt that these people take their job quite seriously, and it is futile to appeal to their sense of humour. She wanted to see my cash, she wanted to see my travellers cheques, and she wanted, of course, to see my bank statement. They never seem to be able to comprehend people like me- "Where will you be staying while in the United States, sir?" Well, America is a big country, and I couldn't think of any places I didn't want to go.

Anyway, after a good deal of aggravation on her part, and a certain amount of confusion on my part ( or maybe both parts), I was stamped into the United States of America, and allowed to reboard the plane, bound for the 'city of angels'- L.A.

Cosmo had found a brochure in New Zealand advertising a backpackers hostel in Hollywood. It was ten dollars a night with free breakfast- 'Banana Bungalow'. I remember that I didn't even know Hollywood was in Los Angeles. We had befriended another Aussie on the plane; Steve Sutters. He was as pissed as us, and didn't have anywhere lined up to stay, so we told him to bring his Akubra, his Drizabone and his almost unintelligible drawl, with us.

Cosmo, Steve and myself on arrival at LAX airport

We had already done all the official stuff in Hawaii, so entering LA was pretty painless. Waiting by the luggage carousel (why does my backpack always come out last?) a quiet voice said " Are you guys looking for a hostel?" He gave me quite a surprise. He was a tall, well dressed, well spoken English man.

"No thanks, mate. We've got somewhere." I said.

"Do you mind if I ask where?"

"Banana Bungalow." I announced confidently.

He laughed. From his pocket, he produced a handful of black and yellow brochures, identical to the one Cosmo had in his pocket. He introduced himself. He was Dave, the Banana Bungalow tout or 'greeter', and he had the 'banana bus' in the carpark, just waiting to take us to Hollywood. He would stay at the arrivals lounge to meet the next flight, but he told us to take the airport courtesy bus to carpark C, and look for John, the driver, "a big fat Australian with a beard". John was unmistakable, even though he had obviously shaved since Dave had last seen him. He bummed cigarettes off us, and told us filthy jokes all the way to Hollywood.

Banana Bungalow instantly seemed like a cool place, even though the much advertised swimming pool was a murky greenish brown colour, and had 'do not swim' signs on the fence, and on the gate. The reception area flowed into a kind of funky looking cafe/restaurant. Behind the swimming pool was a large two storey block of rooms, some private 'hotel' type rooms upstairs, shared rooms downstairs and a small store, the 'Snack Shack'. Back up the hill, away from the road, there were about a dozen small 'bungalows' set either side of the bitumen driveway. Each bungalow consisted of two bedrooms, and usually two bathrooms. Each bedroom accommodated six people.

We had only planned to stay one night in LA. We wanted to get out and see the country. But that plan was about to change! 'Staff Wanted- see Scott' the sign read. Scott was a tall, wiry American, not much older than ourselves. He was the manager.

"You guys ever done any carpentry or painting?" he asked. We hadn't; well nothing to speak of, but we lied.

"Okay, you can start tomorrow- ten a.m. Four hours work earns you free cooked breakfast, free dinner and free accommodation." That night was free beer night, a twice weekly occasion which was so popular it later became a thrice weekly one. Ten o'clock seemed a respectable hour to start work, we thought.

Relaxing after a hard four hours work

Banana Bungalow had only been open for a couple of months, and a lot of the rooms were in pretty bad shape after years of neglect, vandalism, floods and landslides. When Scott's employers took it on as a backpackers hostel, it was a derelict site, vacant for several years. I think it was originally a motel, but rumour was that it was some sort of mental asylum. Scott and the owners were keen to get rooms fixed as quickly as possible, as the constant flow of backpackers was exceeding the number of beds available, night after night. Over the next month, I painted, repaired walls, laid carpet, mended broken plumbing, replaced window panes, built bunk beds and installed venetian blinds on the windows and shower curtains in the bathrooms. One by one, the rooms came to life. It was a good job. I learnt a lot, and there was a real sense of satisfaction when we could tell Scott that the next room was ready for guests.

If we chose to, we could put in a little overtime, and accumulate a day off. In this way, we managed to visit Venice Beach, Magic Mountain, and even scored a complimentary ride on the Banana Bungalow LA Tour.

One of the roller coasters at Magic Mountain

The LA Tour was an institution in itself - largely unlicensed drivers in uninsured vehicles, showing guests around a city that they know relatively little about. They visited all the sights you'd want to see along with some you wouldn't. There was the 'spot the Caucasian' competition in South Central, and the 'whose home is that?' game in Beverly Hills. The drivers didn't know, so they made it up as they went along, which was okay 'cause the passengers didn't know any better.

Up to thirty-five backpackers worked at Banana Bungalow; as greeters, drivers, receptionists, cooks, kitchen hands, cleaners and maintenance (that's me!). By the time I left, the hostel held up to 210 guests, although there were that many sleeping there earlier on, when there were only beds for 140. As you could imagine, work was only a small part of our life there. We spent our long afternoons mainly by the pool, with eskies of beer. In fact, it was on our first afternoon, lounging by the pool, that the LAPD put on a little show, just up the road from us. They had a car pulled over, five squad cars were on the scene and two choppers circling. I don't know who was behind the wheel of that car, but the cops were taking no chances. You know the scenario; kneeling on the ground behind opened car doors, pump action shotguns, others with rifles and pistols levelled at the driver. They converged on the car SWAT-style and dragged the unfortunate person out by the hair until he was face down onto the ground, and cuffed him. And we returned to our beer, assured that we were definitely in LA.

There were parties almost every night, with free beer at least twice a week. (Keep away from the punch. It's made with 97% alcohol bought from Mexico) There was always a reason to celebrate at Banana Bungalow; Independence Day, somebody's birthday, somebody's leaving, even an eclipse party, and a curfew party during the LA riots. One noteworthy party was Quintin and Kim's marriage; a Dutch guy and an Aussie girl. They'd been going out for a while and no-one thought much of it when they took a weekend off to go to Vegas. But it was champagne and 97% Mexican rotgut all round when they returned with a marriage certificate. Quintin was then faced with the daunting task of phoning Kim's parents in Australia, and 'introducing himself', so to speak.

Her father's response? "Son, I like you. You've saved me a lot of money."

It was an incredible social environment. Many of the thirty-five staff seemed to stay and stay, and a lot of close friendships were formed. But after a month, I felt the need to explore America a little. Cosmo was well entrenched in the party scene and didn't want to leave, so I looked for a driveaway car to take north, maybe to San Fransisco. Driveaway cars are America's best kept secret. There are a dozen or more companies in Los Angeles alone, which are in constant need of drivers to move cars to other cities. They advertise in the Yellow Pages under the heading 'Auto Transport and Driveaway Companies'. The general agreement is that they supply the first tank of gas, and allow you a certain number of days for delivery, and at least ten percent spare mileage for sightseeing along the way. No money changes hands, except for a fully refundable deposit. Time limits and mileage are sometimes negotiable- it's worth a try.

"We don't have anything going to San Fransisco sir, but we do have a 1988 Cadillac to go to Seattle."

"Where's Seattle?" I wished I'd paid attention in Geography. "Is it near San Fransisco?"

"No sir, it's miles past San Fransisco."

"That'll do." I said.

That Caddy had electric everything, even electrically adjustable seats! And did it go! Driving on the right hand side seems to come naturally, because everything else is reversed as well. But keeping to the ridiculous 55 MPH speed limit on those wide, smooth roads is impossible. I ended up setting the cruise control on 85, and even then I wasn't overtaking much. In hindsight it was a mistake sticking to the main highway like the contract stipulated. Interstate 5 is a huge black scar tearing up the west coast of America. The scenery along I5 consists of seven other lanes of traffic, Texaco stations, Macdonald's and Burger Kings by the dozen. On subsequent trips, I have adopted the policy of avoiding these monster highways wherever possible, and driving on the much more relaxed, much more enjoyable minor highways. The Rand McNally road atlas, which is invaluable if you're driving or hitching around the States, even distinguishes those roads which have particular scenic value. Another advantage of travelling on minor roads- less cops! But my drive was not completely a lost cause. I slept in the car the first night on the bank of beautiful Lake Shasta in northern California.

The next day, I saw a sign for Mt. St. Helens. I had no idea it was in America (what did I do in Geography for five years?). I met up with 'an adventure group'; four young guys and two girls who were just about to do some cave exploring near the mountain, so I tagged along with them. Called the Ape Cave, it's a two mile long lava tube, pitch black, damp and icy cold. It was my first chance to wear all the woollen clothes that my cousin in New Zealand had given me. The others had torches and glow sticks, even a 9mm pistol, which had me wondering. Mt. St. Helens and the Ape Cave were the highlights of my drive, followed by those crazy electric seats!

I arrived in Seattle on a Saturday. The office wasn't open 'till Monday to take delivery of the Caddie, and refund me the $200 deposit. Of course, through a total lack of forethought, I had no cash left. Two dollars I had, to see me through. I made a sandwich from some stuff I had in the car, and then set out to see the neighbourhood. I found a cinema that was showing the Robin Williams movie 'Hook' for only $1.50, and then slept the night in the car in a shopping centre carpark.

The next morning I got talking to a black guy with a limp. He called himself Jo, but I like to remember him as Leroy. Leroy Brown. Anyway, Leroy was in a fix; he needed to get back to his house, but he didn't have any cash on him. He had a chequebook at home, and he'd shout me breakfast if I'd run him home to get it. Could I use his shower? Allright then. So he bought us both a huge breakfast, then took me to his local pub- not the sort of place you'd like to just wander into, but with Leroy I felt safe. He introduced me around and all of a sudden I was everyone's friend. He whispered something to the barmaid, and then turned back to me. " I have to go now," he said, " I've got some business to attend to. But the staff here will give you anything you want." And then he limped out. And that's how I spent Easter Sunday, 1992.

I spent one night in the Seattle Youth Hostel and that was enough. After having stayed in independent hostels, it's difficult to appreciate the hospital-like atmosphere, the curfews and the no smoking, no drinking, no noise policy of Association hostels, not to mention the 'friendly chore' which you are obliged to do. I set the alarm for 4:00am so I could get up to Everett in time for the morning tour of the Boeing plant. It took three separate buses to get there, and three to get back. Unfortunately, the plant itself was off limits that day due to a suspected gas leak, but we did get a tour of the grounds and the visitor centre. It's the biggest building in the world, covering over 108 acres under one roof. Quite impressive.

Afterwards, I caught a ferry across to Vashon Island. It's a beautiful place - not too heavily populated, covered in tall trees, and with views of snow covered Mt. Rainier and the Cascade mountains. The backpackers hostel on the island cost eight dollars a night, compared with the sixteen dollars- plus two dollars rent on a sleeping sheet- that I'd paid in Seattle.

The gorgeous Vashon Island backpackers hostel

It was basically just a log cabin set back in the woods behind the lady's house, with three or four quite large teepees in the clearing around it. Apparently in the summer, backpackers like to sleep in the teepees. But it wasn't summer, and I chose to sleep inside. The cabin could sleep up to sixteen in its two bedrooms, but I was the only one there as it hadn't yet officially opened for the season.

Having the cabin all to myself allowed me plenty of time to plan my next travels

There was free coffee, cereal and pancake mix. In the mornings, there were wild deer grazing outside my window. It was a beautiful, peaceful place. I stayed there for three days, doing a few chores around the yards for the owner and spending most of my spare time in the warmth of the cabin with a cup of coffee, maps spread out over the long table, planning where my travels might take me next. When I left, Judy calculated what she owed me for the work I'd done, subtracted my eight dollars a night, and gave me eighteen dollars. It was time to head back south.

The next night, I stayed in Clara's home hostel in Tacoma, just south of Seattle. Clara no longer really ran a hostel; she was too busy with her full time nursing job and the two foreign exchange students who lived with her. But sometimes when a backpacker would phone, she would still let them stay. She bought pizza for dinner and gave me breakfast the next morning, and would only accept five dollars.

I had been reviewing my finances, and as much as I wanted to avoid hitchhiking in America (and as much as I had promised Mum I wouldn't hitchhike in America!), it seemed like the only way I could continue travelling within my budget. I was nervous at first, but was surprised by how good the hitching was, and how friendly and interested people are. I hitched all day and made it to Portland, Oregon by nightfall. My last lift was with a fifty-ish year old calculus professor, who had to take a detour via his home to pick up some papers. While I was waiting, he brought me a beer, and then produced a huge bong from behind the couch. "I'll just have a hit of pot, and then we'll be on our way." he said. So he dropped me off at a gas station south of town at about nine o'clock at night, with a severe case of the munchies. The gas station attendant felt sorry for me after my sixth Reeses' chocolate and peanut butter cup, and said I could crash at his place. But just then two guys drove in and noticed my sign- 'CAN YOU TAKE THIS AUSSIE SOUTH'.

Chris and Mike

"What's an aw-see?" I heard one of them ask the other, and I realised my sign should have just read 'SOUTH'. They were two crazy young guys, driving straight through to San Diego from Payallup, Washington. All through the night, their little four wheel drive was screaming, and the heavy metal music was blaring. I decided to get out near San Jose, and look up a guy who I knew of . He had been to Australia several years before, and had made friends with my brother Phil and some of my mates.

"Hey man, come on over!" he said on the phone. I explained that I was hitchhiking and didn't know I could get to his place.

"Hmm.. I've got an appointment with my accountant in an hour," he paused. "Ah shit, I'll cancel it. Stay right there, I'll pick you up!" Half an hour later his rattly old truck roared into the carpark. He bought us a sixpack for the ride home, and I'll never forget his first words when we arrived at his house:

For want of a diving board, we had to jump from the roof!

"Dump your pack on the floor, grab a beer from the fridge, and head out the back to the pool. I'll bring us out some pot." I stayed with Steve for a week, avoiding the LA riots which were in full swing at that time. Steve was a self employed builder, so I went along to work with him a few times. He took me out and introduced me to his friends, he fed me, kept the fridge full of beer for me, took me salmon fishing in his boat, and even insisted on paying me for the work I did.

Salmon fishing off Santa Cruz

I would've stayed longer but I didn't want to outstay my welcome. Anyway, I wanted to get back to LA and find out what these riots were all about.

Clint Eastwood territory

So after a couple of days exploring San Fransisco, I set off hitching down Highway 1; the relaxed coastal alternative to Interstate 5. It was the cool person's road, according to Sherman, another hitchhiker I met along the way. We did get some pretty cool lifts. There was the surf bum with an A4 sized sheet of acid tabs to give away. There was the two blondes in the Range Rover who only stopped because they felt sorry for us after another car had done the old 'stop-but-then-take-off-when-the-hitchhikers-get-close-to-your-car' trick.

When it got too dark to hitchhike, I found a ledge on this cliff at Gorda, and slept the night there. What a view to wake up to!

There was the Mexican guy who picked me up near San Luis Obispo and took me into town to a convent where you get a free lunch if you look homeless. And the last guy, a Kiwi, who dropped me off right outside Banana Bungalow. That was a cool person's road.

I arrived at Banana Bungalow at night, and accidentally barged right into a staff meeting. Scott welcomed me back to work, and introduced me to the new staff members. Not a lot had changed while I'd been away, and after eleven weeks out of Australia, I was only $475 down on my savings.

Over the next few months, I used Banana Bungalow as a base for my travels around the western states and Canada, knowing that each time I returned, I would see my friends, and make some new friends, and find a place where I could relax for a while without spending any money, as I planned for my next trip. Some of the people that I met there are among my best friends now, five years later. Sara, who came to be my girlfriend, travelled through eight countries with me over the following two years. We are still in touch now. In fact, you owe me a letter, Sara. Jodie and Sally Jackson and Jodie Weber have been to visit me in Australia. Wozza and Ginx are living together in Australia now, and have had me at their place several times. And thankyou to Jon, Catherine, Mike, Drew and Carmel who each welcomed me and put me up when I was hitchhiking around England and Ireland in the blizzards of early 1996.

Visit my favourite books page for some recommended reading relating to this trip around the United States and through western Canada. Roll your mouse over the cover photo for a brief description. Click for more details, to purchase online at a discounted price from Amazon, or to view other titles. (if you buy a book, or any other product from Amazon, through this link on my site, I get a small commission- even more if you buy the book you clicked on. Go on, buy a book today!)

TIPS The first time someone tried to sell me a 'magic number' on the street, I thought they were talking about drugs. But no, a magic number is a telephone calling card number that hasn't been issued yet. That means you can make unlimited calls with that card number to anywhere in the world until such time as the phone company discovers that it has thousands of dollars of calls made against it. Then you need to buy another number. Although I'm sure it's highly illegal, 'everyone' was using them, and I've never heard of any problems. Numbers sell for as little as $20, and you should test them first, before paying.

Accept that most Americans adore Australians and anything Australian, and will probably be happy to buy you food or beer just to hear you talk.

Something different from the usual tourist destinations in San Fransisco is the 'Exploratorium'- a museum of fascinating hands-on science experiments.

Because cars and fuel are so cheap in America, and the distances are so vast, there's a great network of ride-sharing between backpackers. Most hostels have 'lifts wanted' and 'lifts offered' noticeboards. Use them, it's a fun and cheap way to get around.

Stay away from that punch

'must see' places:

Hollywood Boulevard, Melrose Avenue

Mulholland Drive at night

South-Central Los Angeles

Venice

Lombard St.(San Fran- crookedest street in the world)

Alcatraz (pay for the headphones- self guided tour)

Mount St. Helens

The Cascade mountains of Washington state

The Seattle skyline and sidewalk cafes (on a fine day)

Vashon Island

The rugged coastline between San Fran and LA

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