A Grand Tour of the States (Part 0 – Opening Thoughts)

The following sections of my blog chronicle my trip to the USA from Oct 28 to Nov 22 2021. They are broken up by location, because there are far too many pictures and videos and random other things I want to put down. They will take some time to post as well, which means that they will not all be in sequential blog post order, since there will be my weekly posts interspersed among them. Due to this, there is a unified Table of Contents for my trip. Each link here loads a new page, so tread carefully!

Table of Contents (Entire Trip)

Part 0 – Opening Thoughts (You are here)
Part 1 – Las Vegas (Oct 28 2021 – Nov 01 2021)
ට Part 2 – Los Angeles (Nov 01 2021 – Nov 06 2021)
ට Part 3 – San Francisco (Nov 06 2021 – Nov 12 2021)
ට Part 4 – New Orleans (Nov 12 2021 – Nov 16 2021)
ට Part 5 – New York (Nov 16 2021 – Nov 22 2021)
ට Part 6 – Final Thoughts

Table of Contents (Local Page)

Introduction
Thoughts on Travel
Planning
The Week Before (Oct 25-27 2021)

Introduction

Whether it be due to my parents taking us on trips to other countries every couple years when I was young, from migrating from Singapore to Canada when a little older, or from watching shows or reading books about exotic locales and cultures in general, I’ve always had a sense of wanderlust instilled in me that tempts me now and again to travel the world and see new things. With few exceptions, I like most of the aspects of travelling — I like packing up and moving around, I kind of like going through customs and meandering through an airport, I like experiencing different time zones and don’t really suffer much jet lag, I like checking out what different hotel rooms have to offer, I like seeing the ups and downs of a new city and suffering through what locals brush off as part of the local experience, and so on.

Therefore, one oddity about me living in Canada is that despite having been here upwards of 20 years now, I’ve never really explored the continent. Before moving here, my parents had taken the family on trips to Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver during summer vacation, but we hadn’t really travelled anywhere ever since moving here. The furthest I went from Edmonton between 2000 and 2013 or so was Calgary, and I never stepped out of the province at all. I’ve taken a couple trips outside the province since 2013, after gaining financial independence and saving up — twice to South Korea, once to Portland, once to Minneapolis, and once to Montreal, but I’ve always thought it was a bit of a shame that I’d never really been to most of the major cities in the USA, despite them basically just being a (really long) stone’s throw away.

I think there are a couple reasons for this. One reason is my somewhat spendthrift nature — or at least the need to be efficient when spending money. All my mentioned trips above involved an overarching reason (all surgery-related, actually, except for Minneapolis) that I needed to go to the target city, and nearly all of them (except Montreal) involved “vacations” that were tacked on to that reason itself. I’ve always thought it a bit of a waste to just go on vacation without a good reason, and perhaps this leads into a secondary reason for this lack of travel as well — with so many cities to choose from, there’s some measure of choice paralysis when I don’t have a compelling reason to pick a particular place over the others.

Fast forward to this 2nd/3rd year of the pandemic, and if you’ve been following my blog, you’ve seen my thoughts and know what I’m going to say next. Firstly, Rinuruc getting married in Las Vegas and sending me an invitation gave me the reason that I need to pick somewhere to travel to. The catalyst for the trip, so to speak. I was originally going to do the wedding and then head back to Canada, or maybe visit one or two other cities along the way at most. But there were always other issues too, like the risk of a quarantine at the returning border, which would have meant that I would potentially lose up to more two weeks of banked “vacation time” from work while stuck in a hotel.

Then, my boss dropped an offer that seriously sweetened the pot a couple of weeks ago, telling me that I could go on a vacation without formally using up too much vacation time by working as I go, as and when I could. This is the new world of working remotely, he said. As long as we weren’t moving there long-term and could handle our workload, it really was not all that different from working slightly modified hours at home. I hemmed and hawed for a couple weeks, but this sealed my fate — I recognized that he was potentially offering me the chance of a lifetime, and although I certainly still had a few qualms, I couldn’t not go. The call to adventure was too strong, and the benefits were outweighing the drawbacks by a significant margin. I even proposed my crazy plan twice to my boss in the last couple weeks before I went, as though asking him, “Are you sure? I can do this? You’ll let me do this?” each time, and he never once batted an eyelid (with the caveat that, I think, it had to be less than two months). Well, fine then!

So I decided that I would start off on a trip around the USA, aiming to visit several of the larger cities that I had never been to before despite living in North America for 22 years. I love the glitzy romanticism of large cities, especially at night, I love walking around and exploring, and I had at least an online friend in most of them that I could disturb and impose myself onto (for meeting and meals, not lodging) while there. I’ve always wanted to do something like this to meet some of the great people that I’ve talked to over the past decade and change, too. They’re largely people from our gaming guild in Lord of the Rings Online from 2007 to 2015 or so.

Thoughts on Travel

Obviously the presence of COVID-19 was both a huge risk and a huge hindrance to travel — I mentioned in my last diary entry that I had to get a rapid antigen test done before I was allowed entry to the States, and I would have to get an even more stringent molecular PCR test to re-enter Canada, and I had no idea how I was going to do that. There’s an element of risk with this travel for sure, not just in terms of health either, but also in terms of being quarantined and potentially having to shell out money and time for that. My return time would basically be completely up in the air and be completely dependent on the test I’ll have to take 3 days before returning. Restrictions are slowly lifting though, an example being the complete lack of testing or quarantining needed if travelling between states, or between provinces, within a country. Or you can call this inconsistent, as though local transmittance of COVID was any less virulent than cross-border transmittance.

However, I think that there are some advantages to travelling during COVID too. The first one is that some modes of transportation just have more room on board due to social distancing rules, and some tourist attractions just have less people in them. In practice this was never true on airlines or buses, but I did find this true on public transit in most of the cities, at least. It’s nice occupying two seats without any social pressure (most times) to keep the seat beside me open for someone else. It was too bad that airplanes and travel buses had already gotten back to squeezing as many people as humanely possible onto their vehicles for maximum profit though.

Secondly, COVID enabled remote working for our team. Our team at work is permanently going to be remotely working from home now, so my boss basically said I could go on “vacation” and just work remotely from afar, as long as I put in whatever time I could and got my stuff done daily, which does still take anywhere from 4-6 hours (we get paid 7 hours a day, with an unpaid lunch being the 8th hour, and are mandated two 15 minute breaks in that 7 hours, for a total of 35 hours a week). We’ve been working for a long time together so there’s some level of trust between us, and my boss had recognized that people were burning out due to the inability to take vacations during COVID. I wasn’t the first one who had done this either, as someone else on the team had a similar setup when he went to visit family in Nova Scotia last month. Mine was just a lot more audacious. He said it was fine though, remote was remote! It wouldn’t be a “true vacation”, but I also would be using a lot less vacation time so I could save up my time for a potential Singapore or Taiwan trip in February 2022.

And lastly, it’s a unique experience! Say what you will about the inconveniences of COVID-19 and how it’s stretching on for eternity, and how wearing masks indoors and on plane rides is really annoying, but it’s still a phase that will be over eventually. I can travel between multiple cities in another country anytime, money and time permitting, but being able to see and chronicle a trip in these times is (hopefully) not something that will happen again, and I think my overall personal risk is really low since I am fully vaccinated (with two shots), so that, to me, was also one reason I wanted to do it.

Planning

I decided that as long as I was already going down to the States for Rin‘s wedding and thus already had to pass a COVID-19 rapid antigen test and convert some currency and arrange a few other things, I might as well stay there for a while and visit a few more cities. And even better, although I am usually a moderately meticulous trip planner, the COVID-19 factor meant that I could afford to be uncertain with my return date. One thing led to another, as I first realized that I really couldn’t plan more than one city in advance at a time, and then wondered what last minute plane and hotel prices were like. And then I looked at the list of US cities that I wanted to visit at some point. Why not visit them all?

So, my final proposed plan that I submitted to my boss, involved me taking a “3-4 week vacation” that would take me, tentatively, from Edmonton to Las Vegas to Rin‘s wedding, and then to Los Angeles to meet Trin and Eileen for lunch, then a quick jaunt north to see San Francisco, then further north to Seattle. From there, I’d head southeast to New Orleans, in time to visit Jah for Jah Stream Night on November the 12th. I’d then head northeast toward New York and New Jersey from there, possibly hitting Atlanta or another city along the way, before hopefully finally crossing the border back into Canada. Depending on time, circumstances, and ticket prices, I might also swing by Ottawa to meet Seren for lunch before finally jetting home to Edmonton.

My plan was to spend about 3-4 days in each city, more or less, and use that time to hit off as many interesting spots as I wanted to visit. And see lots of neon-lit, night-time cityscapes that I could not see in Edmonton. My boss took one look at my plan and said he wished he was in a family and life position where he could do something similar. Hah. My original plan also gave me the flexibility of being able to find a cheap ticket somewhere and decide that I wanted to just hop on that flight and explore a new city that was not originally on my itinerary, though in practice I had people to see in nearly every city so I didn’t quite have that amount of freedom. I otherwise would have, though.

The one major caveat with this plan was that since I would not booking more than one city in advance, I would somewhat be at the mercy of last minute ticket prices and the volatility of market forces, especially around the weekends or holidays like Rememberance Day (Nov 11), and Thanksgiving (Nov 25). That same flexibility that gave me the luxury of deciding by myself when I would move on to a different city, and which city I would move to, in a rather ad-hoc fashion, also came with the possibility that I wouldn’t be able to enter a city at a specific time of my choosing because either the travel or lodging prices were too high, and I would balk and either choose to stay in my current city another day or go somewhere else instead. I saw an example of this right out of the gate, while trying to book the Edmonton to Las Vegas plane ride and hotel. You can read more about this on my next Grand Tour blog post.

The Week Before (Oct 25-27 2021)

Similarly, you can read last week’s blog entry to find out what I did during the week leading up to the 28th, but I did purposely skim over the trip-specific preparations I had made for the trip, so here they are in a nutshell. Firstly, I needed to take an antigen test, no earlier than 3 days before the trip, to be allowed to cross the border into the United States. I took this rapid antigen test at a local Shoppers Drug Mart, this cost $40 and took all of 15 minutes, with a swab up the nostril that wasn’t invasive or painful at all. I walked out of there on Tuesday with my certificate of good health (01 | 02 | 03). I also printed this form (01 | 02 | 03) that was supposed to be handed in together with the negative test to the airline, but in the end there was an online form I was asked to select a check box on instead..

Secondly, I had a number of items I wanted to buy — a new portable power bank to replace my aging one, a good wall charger since I’d have a number of electronic items to charge at once while on my trip, and a large microSD card for my DJI Pocket 2 camera. All three purchased revolved around that camera, actually, since the first was to keep it charged while I carried it around the city, while the second would charge both it and the portable power bank at night. But of course my phone and laptop would also benefit from the first two purchases. These came in packages that arrived on Monday and Wednesday. I was really worried about the Wednesday one, since that was the day before I left, and if I had missed those packages then not only would I not be able to bring them onto my trip, but I would not have been able to receive them at all before they were returned to sender. But thankfully they arrived without incident.

I packed about four days worth of clothing for my 3-4 week trip, planning to hit up laundry places on the way so that I wouldn’t have to bring along too much. In particular, I did not want to bring along luggage that I would have to check in — I only brought a backpack as a carry-on and a shoulder sling bag as a personal item, to save money. and to avoid the baggage carousel. No checked luggage for me on my 26 day trip. i left plenty of room for omiyage gifts for the family, and purchases for myself. My personal goal was to find and buy one plushie per city that I visited, that I liked enough to add to my collection.

Anyway, due to video processing time and stuff (I have tons and tons of pictures and notes to sort through), the next few Grand Tour posts will take a while before I get around to them, but they will come. In the meantime, back to my regularly scheduled weekly entries! Oh, and the titles of these posts are a play on A Grand Tour of the Realms, a Forgotten Realms sourcebook that I have somewhere.

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