Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

On my last day in Tucson, I got to visit the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, which turned out to be my favourite part of the trip. So many magical moments. It wasn't like the museums in Ottawa - most of the Desert Museum was outdoors, in the desert! These are things you can do when you don't have to deal with snow storms for what feels like half the year.

This is a museum?

To be clear, the Desert Museum is more than a museum: it's walking trails, botanical gardens, zoo, and, of course, gift shops.

I loved getting a chance to see the animals - I had never even heard of some of them before.
A coati, hanging out on his own

Alan! Alan! Alan! Steve?

There was a coyote that seemed to be posing for an artist that happened to be painting there.

Magical moments with coyotes

They had a cute little home for bees, which was pretty cool, if you like bees and aren't terrified of being swarmed by Africanized bees like I am.

There was a really cool special exhibit where you could pet stingrays.  Usually I don't care for petting zoos, or, for that matter, animals that have killed the Crocodile Hunter, but these were baby stingrays that had their stingers filed down, and these ones loved being stroked by friendly hands. You would just stand at the side of the pool and the babies would swim right up to you and snuggle their bellies over your fingers for a little rub, just as though they were house cats.

The museum also featured a wide variety of colourful birds that live in the area....

...including raptor birds of prey that would fly so close over your head, you could feel the wind from their wings on your face. It was incredible!

This owl had the cutest hoot

The museum also featured a cool venomous reptile show, where we got to meet a Gila monster and a diamondback rattlesnake....from a safe distance, of course.  I'm thankful that this was my only encounter with rattlesnakes in Tucson, considering that this is the rattlesnake capital of the United States.

Look, a monster!
Rattlesnake, ssssaying hi

Trying out my Parseltongue

enjoying the desert view with my agave bowl lunch

In the end, there was just not enough time for me to see all of the things there were to see there. I'd highly recommend spending the whole day if one has time.

I did make sure to go on the desert trail loop, which was full of gorgeous views of the desert landcape...and also cactus plants. Lots of those. They're pretty cool to look at, but pretty serious to get pricked by. I found out the hard way when I accidentally walked into one while I was trying to take a selfie. Those cactus needles are pretty painful. They stuck right through my jeans and into my skin. Pretty tricky to take out. Now I know: always carry tweezers when walking in the desert.

selfie was still totally worth it, cactus or not

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

arriving in Arizona

The American border security was having a tough time with my story.

"Tell me again why you're going to Arizona?"

"For a research team workshop," I repeated. "I'm an Arctic researcher.*"

The officer raised his eyebrow. "Arctic research? In Arizona?"

Yeah, I know - my story sounded kind of fake to me too. It was true, but why did I say that? I'm a Millenial; I'm not just an Arctic researcher, but at least ten other things. Why didn't I say I was a international development researcher? A human rights lawyer? An indie musician? A travel blogger, even? I tried to explain: "I'm visiting some faculty in Arizona that are world-renowned experts in various forms of experimental governance, which we thought would be informative for the Arctic setting..."

The officer then narrowed his eyebrows, and I'll never forget the surprising words that followed: "But nothing works in Arizona."

Okay then. Clearly there were going to be some adventures ahead of me for my first time in Arizona, the land where apparently nothing works, and, coincidentally, all of U-Haul's license plates come from because they never expire. Eventually the border security officer's eyes glazed over as I continued to explain innovative self-governance theories as though I was defending a doctoral dissertation, and instead he passed me on to "random additional security screening."

I was taking the most roundabout route to Tucson. From Ottawa to Washington DC to Los Angeles to Tucson, Arizona. If you have a basic sense of American geography, you'll catch on that this is not the most direct route possible; in fact, it involves overshooting the final destination, crossing several time zones and then back into some of those previous time zones.  But originally we were supposed to fly through Houston, where tropical storms were brewing and threatening all kinds of floods. Luckily United Airlines offered to switch my flights to avoid the weather warning areas, allowing me to basically fly over and around the entire United States of America.

When we landed at Washington Dulles International Airport, we discovered that we were not in fact in DC, but nearby Virginia.  We ran into the world's friendliest airport employee with a heart of gold who took us on a tour of the airport to show us where the good restaurants were. I also discovered a nail spa where I spent the remainder of my layover in Washington DC Virginia.

Los Angeles was huge and smoggy.

By the time we finally arrived at our hotel in Arizona,  I was so disoriented from the zigzag route we had taken to get here, I actually Googled "what time is it" "what time zone am I in "where am I" "when am I" "who am I".  I've always liked the French word d├ępaysant, which lacks a direct English equivalent translation that carries the right idea of being "de-country-ed". Too much space jumping and time travelling leaves the soul feeling undone.

The older woman running the hotel front desk was a stern no-nonsense type who checked me in.

"Is your outdoor pool by any chance open, even though it's winter?" I asked her, with child-like hope.

"Yes, it's heated," she answered, and her eyes added For the silly Canadian tourists who are the only ones that use the swimming pool in December.  

She gave me my hotel key and two-for-one drink coupon for the hotel bar. A two-for-one drink seemed like a great remedy for my sense of weightlessness, so I pulled up a stool at the hotel bar to try a local Barrio beer.

Live jazz at the hotel bar - great opening scene for a movie...

The kitchen staff from the restaurant next door was just coming off of their shift and joined me for a quick drink.  The restaurant chef was a friendly fellow who drew a map on the back of my breakfast voucher.  It was an awesome map, and I was sad to have to hand in my breakfast voucher for the actual breakfast the next morning, possibly back to him since he was the restaurant cook.

Directions to Park Avoid
He had also slipped in his phone number on the map, offering to show me and my colleagues around. I told him that my Canadian phone unfortunately didn't work in the United States. He suggested we connect on Facebook. I told him I didn't have Facebook, which was actually probably the biggest lie I've ever told. But they had exciting plans for the evening. My exciting plan was to pass out in the hotel bed while consuming American Netflix.

The next day, I awoke early before sunrise with the advantage of being an Eastern Time zone traveller in Mountain Time. I went for a walk around the hotel grounds. I could hardly believe I was still in North America. The Arizona landscape looked as foreign as the moon. There were rolling mountains off in the distance, endless desert, citrus trees...and palm trees!



And cactus plants everywhere! That was the most exciting discovery for me. There were lots of palm trees when I lived in South America and in Africa, and I'd lived in deserts before, albeit polar deserts. But a "forest" of cactii...this was something I was experiencing for the first time.

It was like straight out of Better Call Saul. Or was that shot in New Mexico? Either way: palm trees! Cactus plants!

maybe I should set up a law office here too


I was able to find my way around downtown with relative ease. Whenever I got lost, the local folks were pretty helpful, although they would always give me directions in miles instead of kilometres, and I would just smile and nod because I don't remember how long a mile is.

With the mild temperatures, it was entirely possible for buildings to have outdoor corridors and thus take on gorgeous innovative new designs that we in Ontario could never dream of using.

The University of Arizona campus, where I spent most of my time, was breathtaking. I suddenly wondered, "why would anyone choose to go to a Canadian university?" I had gone to law school at York University, which was rumoured to have been designed after a California campus style, in a not-so-California climate, where the cold winter wind would whip around the corners of the campus buildings located too far apart from each other, and students would trudge through the snow, dreaming of the Tim Hortons coffee they hoped to grab before class.

Old Main

The craft beers in Tucson were at good old American prices, which probably would have been a great deal if the Canadian dollar wasn't doing so poorly.  But on the other hand, they had just elected Donald Trump as president, so I guess we all have our stuff to figure out.

Also, being located so close to Mexico, the food in Tucson was out of this world.  Tucson was clearly a trendy foodie hipster haven in the middle of the desert.

mmm Mexican food

Take this one restaurant we went to, for example, called Batch Cafe and Bar. It was as though they had designed a restaurant specifically for my tastes.  They offered an impressive selection of over a hundred different bourbons, first off. Also, they made doughnuts. They also served sandwiches, which you can order to be served on said doughnuts instead of bread like normal people.  And they also featured a menu of boozy cereal, all the cereal from your childhood served with whiskeys that were not from your childhood. I had, for example, the Wheat & Rye, featuring my favourite Frosted Mini-Wheats.


Elsewhere, I also ate biscuits and gravy, a classic American tradition

The delicious food almost made up for all of the scorpion stories that our University of Arizona colleagues told us, of finding the creepy critters in your bed and in your toilet.  That is the one thing I'll appreciate about Northern climates: the cold keeps the creepier things away.

Time to move here?