Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Tossed Salads and Scrambled Eggs

I have to admit - I loved Seattle more than I expected.  Part of it has to be that I had really no expectations at all.  I know people from Seattle always talk about how great a city it is, but a great city to live in is not necessarily a great city to visit.  Turns out Seattle is both.

Before we arrived on Sunday, Sam and I drove around the Olympic peninsula, which is absolutely stunning.  The highlight of the area is Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park.  The winding road leads up a stunning 360 degree vista.  On one side of the hill are the Olympic Mountains (including Mount Olympus), featuring dozens of snow capped peaks as far as the eye can see.  On the other side of the hill the Pacific Ocean and Puget Sound.  We could actually see parts of Canada from the lookout (albeit islands not connected to the mainland).  Absolutely stunning.  Then, to get to Seattle from the peninsula, you have to take a ferry across Puget Sound - providing a fantastic view of the Seattle skyline as you arrive downtown.

About a month before I left Belize, one of my A-100 colleagues saw my planned itinerary and offered me the option of staying in his house in Seattle.  Although he was still in Djibouti, his daughters lived in the house and we were welcome to stay.  They have a fantastic house about a 15 minute light rail ride from downtown Seattle.  His daughters made us feel more than welcome and even brought home tons of pastries and bread from their job at a bakery in Pike Place Market.  We could not be more grateful for their hospitality.  (It also worked out perfectly as we needed to do some laundry to last for the rest of the trip).

In order to orient ourselves in the city and get an idea of what Seattle had to offer, we took a "Duck" tour.  These tours are in several cities throughout the U.S. and are WWII landing boats that can function both as a bus and a boat.  The tours are high energy and high comedy.  Lots of jokes and lots of music.  The tour took us out on the water in Lake Union (featuring the floating house from Sleepless  in Seattle and paintball scene from 10 Things I Hate About You.  Then it goes around the various neighborhoods and sites in Seattle.  The whole thing was a bit cheesy, but a lot of fun and worth it.

We spent the rest of the afternoon over at the Seattle Center, which features two of Seattle's most well-known attractions.  The Experience Music Project (EMP) is a music museum developed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.  The two most impressive exhibits featured Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana.  The Hendrix exhibit not only covered his life and music, but really looked into how he developed new techniques in electric guitar.  Specifically, his use of those foot peddles that can distort the sounds of the notes and overdubbing - where he would play all of the guitar parts in the studio to really mix the melodies and harmonies together.  I know little about technical musical skills (as is apparent from this paragraph), but I really felt like I learned some things.

The Nirvana exhibit was your more standard museum fare with perhaps a bit more audio-visual components.  I was going through my country phase during the Nirvana heyday, so their story was not entirely familiar to me.  (For example, we spent the night before in their hometown of Aberdeen and didn't realize it.)  I never realized exactly how short their career was.  In essence, they only had two major studio albums (Nevermind  and In Utero).  They also had one small label album (Bleach), a compilation of B sides (Incesticide) and of course, MTV Unplugged.  This fact reminded me about the fact that the Beatles only released music as a band for 7 years (1963-1970).  The science fiction and horror exhibits were also quite interesting and we ended up spending several hours at the EMP.

After the EMP, we really debated about going up the Space Needle next door.  It cost $20 to ride an elevator to the observation deck and I just didn't think it was worth that much.  Ultimately, I decided that this may be my only trip to Seattle, so we had to visit the Space Needle.  As I said before, I really didn't know what to expect of Seattle, but it was much more cosmopolitan than I expected.  The downtown was quite large with dozens of sky scrapers, even while the city remained very walkable.  Most of the sky scrapers were modern, but the smaller buildings down town all had great stone and brick architecture.  Many of the building facades and arches reminded me of Europe rather than the West Coast.  Plus the waterfront(s) are spectacular.  In addition to the main port in Puget Sound, there were several other "lakes" around town that are all connected to the sea via locks, canals, and rivers.  I don't think there is anywhere in Seattle that is more than a couple of miles from the water.  Looking down upon the city, I could see why the locals love it so much (it probably helped that it never rained while we were there).

For dinner on Monday, we met with one of my fraternity brothers who moved to Seattle last year.  Ciao (real name Steve Chau) was always the crazy Asian kid bouncing all over the walls.  He joined the fraternity my junior year and I probably haven't seen him for more than five years.  He is still the same crazy kid, but in Seattle there are a lot more Asians around.  We compared notes on all our old friends and talked about our various jobs.  We went out to dinner in Belltown - which appears to be the hipster part of town.  I ate sushi for the first time (verdict - won't object if someone suggests sushi for dinner, but won't suggest it either).

On Tuesday, we started the day wandering around Pike Place Market.  I know its a tourist trap, but I really liked it.  The guys throwing the fish were fun, but that was only one small part of the market, which is filled with vendors selling fruit, fish, crafts, art, books, kitchen supplies, scarves, etc.  In the lower section, we found a magic shop, an antique store, and this cool vintage and historical documents store.  Sam and I spent an hour looking through the old maps and propaganda from WWII.  We both ended up buying these old newspapers.  I bought a WWII era paper from 1943 and Sam bought a Civil War era NY paper from 1863.  We are both nerds.

From Pike Place Market, we wandered around the waterfront and rode on the brand new Ferris Wheel.  All the locals were excited about the new Ferris Wheel, which just opened two weeks ago.  I actually thought it was pretty neat and one of the sites in Seattle which was truly worth the price of admission.  We then made our way over to Pioneer Square, which is the original downtown Seattle and home to the fantastic Underground Tour.  Following a fire in the 1860s, the city government decided they wanted to rebuild the downtown at a higher level than it had been to solve flooding problems they were having with the tides.  The business owners didn't want to wait the 10 years it would take to complete the project to rebuild.  What Seattle ended up with were streets that were one story higher than the shop entrances (picture a waffle with the stores in the depressions and streets along the ridges).  As time moved on, the whole area raised to the old second floor leaving these underground passages abandoned to time.  Really fascinating tour which I would highly recommend to anyone visiting Seattle.

I have to say that overall, I really liked Seattle.  The city had a vibe that was missing in the other cities I have visited - San Diego and San Francisco.  The city felt cosmopolitan, filled with young people and fun activities.  The neighborhoods all had their own unique characteristics.  Now, all of this may be due to two straight days of sun, but I still really liked the city.

If you didn't understand the title, that is the oddball line featured in the theme song of Frasier.

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