Nauru Travel Diary

From Houston to Sydney 2013

From Houston

to Sydney



It is interesting how initial impressions can affect one’s perception of a city, even if it is just a little thing or two.

The hotel where we are staying in central Chicago – let’s just call it the Chicago Hotel to maintain its anonymity for the purposes of this discussion – provides breakfast as part of our room rate, but as we were told when we checked in, this only applies if you have breakfast delivered to your room.  This restriction was not stated on their website.

Di and I usually prefer to eat in a dining room than in our hotel room because the food is usually hotter and fresher, and it gives us the flexibility to eat when we feel like it rather than having to specify a particular time the previous evening.  Nonetheless, having to have breakfast in our room was not a big problem, and we dutifully filled in our menu card and left it on the door of our room as instructed.

The breakfast arrived to our room punctually, which was good – and this is where use of the word “good” ended.  The food really was woeful in every way.  Di needed gluten-free bread, but was given unlabelled ordinary bread (quite a dangerous practice for a celiac person when gluten-free food has been ordered).  I asked for whole wheat toast but was given white toast, which was cold and sagged sadly when lifted.  The fruit juice was diluted nearly down to the strength of water, the poached eggs were almost raw (the whites were just solid - mostly - but the yolks were quite raw).  The fruit (one strawberry and two slices of orange) was warm and rotten.  Everything that should have been cold was warm and everything that should have been hot was tepid.  There was no milk for tea or coffee, and after phoning to get some delivered, it took 50 minutes to arrive.

It was a disappointing start to the day, but to her credit, the hotel’s front desk manager agreed we could have breakfast in the restaurant tomorrow morning when I described the condition of our breakfast.  The anticipation of a decent breakfast tomorrow morning was sufficient to lighten our mood, and with this promise, Di and left the hotel with a spring in our step and we began exploring Chicago on foot.

I had been to Chicago twice for meetings over the past two years, and I had really enjoyed its atmosphere, its architecture and its vibe.  It was on the basis of my descriptions that Di had asked if we could spend a day in Chicago before we left the US.

Our explorations of the city were easily completed on foot as our hotel was located in the central area known as the Miracle Mile, just north of the Chicago River which drains into Lake Michigan (one of the Great Lakes) nearby.  We walked southwards along North Michigan Avenue, admiring the justly famous old and new skyscrapers for which Chicago is famous along Chicago’s ‘main drag’, or to describe it more elegantly, Chicago’s most up-market shopping street.  Although the clouds were gathering for an early afternoon storm, the skies were generally clear and the weather felt much warmer than the indicated temperature (of 71 degrees Fahrenheit) because of the extremely high humidity.

Our walk southwards brought us to Chicago’s Millennium Park, a beautiful 24.5 acre facility (which is exactly the same size as Awty International School!) that was built to commemorate the arrival of the new millennium in 2000.  Although many areas of the park were great to explore, including the Lurie Garden (which is actually the world’s largest green roof for a building), the Crown Fountain with its constantly changing video images, and the modern asymmetrical steel structure of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, the highlight for us was without doubt the Cloud Gate.

The Cloud Gate has fascinated me every time I have come to Chicago, and today was no exception.  Cloud Gate is a highly polished reflective steel sculpture that is inspired by liquid mercury.  By walking around the sculpture and looking at it in different directions, onlookers see distorted reflections of Chicago’s skyline, and indeed, unflattering reflections of themselves as well if they stand in the right places.  The underside of the gate is known as the ‘omphalos’ (which is Greek for ‘navel’), and it is a concave chamber that warps and multiplies reflections in ways that seemed to keep today’s onlookers constantly fascinated.

For those who may be interested, one of my photos that I took on a previous trip to Chicago of Cloud Gate and its reflection of the Chicago skyline is the illustration I chose for the title page of “Planet Geography”, 7th edition, the textbook I have written that has just been released to support the IB Geography syllabus.

Leaving Millennium Park, we walked up the long, gentle slope of the Nichols Bridgeway to the Art Institute of Chicago.  We were expecting the rain to have started by this time, but as the weather was remaining sunny for the time being, we decided to make the most of it by walking westwards to Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower), once the world’s tallest building (for 22 years) and still the second tallest building in the United States.  Our aim was to ascend to the observation deck near the top of the building, and even though we were warned upon arrival that it would take an hour and a half to get to the top, we decided to make the effort.

And when we did eventually reach the top (and it was an hour and a half later, at 3:30 pm), we were instantly glad that we were there.  Although the air was hazy (or more accurately, smoggy) in the distance, the views of the areas near the building, and especially of the CBD, were superb.

Chicago remains an important city in the history of urban geography.  After being destroyed by the Great Fire of Chicago in 1871, the city was rebuilt according to a grand urban plan, one of the modern world’s earliest attempts at urban planning.  Furthermore, Chicago was the basis of the first model to try and describe and explain urban land uses, the concentric zone model of Ernest Burgess in 1923, which is still taught in schools today because of its close relationship to the bid-rent mechanism.  When looking down on Chicago from the top of Willis Tower, Burgess’ concentric pattern could still be seen by the geographer’s (i.e. my) trained eye – with the help of just a little imagination as a result of the distortions caused by the city’s substantial freeway network and the subsequent intrusion of multiple nuclei (i.e. subsidiary business districts) as the city has sprawled outwards.

By the time we had reached ground level once again, the time was about 4:30 pm.  We were interested in taking the circular tour of the city on one of the open-topped red double decker buses, but we changed our minds when we discovered the cost – more than double the ‘usual’ cost of such trips elsewhere.  So in the cooling temperatures of the late afternoon, we walked back to our hotel north along Dearborn Street and along West Upper Wacker Drive, which gave us some great views of the city skyline.

The day finished with a very tasty and affordable dinner at a small Thai Restaurant, very sensibly located right next door to the Thai Consulate building.  Clearly their emphasis was on the food (which was spicy and beautifully prepared in authentic style) rather than the décor (which was plain and thus also so authentic that it would have been totally natural somewhere in a small town in northern Thailand).

We are tired from all our walking today, but we feel we have soaked up the atmosphere of central Chicago in considerable depth, and we will be able to depart tomorrow quite satisfied with the visit.

Day 10 - Chicago


15 July 2013