Waiting at the bus stop in New Orleans we met a lovely Mum and daughter couple called Sue and Cayley from Houston (sorry if i spelt your names wrong guys!). They had been visiting NOLA to check out universities for Cayley and we had a great time chatting to them. Cayley was really interested the fact that we were backpackers and how many places we have been to. Its not that often that you find American's who actually know what backpacking is so we had a great time sharing stories! We all caught an overnight Mega-Bus from New Orleans to Houston before saying goodbye. After a lovely 3 hour wait at 3.45am in what was effectively an empty car parking lot (dont worry Mum Ty looked after me!) we got on another bus to Austin to visit Gabby, David and Lionel whom we had met whilst workaway-ing in Italy a couple of years ago. We met a couple of other backpackers on this bus - one of whom entertained us with stories of train hopping his way around the USA. Not something I'm sure I'd have the balls for to be honest!
Gabby and David picked us up and we headed back to their place to freshen up. David's brother Carlos had run a half marathon that morning and his parents and cousins had come up from their home town to cheer him on so we all went out for a celebratory long lazy brunch which was really enjoyable. It was so nice to meet David's family - they were so sweet! We had heard so much about a famed breakfast dish in the south of 'chicken and waffles'
that spying it on the menu Ty had to order it. As David put it, its a culinary conundrum.... really shouldn't taste good together but it so does! After brunch we headed back to hang out and enjoy the sunshine and just spend time catching up with each other. Late afternoon they took us to 'Congress Street' to wander around the eclectic shops, food trucks and markets before chilling out and people watching with salsa, chips and beer at a local bar.
Ty and David with their chicken n waffles
So fast you can hardly see them!
That night was the opening night of the local Roller Derby Championships so we decided to head along and see what it was all about. Holy Guacamole that sport is brutal! The match we went to see was the Putas Del Fuego (Bitches of Fire) vs the Hellcats. When we walked in to the stadium our first thought was that they were being a bit optimistic with the numbers of seating laid out, but as we sat down people kept streaming in and there was easily a couple of thousand people there by the time the game started. As far as we could gather the basic idea of the game is to score more points that the other team by tactically moving your 'jammer' (speediest, weasel-iest, person) around the rink scoring one point for each person you overtake in the opposition. Not as easy as it sounds when you have the rest of the team slamming into you, or slamming you into the fence/floor/other people. Even just skating around the rink warming up proved dangerous with one girl snapping her ankle before the match even started! Watching the team warm up the Putas looked to be a much more cohesive team but suprisingly it was the Hellcats who took the early lead. The game became a fierce battle with the Putas going into the lead with just a few minutes left to play but it was the Hellcats who took the match on a controversial penalty. Brutal excitement right until the end! With names like Greta-Ground-n-Pound and Holly Peno, and penalty punishments including pillow fights and tug of war it would be easy to think that this sport is taking the piss a bit. But while its all smiles after the match, during the game the girls definitly have their game face on and the competition is tough! Its definitely not a sport for the weak!
Gabby cleaning the back of the car
Ty talcom-powerding the back of the car
Can you see the thumb print?
We all enjoyed a lazy lie in the next day and woke up to David cooking us yummy breakfast tacos with eggs, potatoes and tys favourite - chorizo! Lionel and his girlfriend Jani arrived from his home town further south and it was really good to see him again. We decided to take a bit of a road trip to San Antonio to visit the Alamo, but not before visiting the 'ghost tracks'! Legend has it that years ago on a railway track outside San Antonio a school bus got stuck and was hit by a train, killing all the children on board. If you drive up to the rail tracks, put your car in neutral and take your foot off the pedals the car rolls up the slight incline and over the tracks, being pushed, some say, by the ghosts of those children. Creepily it works!! Locals dust the back of the car with talcum powder and report occasional hand prints appearing. We didnt get any full hand prints but what looked like a thumbprint appeared where there definitly wasn't one before....Ooooooooo *scary ghost voice*.
Originally named Mission San Antonio de Valero, the Alamo served as home to missionaries and their Indian converts for nearly seventy years and the battle of the Alamo (Feb 23 - March 6 1836) was a pivotal event in the Texas Revolution. Dad had recently bought a slide converter and found a photo of him visiting with my grandparents years ago so it was pretty cool to be standing in the same place. After soaking up the history it was time for more food (I swear all we are doing is eating on this trip!). Gabby took us to their favourite San Antonio bar/restaurant which had so many decorations around the place that it looked like Mexican Christmas on crack!
Outside the entrance to the Alamo
Gabby, David, Lionel, Ty and I
A fierce friendly game of rock band happened back at the house, followed by the boys defeating the zombies, as we all enjoyed just hanging out with each other.
The next day we went out for a really fun round of Pitch and Putt golf (a short 9 hole course using only a 9 iron and a putter) with Gabby and David and one of their friends before heading to the legendary 'Salt Lick' all you can eat BBQ restaurant which was definitely the cause of some meat sweats that night.
Its crazy how fast our time in the USA has gone by. Cant believe we are off to Mexico tomorrow!
Next stop: Mexico City!
After an extremely long 26 hour train ride from D.C (where it turns out there was no wifi, despite it being advertised) it was fantastic to be picked up in New Orleans by our couchsurfing host Josh who took us straight out to one of his favourite bars for some southern comfort food - Jambalaya and fried chicken - and then home to settle in. Josh had work during the day but gave us lots of good tips about places to see and things to do and basically let us take over his lounge for a few days which was brilliant of him.
We started our first day with a first for me - an alligator baked potatoe (mmm gator tastes gooood)! before heading into town to explore the French Quarter. Getting ourselves lost on the way to the bus we wandered through the streets of the Garden District soaking up the remaining ambience from Mardi Gras which had just finished. The fences and trees still had hundreds of 'throws', beads and other decorations hanging from them. We had tried to get there for the last few days of it but the accommodation was ridiculously expensive so unfortunately it didn't work out, but NOLA is the kind of city that has that special kind of vibe no matter what day of the year it is. A local we met said they have over 400 festivals and parades a year so there is always something going on!
Throws left over from Mardi Gras
Beignets from Cafe Du Monde
One of the many street performers
We wandered along the waterfront and spent a lovely while lazing in the first sunshine we had seen in a while, watching the river boats and listening to one of the many local street performers play some beautiful jazz music. It wasnt until we walked past them later on that we looked at them - some of them didnt look old enough to be able to play the instruments with such passion and confidence.
No trip to the French Quarter would be complete without a stop at Cafe Du Monde, a local institution. Serving only bitter chicory coffee and 'beignets' (french doughnuts without the hole, smothered in icing sugar) they are open 24 hours a day. The icing sugar layer is so thick it becomes a real art to eat it without becoming covered in snow, and its easy to spot people walking down the street who have recently paid a visit!
The night life in NOLA famously occurs along the appropriately named 'Bourbon Street'. At any time of day tourists and wino locals can be found stumbling along it, with a 'hurricane' or a 'hand grenade' wavering about. While its definitely something worth experiencing other areas give a better view of what New Orleans music scene is all about. The council closes off parts of Royal Street on a regular basis allowing street performers the chance to shine. It was amazing to sit and listen to sometimes the most unlikely prospects making beautiful music with spoons, washboards and an old suitcase turned into a drum. Josh took us out to a bar called Le Bon Temps Roule (let the good times roll - also the motto of the city) to watch a gig that night which was an awesome display of funk and blues combined together.
Hanging out at the Musical Legends Park
Josh showing us how crawfish is done
French Quarter architecture
After a much needed sleep in the next day we headed back into town and slowly woke ourselves up relaxing with fresh lemonade at the 'Musical Legends Park' where they have local performers all day long, before we did a really interesting walking tour around the centre of town. Josh was a fantastic host yet again and took us out to experience a 'crawfish boil' with one of his friends. Crawfish is basically like a tiger prawn but with a more solid head and since it was the start of the season much smaller as well. They boil them in spices and add corn on the cobb and potatoes to the mix. They are pretty fiddly to eat but the spices tasted so good! After dinner we headed into the Marigny District to listen to some more live music at a bar called The Spotted Cat. Wandering back to the bus via Bourbon Street we stumbled across the line for Preservation Hall's 10pm show. Preservation Hall was established in the 60's in response to concerns that jazz would be lost to rock and pop and is considered one of THE places to see jazz in the USA. WIth capacity for just 100 people each show becomes an intimate performance and you usually have to line up for hours to get in but the jazz gods must have been watching us as we rocked up and ended up with front row seats!
Saturday we rode the old streetcars into town to visit the New Orleans Museum exhibitions on Mardi Gras and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The National Weather Service issued the following warning the evening before Katrina hit, which made me consider the extent of the storm and feel frustration for the residents that despite this warning the US government failed to respond appropriately. "Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks...perhaps longer. At least one half of well constructed homes will have roof and wall failure...airborne debris will be widespread. Persons...Pets...and livestock exposed to the winds will face certain death if struck... Water shortages will make human suffering incredible by modern standards"
It was an excellent, if rather sobering exhibition but it was amazing to see the resilience of the community in spite of the adversities they faced. .
Outside the museum Ty found some art work to take home by a talented local artist called Reggie Ford
so we have yet more art to hang on our non-existent house walls haha. And then all too soon it was time to leave. New Orleans really is like no other place in the USA. Its French-Creole architecture, abundance of street performers and positive nature of the its inhabitants to bounce back from adversity makes it a wonderful place to visit and we would highly recommend it to anyone who gets the chance!
Next stop: Austin, Texas!
Having stayed in a lot of hostels throughout the world we had a level of anticipation of what to expect from the hostel (“Duo Housing DC”) that we had booked into as it has regularly been voted in the top 5 in the USA and was No. 1 two months last year, however after our stay there we and considering how much we paid for it we certainly question their status. Our uncomfortable creaky beds in an unventilated 12 room dorm cost us just over $90USD for 2 nights. Arriving to check in we were given an A4 page with size 10 writing full of the house rules for us to sign before we were allowed in the front door. I don’t have a problem with the house rules being spelt out, and many of them were common sense etiquettes when staying in a hostel, but the staff made the atmosphere feel like we were naughty little children, constantly watching over our shoulders. This combined with the multitude of signs around the hostel telling us what to do, what not to do and the punishment if we are caught doing/not doing something really suppressed the usual relaxed hostel vibe. The head manager made us feel like he was doing us a favour letting us stay in his hostel instead of treating us with the respect we deserved as paying guests. Signs in the bathroom stated that they could not guarantee hot water during peak times. Again, given their status and the availability of gas hot water in the USA this seems poor. Fortunately we had managed to organise a couple to couch surf with for 2 of the 4 nights we were in DC so we didn’t have to stay there the whole time.
On our first day we went to the top of the Post Office Tower for a view over the city and the main monuments and museums along the Mall. Ty got told off for pulling the safety wires apart to take photos despite the gigantic signs that he read telling him not to. nothing new there!
Relaxing in the sun by the Washington Memorial
The Mall is a beautiful wide open space 2 miles long and forms the main part of town for the presidential monuments, parliament and the Smithsonian Museums. All big ceremonies take place on the grass (we could see them deconstructing the inauguration platform) and it is regularly used by Washington residents for running, cycling and sports. We started at the Washington memorial which is an Obelisk, then wandered past the World War 2 monument and along the reflection pool (where Jenny and Forest were reunited in Forest Gump) to the Abraham Lincoln memorial. Lincoln's memorial is pretty awesome. The fingers on his hands spell out the letter 'A' and 'L' as he was a supporter of the rights of deaf children and sign language. Heading up to the White House we stopped at the Vietnam monument. I am particularly bad at history but it was shocking to see the 58195 names engraved into the wall. I also didn’t realise just how long the War had run for. Next thing we hear an almighty roar and the presidents helicopter flies low overhead. Exciting!
The White House looks a lot smaller in the flesh than it did in Independence Day, and security is pretty tight so you are only allowed up to the front fence (not around the sides). If we had been more organised Ty could have got us free tickets for a tour inside since he’s an American but we weren’t – ah well. We ended up having a great chat with one of the Park Rangers at the White House visitor centre who had actually lived in Waipuk for 3 months a few years ago. She was excited to talk to people who actually knew where that was! I didn’t realise that the President’s Oval Office isn’t actually inside the White House but in an extension block to the side.
We headed to the National Museum of American History to finish off the day and I enjoyed looking through the exhibition about the first ladies as a lot of their inauguration dresses were on display. Michelle Obama’s first outfit had accessories with 86 carats of diamonds!
The infamous Hope Diamond
Day two we explored the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. We arrived at the insect section just in time for tarantula feeding. Shudder! I kind of wish we hadn’t gone into that section though as we saw some gigantic Central American cockroaches! Double Shudder! I really hope we don’t come across any of them on our trip! Then we walked up to the back of Capitol Hill, where we met random guy who told us a story about how he had been to NZ and met Alison Roe, who he had seen run the New York Marathon, and she took him on a yacht around Auckland Harbour with a bunch of All Blacks to show him off ‘cos he knew who she was but he had no idea who the AB’s were. Apparently she asked what had been the best part of his trip and he said Stewart Island and asked her if she had been to which she replied ‘sort of’. Interest aroused he said ‘what do you mean, sort of?’ Turns out her parents had been there and 9 months later she arrived. Classic!
Walking back to the hostel to be picked up by Russell (our couchsurfing host) we stumbled across a Chinese New Year parade which was a nice surprise. We spent the evening relaxing at Russell and Katie’s and Russell taught us a new card game called phase 10 which Ty delighted himself in thrashing the two of us. Panda - if you are reading this I think it’s a game you’re going to enjoy!
We had a bit of a sleep in the next day before heading to Capitol Hill to have a look around Congress. Lucky for us, since we were really disorganised, we were able to get walk up tickets and didn’t have to wait long to get on a tour, as the guide said from next Monday they have 40 extra guides employed as their peak season starts and runs until Thanksgiving.
The random guy we talked to yesterday suggested we visit the American Indian Museum and eat lunch in their native café which we did and tried some purple potatoes, red quinoa, yellow beets and buffalo. The buffalo was cooked pulled pork style and was really flavourful which was good as the rest of it was rather plain. We had intended to just pop in quickly but the displays were really good and we spent a couple of hours wandering around.
We cooked dinner for our hosts to say thanks for having us and since Katie had study to do and it wasn’t raining Russell offered to take us out exploring the capital’s monuments by moonlight. We drove up to the Washington Cathedral and the down to the lake to wander around the presidential memorials. Lincoln, Kennedy and Jefferson all have these grand, statuesque monuments which radiate power but poor Mason who wrote the Bill of Rights has been rather neglected with a round fountain and statue him lazing on a park bench. Russell said he doesn’t get many visitors!
We spent our last day at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. It was really interesting looking at the space pods from the Gemini space missions, Saturn rockets, mocked up nuclear missile rockets and old planes from the Wright Brother’s days. There was a big section about the Apollo mission to the moon, including their space suits, some of the rock that they brought back and the pod that they returned to Earth in. We spent much more time here than we thought we would need to and still didn’t manage to see everything! Ty was disappointed that the Space Shuttle and the Blackbird plane were actually stored at another hanger out by the airport and unfortunately by the time we figured that out we didn’t have time to visit them.
Right this has got long enough!
Next stop: New Orleans!
This is one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind....but looks like something wrapped in tinfoil!
The Jefferson Memorial at night
Martin Luther King Jr memorial
Saying goodbye to New York we caught the train to Philadelphia and were picked up by our second fantastic couch surfing hosts – Laura and Tatiana – who took us on a tiki tour of the city to get our bearings and show us the main sights.
Rocky was filmed in Philly and the first stop on our tiki tour was the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to recreate one of his famous scenes. I had to quietly confess that I’m not a rocky fan and so I had no idea what they were all talking about (head shakes all round!); Tatiana had to You Tube the scene for me
. Running up the stairs and karate fist pumping at the top I realised how unfit we are!
Next stop was dinner at Tony Luke
’s. This guys’ restaurant is one of the most famous in Philly for their cheesesteaks. Essentially just shaved meat and cheese on a roll, Philly has made a name for itself with these sandwiches’ and one of the walls at Tony Luke’s has photos of celebrities like Will Smith and Paula Abdul who eat at their joint. We ordered ours with onion and roasted peppers and were given the option of provolone (ie proper cheese) or cheese wizz. Um, provolone please! Ty was excited to see that Man vs Food have visited the place, but with the challenge being 6 cheesesteaks in less than an hour, and us splitting just one, we decide we aren’t quite M vs F potential today. A cheesesteak is basically a little bit smaller than a footlong subway. Crazily, the current record stands at 10 minutes!!
Chowing down on cheesesteaks at Tony Luke's
After dropping our bags off at Laura’s we went out for a couple of quiet drinks at a german beer house that was celebrating carnival (identity problems?) to get to know our hosts. They have done some recent travel through Europe and the Middle East so we had lots of travel stories to share and had a great night out.
Another member of the couch surfing community had seen our itinerary and offered to show us around Philly, and to take us to the sites off the usual tourist route on the Friday. Unfortunately, a lot of the places he took us to were the same ones we saw the night before and despite professing to be interested in Philadelphia history he knew very little about the role it had played in the development of the United States and dismissed our interest with a wave of his hand. We made our polite excuses to leave after a couple of hours and headed to constitution hall to see where the declaration of independence had been drafted and signed. The poor park rangers looked bored out of their skulls as there were very few tourists around with it being a wet winter day and so were more than happy to tell us stories which were really interesting. The Liberty Bell is housed just across the street so we went over to check that out next and take the required tourist shots.
Our final stop of the day was at the Italian Market, a couple of blocks down from Laura’s apartment, to pick up some picnic supplies for dinner on the train to DC. I was super excited to stumble across a totally gluten free bakery so I had delicious baguette with our meat and cheeses.
And then our whirlwind tour of Philly was over – Boom! Done! I think in hindsight we should have given ourselves a couple of days here. Ty had to convince me to add Philly to our itinerary initially but we really enjoyed it and would encourage other people to visit for a few days if you are in the area.
Next stop: Washington DC!
New York Skyline
After 10 years I was excited to go back to New York and show Tyro around. We caught another greyhound bus down from Boston arriving in the city just after lunch on the Monday and checked into our hostel which was only 2 blocks away from time square before it was time to go exploring.
First stop was lunch -I had been hanging out for New York Pizza! With slices the size of your face you only need one piece to fill you up! We stopped in at a little deli on 7th street and ate our pieces watching the guy behind the counter knead the dough and throw it in the air to make the gigantic bases.
It turned out that on our first day there the Lakers basketball team were playing at Maddison Square Gardens and Ty was pretty keen to see if we could get some last minute tickets, but unfortunately they were all sold out.
We wandered our way towards Times Square, stopping to check out the Empire State Building. We decided that since it was crappy weather we wouldn’t bother spending the $25 each to catch the lift to the top. Walking past the NY Public Library we decided to pop in to warm up for a few minutes – wow its cool in there! It’s the library that they filmed the NY scenes of ‘A day after tomorrow’ in and it is a beautiful stately building on the inside.
New York Public Library
Ty and the Empire State Building
Ty and the Wall Street bull
We arrived at Times Square as dusk fell and all of the neon’s came to life. I was interested to see that they have pedestrianised part of the road through the middle, and that the numerous street artists and show touts had disappeared, which is great for walking around but reduces some of the hustle and bustle that gave it its own special feeling of chaos. I wonder if the street vendors will be back in summer. The red ‘last minute’ broadway ticket booth has had a makeover from its former shipping container self into a sleek glass fronted permanent structure.
Heading back to Maddison Square Gardens we tried our luck with the scalpers but even after the game started they were asking crazy high prices so we gave the game a miss.
We spent 6 hours on Tuesday on a ‘free’ walking tour – seemed like a great idea when we booked on it a few days earlier, but as we were trudging through the frozen streets of little Italy in the snow it didn’t seem like one! To our guide’s credit she was enthusiastic most of the day and let us pop inside a few places to warm up along the way. Despite the cold it was a great way to see a lot of the city in one go and learn about some of the history we would have missed doing it on our own, like the fact that wall street is called that because there literally used to be a wall running down the middle of it or that the apartments in Chinatown is the densest population outside of India!
Our tour finished at the High Line, a project that had just been proposed last time I was here. The Meatworks community used to be a rough part of town, but has gone through a period of intense gentrification and the residents were upset about the former raised train lines being torn down as they felt they were a key part of the identity of the area so they petitioned the council to allow them to turn it into a raised park. It took 10 years but it’s finally completed. It’s a pretty exposed place to be during winter but I can imagine it being a great place to hang out in summer!
Ground Zero memorial
After the tour we caught the subway to check out Grand Central station. The main terminal is the most beautiful train station I’ve ever been to, and I was excited for Ty to check it out. Hannah and I missed a train one night during my last stay here and spent a great couple of hours people watching. Sadly for me Ty wasn’t as impressed as I felt he should have been (too much expectation?!) but never mind.
Our tour guide had told us about a place called ‘Juniors’ which had won the ‘best cheesecake in NY’ award last year so we headed there for desert aka dinner. Have to say, Ty’s momma’s cheesecake beats Junior hands down. Perhaps we should move to NY and set up a cheesecake restaurant and show them how it’s done! We were pretty knackered after the full day of walking around in the cold so we headed back to the hostel for an early one.
The next day we headed to Downtown Manhattan to visit the World Trade Centre memorial. The rebuilding of the site into a new office park and memorial museum is still ongoing but the main memorial has been completed and is open to the public with advance tickets. They have chosen to build two memorial pools/fountains in the footprint of the twin tours that fell on September 11th. Etched in copper around the edge of each pool is the name of every victim, not just of the towers, but also at the pentagon and from the previous terrorist bomb attack on the towers. The names have been arranged as their families requested with brothers, work colleagues and good friends placed next to each other which is nice. The plaza is full of trees and has a peaceful feeling to it despite all the construction going on around it. It makes me think about the kids who with us at Camp America who were directly affected by the attacks and wonder what they are doing these days. I wish I was allowed to keep in touch with some of them. It makes me sad to visit this place but not know the names of their parents to be able to identify them on the pools.
We wandered quietly along the waterfront afterwards down towards the Staten Island ferry. Unfortunately the Liberty Lady herself is closed at the moment due to damage from Hurricane Sandy last year so we couldn’t get off and visit but it’s a nice ferry ride anyway and is a great way to see the Manhattan Skyline (plus its free!).
Stretching our legs a bit more we walked up to, and over the famous Brooklyn Bridge. We had wanted to visit Brooklyn and check it out but it was getting pretty late in the day, really really cold and we were both getting tired and hangry so we decided it will have to wait for our next trip. Ty spotted an infamous burger and shake joint that morning and by the time we got back Uptown there was a queue along the block – at least we know its popular!!
On our last day we headed to the UN Plaza. We both read so much stuff about the UN during our development studies classes at Uni, so it was pretty cool to see where everything had been written and the big decisions made. The building looks like it hasn’t been touched since the 50’s when it was erected so it will definitely benefit from the renovations it is undergoing later this year. There were no sessions this week so we were allowed into the security council and general assembly rooms to have a look. We spent much more time at the Plaza than we meant to and so had to quickly mission it uptown to Central Park before we had to leave. It looks so different in winter with all the leaves gone from the trees and the lakes all frozen over. Still beautiful but much more barren. Central Park looks like such a permanent part of the environment I had been surprised to learn in Albany that it used to be farmland and it wasnt until 1857 that William Cullen Bryant
, and by the first American landscape architect, Andrew Jackson Downing
, began to promote the need for a central park space like Hyde Park in London. It has been designed down to the placement of the big rocks that are used in so many Hollywood movies. It is wonderful to see how it has turned from farmland into a thriving ecosystem.
Wandering through Penn Station we were stopped by two local policeman who asked whether we have visited all of the places that we have patches of on our backpacks. ‘Why yes officer’, we answer, ‘we have’. Hilariously his next comment is ‘what are you guys, some kind of environmentalists’. ‘Um, no, just interested in travelling.’ ‘Oh’ he says ‘where do you stay? Communes or something?’. ‘Ah…nope, usually hostels….’we answer, and wander away leaving him with a baffled look on his face. I mean we were looking a little tired but I didn’t think we were radiating the typical ‘hippy’ look. Classic!
Heading back to NY I was interested to see what had changed and what hadn't since I was last there, and whether I would still have the same affection for the city that I did when I last left. After travelling so many large European cities and living in London, I noticed the lack of tourist infrastructure we had come to rely on, like maps outside every tube station entrance and ‘point of interest’ boards at important places. Despite our tour guide claiming that it was the most efficient system in the world the Subway was dirty and less frequent than the service we have become accustomed to in London. New York feels like London’s ragamuffin younger brother. In a hurry, but less bussling, dirty but alluring in a bad boy kind of way. You can’t help but love it!
Next stop: Philadelphia
Boston @ night
When my friend Hannah and I were in the states about 10 years ago we spent a horrible 26 hours on a Greyhound bus, something I swore I would never do again. Unfortunately the cheapest way to get from Albany to Boston is by Greyhound but it’s only a 4 hour ride so I gave in. I was pleasantly surprised to see that Greyhound has upgraded their buses to leather seats, wifi and electric plugs. I still wouldn’t want to spend another 26 hours on one but it was much more comfortable than I thought it would be!
We went to Boston to catch up with Hanni and Dan, a couple from our Sail Croatia trip last summer, and celebrate Super Bowl Sunday with them and their friends. This year’s finalists were the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49’ers, so seeing as no-one had their team in it it was a much more casual affair, but more about that later.
We started the weekend off culturally by visiting the SOWA First Fridays event, - once a month all of the artists in a particular area open their studios, and provide drinks and nibbles to encourage the public to visit and for all the artists to network with each other. We arent probably quite as cultured as we needed to be however as one particular display of female genetalia left us in fits of giggles.
Saturday we wandered around town. Boston has a great high street shopping area called Newbury Street - all of the shops are the groundfloor of the beauttiful brownstone block buildings and it gives it a small town feel. Hanni had suggested we stop in at "Steves"; a greek restuarant which serves award winning yummy chicken, lemon and rice soup which warmed us up! Ty was really disapointed to find that the "Cheers" bar actually looks nothing like the one on the TV show and was really only the inspiration for a downstairs wooden bar.
skating on thin ice!
Ty outside Fenway Park - home of the Boston Red Sox
Warming up with a delicious cup of Greek soup
We soaked up the history of the downtown area and visited the market where they used to hold independance rallies and meetings. While it was sunny outside the bitter icy wind made us hunt out somewhere to warm up and we stumbled across this cool not for profit community cafe
, which had only opened a week prior. The concept stems from the fact that 1 in 6 americans doesnt know where their next meal is coming from and so they 'suggest' prices for the food you pay but if you cannot afford that then you pay what you can, but if you can afford to pay a little extra that donation is used to help up someone more in need.
Dan took us for a drive by and drink before dinner at Fenway Park (home of the Boston Red Sox). The stadium is really central and its crazy to see how big home runs can end up bouncing onto the motorway nearby! Boston is known for its seafood and Hanni and Dan took us to Neptunes for dinner. The place reminds us of a spanish tapas bar. With only 5 tables and seating at the bar we had a 2 hour wait for dinner but it was worth it!. They are known for their hot Lobster roll and boston clam chowder, but controversially it was a potatoe pancake with smoked trout and caviar that stole the night for me!
Superbowl Sunday finally rolled around and we spent a couple of hours prepping some delicious superbowl snacks - avocado and sundried tomatoe eggrolls, buffalo chicken and ranch eggrolls, artichoke and spinach dip plus the usual chips and dip, hummus etc and then topped it all off with absolutely to die for pulled pork that Hanni slow-cooked all day. mmmm nom nom.
drinks at the bar
It was my first ever superbowl and by the sound of it it was a pretty good one to start off with. The coaches for both teams were brothers - we noticed their parents were wearing completely neutral clothing! Personally I think they should have had those shirts that are half and half! The first half was dominated by the Ravens, but going into the start of the second half the power went out in the stadium, giving the 49ers 35 minutes to re-group and they came back firing. The game came down to the wire and could have gone either way but the Ravens were the winners on the day. We celebrated not caring who won (and Waitangi Day) with a pav for desert, which seemed to go down well with all the American's and another round of shot-ski's! fun times!
A few epic games of shit head later and Dan was crowned ultimate shithead for the weekend and then it was time to go.. time flies when you're having fun!
Next stop: New York City!!
Hanni preparing our delicious snacks
The Capitol building
Its 282 miles from London to Newcastle, which can be done in as little as 3.5 hours by train; our train from Toronto to Albany was exactly 100 miles more but the trip took us a cool 10 hours and 35 minutes. Admittedly 2 hours of this was a stop at the border between Canada and the USA where all 15 of us on board at the time had our passports checked before sitting around twiddling our thumbs waiting to get on our way again. While the border officials were in good spirits we weren't so impressed to find out we had to pay another visa fee for Christina as “oh yea, you would have done the ETSA visa verification thing online right? Yeeea…you only need to do that if you are flying into the US.” A little line on the website telling us that would have been helpful!!! But we paid already so surely that’s it sorted. “No sorry we need you to pay again. You can write to the American government and complain”. Yea, Ok. I'm sure Mr Obama is going to give me my £24 back.
People in the UK complain about the train system all the time, but I have to say, like anything, it’s not till you leave that you appreciate what you have! Despite being slow, rickety and in need of a makeover one thing the American trains do have over the English is the big wide comfy seats. It certainly made those 10 hours 35 minutes more bearable being able to curl up and not have our knees knocking into the seat in front. Our journey took us past thousands of empty crop fields and barren trees and over frozen rivers whose icebergs were starting to break apart due to the unseasonably warm winter weather of the last few days. It’s a contrast to the view that I experienced 10 years ago when I travelled through at the end of summer, when the fields were full and the trees luscious with golden foliage.
Departing from our stop in Rochester we witnessed the sadness that comes with good-byes as a man broke down at his seat as the train pulled away from the station. In a scene that could have come straight from the movies his lady-friend walking alongside the train waving and blowing kisses goodbye until she ran out of platform. I hope whatever is taking them away from each other is worth it.
Next stop was Albany aka Fort Nassau, aka Fort Orange, aka Beverwyck - the capital of New York State and the birthplace of the American Union. Despite being the capital, Albany was smaller than we thought, with a population of only 90,000 people. There’s not a huge amount to do in there, but we spent a really interesting few hours at the New York State Museum. Albany was built up as a financial centre and while the main banking quarter still exists, it is interspersed with boarded up shop windows, as businesses choose to relocate to the mega-malls on the edge of town. Random fact of the day: the modern billiard ball was created here in 1868 by John Wesley Hyatt in response to the shortage of ivory. Oh and in 1871 Albanian Seth Wheeler invented perforated toilet paper on a roll. Wey-hey Seth Wheeler!
Something we have noticed is the feeling of space. After the condensed living in the UK where houses are on top of each other, and green space is all fenced off, the houses and wide open green spaces with nobody telling you to keep off the grass feels liberating.
Getting our ‘american ears’ back on to listening to the accents and remembering how to deal with the over-enthusiastic shop assistants is taking its time. But I’ll take enthusiasm over the grumpy need-to-go-on-a-kiwi-host-course bus driver’s any day! Seriously – there is no need to be that rude!
Next stop: Boston!
The CN Tower.
On the way to Gatwick it was bucketing it down with rain - tears of sadness that we are leaving Ty reckons in his usual cheeky manner, Aww thanks England, probably not, but we are going to miss you too!
Checking my facebook status I see the following quote on a friends wall..."Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. Explore. Dream. Discover." Mark Twain
Perfect quote for a day like today!
We get to the airport, check in and wander leisurely on through to pick up the currency we ordered online, when all of a sudden Oh F**k - I cant find my eftpos card. Where could it be??? We both think back and realise the last time I used it was last night, on the couch in the lounge to order our final photo-book. A few texts to our flatmate Steph later and its found...down the back of the sofa under a cushion. bugger!! Thank goodness for Internet Banking, and the friendly lady
at the Virgin Atlantic lounge who let me use their internet to transfer money to Ty's account or the situation would have been less than ideal since all the money was in my account.and my credit card was in my checked luggage! Doh!
During our journey we flew over the snow capped peaks of Greenland which looked a surprisingly lot like sand dunes from the air. Sitting on the runway and the clouds parted giving us one final sunny view across the English countryside as we took off. During our journey we flew over the snow capped peaks of Greenland which looked a surprisingly lot like sand dunes from the air. 57,367 km and 7.5 hours later we landed in Toronto. Our first impression is its so flat!
Negotiating the Toronto public transport system was pretty straight-forward until uh-oh, another Fail! In the midst of the 1000 other things to sort out I didn't print out the map for the street we are staying in, and despite it being literally one block away from where we get off the street car, none of the locals or shop workers seem to know where it is. We eventually make our way the long way round to what should have been a 2 minute walk and are warmly welcomed by our fabulous couch surfing hosts, Marlon and Kerry. This is our first couch surfing
experience and we are a little nervous about it but thankfully there's not an axe-murderer in site! Marlon has just got back from a trip to visit his family in Jamaica and he makes us feel at home right away by feeding us some Jamaican punch and regional delicacies using his mommas special herbs and spices - delicious!
Falls, what falls?
where are they?
oh wait....there they are! (kind of)
Off to bed early to get over the jetlag and then we are up and ready to go exploring the next day, Fortunately for our wallets Toronto was covered in a thick blanket of fog which meant a trip up the (extortionately priced) CN Tower was out of the question, Fourty dollars per person - you've got to be kidding! Unfortunately for us instead of lifting the fog seemingly intensified on day three meaning our day trip to Niagara Falls was somewhat less than spectacular with Ty having to settle for fleeting glimpses of the torrent of water and use his imagination to put them all together. We should be grateful though - our local guide keeps saying its so warm this year (read: -2 degrees) - its normally -20 this time of year. The downside is torrential rain instead of snow but ah well, its all part of the experience!
Off to the USA tomorrow, after our application went AWOL last week lets hope they let us in!
A plaque at the remembrance memorial
One of the places Ty and I felt that it was important to visit during our time in Europe was the Auschwitz Concentration Camps in Poland, so during our trip around the Balkans last summer we booked a long weekend away in Krakow.
Our last trip to the continent was made much more enjoyable with Easyjet's new allocated seating programme. While its sad to think that there will be generations of kiwi backpackers to come who will never know the joy of the Easyjet seat scrum at least they've still got Ryanair!
Touching down in Krakow we managed to wangle a shuttle ride into town for the same price as the train, yay! Especially since it was snowing, the next train wasn't for another 40 minutes and the 'train station' was little more than a glorified bus shelter. We checked in to our hostel and went off to explore the city. Walking along the cobbled streets through the old town we immediately felt at ease - the central market square was bustling with what looked like the end of the Christmas markets. As often seems to happen the first stall we came across was selling cheese - but this time grilled Polish style. A warm and friendly local lady explained that the smoky sheep cheese
was grilled over hot coals in bite sized morsels and served with cranberry sauce. so delicious!
We spent a few freezing hours on Saturday doing another of the free walking tours that we have done throughout Europe - they really are the best way to see a city! Knowledge from local guides who really try to make every tour special since they work for tips . Fortunately Google's weather report for the day was wrong and we wandered round in a balmy -7 degrees, much warmer than the -17 that was predicted! However even with this piece of good fortune, 3 pairs of socks and my snow boots it still took a good hour for my toes to thaw out.
Snow gives places a white wash; like a fresh coat of paint hiding away the dirt underneath. A clean slate. Visiting Auschwitz in the depths of winter put into perspective the hardship that the inmates would have faced but at the same time the glistening white snow gave us an unexpected impression of beauty in a place of absolute terror.
The experience of visiting two of the three camps was awful but I have to admit that we were expecting it to be worse; a bit more graphic, more intense perhaps. Not that we wanted 'gore' but we had been to an exhibition in a former bunker during our time in Hungary which detailed stories of individuals and their families and I came away from there with my emotions in turmoil. I was so angry that the world had let such atrocities occur, like the international community failing to step in and stop them made it ok. The things that happened during that time were not ok. As a result of this exhibition I was feeling extremely nervous and had a sense of trepidation about our trip to Auschwitz and how I would handle my emotions.
We chose to do an organised tour, which had both positives and negatives. It was excellent to have a native polish lady showing us around (it takes 12 months of study and numerous exams in Polish to be able to register as an official guide anywhere in Poland) so I don't doubt her knowledge, however we were rushed through certain areas where I think it would have been good to linger to really let things sink in. The numbers are horrific; 1.3 million people herded onto cattle cars for journeys of up to two weeks with no food or water, under the illusion that they were going to start a wonderful new life, only to be sorted like fruit on a conveyor belt on arrival with the bad apples being sent straight for destruction. Those who were considered usable being worked and abused until they too perished or were part of the 1 million people slaughtered in the gas chambers during the few years the camps were operational. Four men being made to sleep standing up in what can only really be described as an oversized chimney and then work an 11 hours of hard labour, surviving on a mere 1200 calories per day if they were lucky. I struggled seeing the tonne of human hair, and the hundreds of suitcases, combs, shoes and other belongings, but I think that the difference between this visit and the one in Budapest was the scale. 1 million people dying is horrific, but its also so hard to relate to, where as individual stories are much easier for the brain to comprehend and empathise with. In some respects there is a lack of documentation about individuals as everyone became just a number but there were also survivors, lets hear their stories, lets use those as a vehicle to prevent these atrocities from happening again.
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it"
Despite a couple of apparent close calls somehow Tyro managed to keep the best Christmas surprise I could ask for a secret for over a month!
For years now Ive been dropping not so subtle hints about my desire to see Cirque du Soleil perform live. While there are regular performances across the European continent and a permanent Las Vegas troupe its pretty rare for them to come to New Zealand and unfortunately for me the time they chose to was very close to us immigrating to the UK so wasnt something that was in the budget. Typical then, that the time they come back to London is once again the month we pack up to head home. I had resigned myself to not-again-this-time when a Christmas card came my way which contained a note telling me to be home, ready to go in my best outfit, at 4pm SHARP on Tuesday 15th January....... Ooooo but what could it be!? Not someone known for my patience, it was extremely frustrating having to wait 3 weeks to find out what was in store. But the wait was SO worth it!
My surprise evening started with dinner at a yummy Thai restaurant in Kensington and a bottle of delish kiwi wine, but I still had no idea what the rest of the evening had in store for me. After dinner Ty said we were going for a walk. Now, I was in a pretty dress and high heels....not exactly a winter 'walking' outfit but off we went along High St Ken. I was so busy focusing on trying to ignore the blisters that were appearing on my toes by distracting myself with inane chit chat that I wasn't paying attention to where we were going, when suddenly I looked up and saw a big Kooza poster on the side of the Royal Albert Hall! Oh my gosh are we going to Cirque?!?!??! A little squeal of excitement and my blisters were all but forgotten! Yus! Stoked! Best boyfriend ever! But the suprises kept coming... We went around to our gate and were ushered to our seats - 5 rows from the front!! Wow!
Kooza tells the story of The Innocent, a melancholy loner in search of his place in the world, and is apparently a return to the origins of Cirque du Soleil. It combines two circus traditions - acrobatic performance and the art of clowning. The feeling of being at the 'circus' began from the moment we sat down with the popcorn merchants walking around and the slapstick clown giving away "Ballooooooons". When the show began however I couldn't take my eyes off the stage - come intermission I had to remind myself to shut my mouth! It was incredible! I wish we were able to take photos as some thing's really have to be seen to be believed... the bendy contortionist lady who effectively break-danced upside down had me wishing for even an eighth of her flexibility and the sultry tango dancers would have been mesmerizing enough without the man also being on a unicycle!
How someone decides that stacking 8 dining table chairs on top of each other and then performing a handstand on top of them all, or strapping their legs into a pair of stilts before being catapulted 30 feet up in the air to perform a triple somersault is a good idea is beyond me, but my heart was in my mouth the entire time!
The experience was taken to another level by the in-house band and two beautiful singers who created a luxuriously exotic atmosphere. Our slapstick clown was back in the second half displaying his true colours - a master scam artist and wiley pick pocket who would steal the jacket off your back in no time (or watch, tie, and wallet as one unsuspecting audience member found out!). While the poor guy was trying to work out what had been taken I was so preoccupied by the show that I forgot to eat the chocolates Ty had brought us to enjoy.
Dessert was supposed to follow the show but unfortunately everything was closed by the time it finished but lucky me came home to a massage. *happy sigh* what a brilliant night! now the only problem I have is working out how I'm going to trumps this next year!