The Carnival Is Over

Original posted on London to New York blog, June 22, 2010

New York, New York

WHO would have believed that arriving in Manhattan would provide something approaching a return to normality? The city that never sleeps as the place to kick back, relax and draw breath?

But after 94 days, 21 border crossings, six birthdays, two May 10ths, one rampaging bug and temperatures ranging from about minus 10 degrees C below to up in the 90s, we have arrived in New York.

And after 13 weeks living in each other’s pockets, we are having to adjust to life on our own again.

New York
End of the line – Toasting arriving in New York (well, Jersey City over the Hudson) with Phebes

Well, almost. There are still seven of us staying in the same hostel and there’ll be a select gathering in Boston at the end of the week, but numbers are gradually dwindling.

The first overland trip from London to New York is over. We are out on our own again, left to plan our own travels, our own destinations, our own futures – which, in my case, means working out just what to do next.

Don’t worry, there’s going to be no musing at length about my options (although if any travel editors or anyone looking for freelance writers stumbles across this…).

But having given non-committal answers (or long, rambling ones that don’t really address the question, depending on how many drinks have been downed) to any questions about my future over the past few months, the time is drawing near when some sort of plan emerges from the vague outline in the back of my mind.

Not yet though. For a little while longer at least, the USA is my backyard to explore.

And having gone through the rigmarole of getting an American visa, it would be churlish not to use it.

The Bean
The Chicago skyline (and me in there somewhere) reflected in The Bean

It lasts until mid-November, although the chances are the Atlantic will be crossed well before that.

But between now and then, there’s a lengthy stop in Boston to join in the July 4 celebrations, toss some tea about and cheer on the Red Sox.

After that it’s a bit sketchy, although a road trip down to Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans and, possibly, Austin, Texas, is on the cards before the coast starts calling – just haven’t worked out yet whether it is back to the east coast or head on west to spend some more time in the cities we flew through on this trip – San Francisco, Seattle and, maybe, back over the border to Vancouver.

But that’s all in the future, this blog is supposed to be reporting on what has already happened – starting with the fight to remove the smell of cheese from our laundry in the small town of New Ulm, Minnesota.

The good news is the smell appears to have gone (not that you want to unzip my laundry bag to find out), but the bad news is the impact the whole drama had.

The second wash and several cycles in the dryer to dispel any lingering cheese odour stranded Phil and myself in town long after the bus had gone back to the park.

It all meant a very pleasant, if hot, walk back through the suburbs wearing sandals which don’t really fit me properly and are more often used for short journeys to the shower or around the bus.

Buckingham Fountain
Buckingham Fountain, Chicago

The end result was that while Phil was racing the children of New Ulm to be first into the open-air pool when the lifeguard returned to duty, the huge blisters which had appeared on the soles of both feet were attracting my attention.

Just what you want when the next day’s task is to cover as much ground as possible around Chicago in little more than 12 hours and more of the sweltering temperatures which have accompanied us over the last week or so (tomorrow’s forecast, up to 96 degrees C).

Patched up and joined by Phoebe, Pam and Nick, we headed into the centre of Chicago from the suburb of Lincoln Park – via the lovely Nookies diner where Phebes and I were left debating whether that was Oscar-winning actor Adrian Brody on the adjacent table.

The rest were not much use as they had no idea who he was, but Phoebe claimed the sighting as genuine and as we split up to do our own thing, there was an extra little spring in her step.

My step was not quite so bouncy but, with the help of the open-top tour bus to eat up some of the miles, managed to cover a fair amount of ground.

Four years ago, on my first visit Chicago didn’t really rate that highly on my road trip – it was all a bit too concrete, stifling and vertical.

But its charms began to seep in a bit more this time.

John Hancock Tower
Cocktails on the 95th floor of the John Hancock Tower

Millennium Park has undergone a bit of a facelift (and provides a perfect setting for a break from sightseeing, even getting me to experience a bit of open-air opera) and the whole lake front area buzzed with activity.

A little too much activity by the Shedd Aquarium where free entry had drawn two-hour long queues which ended plans to visit what memory tells us is a must-see, but at least getting off the bus saved me from the breakdown which stranded Julie and Gerda on the top deck.

The initial four Chicago raiders reconvened on the 96th floor of the John Hancock Tower for a quick cocktail before coming down to earth or, more accurately, under it for a few rounds at the Billy Goat Tavern.

Made famous by John Belushi in a Saturday Night Live sketch and a curse on the Cubs baseball team, the bar has few frills, even fewer niceties and was once the fabled hangout of the Chicago Tribune’s sportswriters. My kind of place.

Enlivened by the tavern, we headed back uptown and, via a brewery pub and dingy blues bar we stumbled back onto the bus for another night on the road.

Canada
World’s second biggest country. Just in case you missed it.

We awoke somewhere in Austenburg Ohio for a quick breakfast in a Waffle House ahead of a complete contrast to the previous day, a lazy afternoon on the beach and swimming in Lake Erie before heading to the banks of the Allegheny River in Pennyslvania to set up camp.

It provided the base the next morning for our final bus clearance and kitchen clean before the final sprint to the finish, accompanied by a flurry of card signing and form filling as we rolled into Niagara Falls.

Having been to the Falls before and instantly impressed, the underwhelming reaction from several travelling companions a little strange, even when we’d walked over the Rainbow Bridge into Canada to get the more spectacular view of the Horseshoe Falls.

Maybe we’ve been spoiled over the past three months and have come to expect a little bit too much from places.

Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls

Don’t expect too much from the town on the Canadian side which is a neon explosion of casinos, tacky tourist traps and attractions – like Blackpool if it was modelled by Americans. Phoebe loved it.

But we did find one dive bar to belatedly toast Freddie’s 19th birthday freed from the drinking laws across the border, although what the American immigration staff thought of us as we crawled through our final border in dribs and drabs is anyone’s guess.

Somehow they let us all through and we settled down for our final night drive, waking in Jersey City on the banks of the Hudson River, complete with the classic vista of the Manhattan skyline for the obligatory end of tour pictures.

And that, pretty much, was that as the group began to fragment – some taking the ferry across to Manhattan, others riding the bus to the hostel with the bags and then heading to wherever they were staying.

Those of us who opted for the ferry, meandered our way to the hostel via a Times Square brunch and waved goodbye to Freddie – the first of the gang to leave as he jetted back home in the evening.

Times Square
Times Square marks the end of the trip

The rest of us reconvened in a Times Square bar for one last supper as more goodbyes were said.

And one by one they peeled off until, just after midnight, left alone playing darts in an Upper West Side bar with drivers Lukas and Charlie and life outside the group became a reality once more…

Share

Where Did You Sleep Last Night?

Original posted on London to New York, June 6, 2010

Arcata, California

IT has always been a mystery why scriptwriters insist on using people’s birthday recollections as ways to introduce important plot details about their past.

Countless films or television series use a major character revealing something that happened to him on their 13th birthday which has shaped the way he feels about God/clowns/Battenburg cake or the early works of Simon and Garfunkel.

Apart from the fact that it is a lazy piece of writing, it is difficult to identify with if you struggle to actually remember past birthdays.

Yes, there was the one (my 10th?) when large chunk of my front tooth was smashed out while climbing out of a swimming pool.

Happy Birthday
Happy Birthday from Phebes

And my 18th, sandwiched on the day between my sister’s wedding and my first A Level, sticks in the mind.

But very few others – even my 21st is a bit of a blur, think we might have had a barbecue in the unfinished extension – remain distinct, although  several of them (dependent on age) were definitely spent in The Brunswick or Dr Fosters in Gloucester or The City Arms or O’Neills in Cardiff.

My 40th, however, might just stick in my mind a bit longer (once various details have become clear due to pictures and the testimonies of eye witnesses).

It began sedately enough, curled up on the back of the bus in Seattle, listening to Nirvana. Yes, it is obvious, but hey, when in Rome. Or Seattle.

But let’s rewind to find out how we got from a campsite in Banff to snuggled under my sleeping bag in the shadow of the Space Needle in Seattle, listening to Kurt Cobain tear his voice to shreds.

Banff
The view down the mountain-ringed Main Street in Banff – First time I have seen it without piles of snow

Having experienced a couple of bitingly cold winters in Banff (contact lenses frozen to shades, anyone?), it has always been a place on the list to go backto  in the peak summer season and after a couple of hours wandering the familiar main streets, it certainly comes with a very different vibe.

It remains a very pretty little town, but the tourist trap feeling kept slightly in the background during the ski season comes right to the fore and smacks you in the face.

Want anything practical, or even something cold to drink without going in an expensive bar, and you are out of luck. Want a T-shirt, a cuddly moose or expensive trinket with Banff plastered all over it, your luck is in.

The Fudge Shop also needs better signing, judging by the amount of Americans who wandered along shouting “where’s the fudge shop?” to their compatriots across the street.

Via a brief stop in the ski town of Revelstoke, we hit our pre-night drive stop Kelowna, which holds more of the vibe from those previous trips to Banff, more real people in real, relaxed surroundings.

Kelowna
Waiting for a bus in Kelowna

They do, however, need to brush up on their comedy after our meal was interrupted by a comedy night which consisted of a bunch of students swapping tales which must have seemed hilarious late at night after a few ‘cigarettes’.

Originally unable to drag ourselves away from the car crash in front of us, we eventually found ourselves a comedy free pub, albeit plagued by the concoction that is Clamato Juice (yes, that really is tomato juice with added clam) poured into lager.

Phoebe’s weirdo magnet, whichattracts the more bizarre clientele of any bar over to us, kicked in again as Donald – who appeared to have been taking his cigarettes a bit too strong – explained his theories on life, the universe and coffee.

We finally crawled back onto the bus to hit the road and begin a whistle-stop tour of major west coast cities – Vancouver, Seattle and San Francisco – inside five days.

That itinerary has prompted some disquiet in the group as we were in and out of three major ports of call so quickly in favour of more time spent out in the American wilderness.

Vancouver Exchange
Not quite sure how the Scottish pound is at a different exchange rate in Vancouver

There are reasons – the sheer logistics of getting across the States for starters – and the National Parks are simply stunning and do justify the time spent there, but as we have rolled out of each city, the overwhelming feeling has been that we have not come close to seeing all it has to offer.

That was certainly the case in Vancouver where our first hostel since Anchorage provided a much-needed opportunity to catch up on some laundry.

Instead of exploring what appears to be a vibrant, fun-loving city without too many airs and graces, much of the afternoon was spent fighting for a place in the queue for the washing machines – although Nick, Mike and I did manage to get out on foot to explore Gastown (think a scruffier Greenwich Village in New York) and get lost in a shopping arcade.

We did at least get a proper night out in the city and a group of us headed out to have the curry we had promised ourselves for some time.

Vancouver
Let off the leash for the first time in a few nights in Vancouver. Chaos inevitable.

Not sure it was worth the wait, but a fun evening was had in a local bar amid the randoms.

But far too soon, certainly far too early, the next morning we were back on the road to Seattle and our final major border crossing.

Remarkably, most of our border crossings have gone very smoothly and this was no great delay, but there was a slight anxious moment as the border guard asked for a few documents not to hand (return flight details for starters) and being the only one on the bus with a full US visa became a handicap.

It wasn’t a major problem, in the end she got fed up and waved me through, but if anyone from US Immigration does stumble across this, perhaps your different offices should get their heads together.

What they said at the US Embassy in London was at odds with what they came up with when on arrival at Whittier (when they were convinced the visa in my passport was specifically for preachers), which was all completely different from what they wanted heading into the Lower 48.

USA Border
Welcome to America – The not altogether welcoming border at Seattle

There’s no return flight because there’s no return date. There’s no return date because, until actually in the US, there’s no way of knowing 100 per cent how long they would allow in the country, whatever it said on the visa. London, and all guidebooks and expert advice, said one thing. At the border into Washington, they said another.

Having reached Seattle, we parked up under the Space Needle, caught the monorail into town and wandered around Pike Street Market, which even a confirmed non-shopper like me could have wasted hours in.

But the high spot of the last day of my 40th year was our evening trip to Safeco Stadium for baseball.

It was, to be honest, a pretty awful match. Seattle Mariners are fairly dreadful and the LA Angels are not, waltzing away with a 7-1 win which was never really in doubt.

Baseball
The starting line-up at the baseball in Seattle – Guy in front less than happy at beer spillage over his son

But a good time was had by all as the cold descended, including confirmed non-sports fan Phoebe who was less than impressed that her giant bag of popcorn was sweet and not salted.

And so my 40th year came to an end, back on the bus listening to Nirvana – my actual birthday managing to span three states as we crossed out of Washington overnight, breakfasted in Oregon and careered into California and the Redwood National Park.

Having trekked into the trees in the afternoon and spent much of the day chilling out, we headed into the town of Arcata in Humboldt County – the acknowledged pot capital of the USA – for birthday shenanigans.

After a bit of a false start via the only quietish pub in town, we stumbled into a rammed dive bar off the town square and it all began to get a bit hazy.

Space Needle
Space Needle, Seattle

There was Guinness, tequila, Jager-bombs and other alcoholic delights passed my way. They were downed. After that, details are hazy.

As with the previous birthday party on this trip, there were repercussions, but more of that next time, when we’ve worked out exactly what happened.

Share

Teach Yourself Overland

Originally posted in London to New York blog, June 5, 2010

APOLOGIES for the lack of updates in the last week, but there has been very little chance to write or file copy as we careered south through Canada and into the United States.

Normal service should be resumed in the next few days, but until then here’s the Unofficial Abridged Overland Dictionary – designed to provide outsiders (see Randoms) with the slightest idea of what we are talking about when they bump into us.

200 metres – Measurement used by Phil to describe the distance from the bus. New Zealand metres are obviously a lot longer as the walk, laden down by gear, is invariably considerably further than 200 metres. 

Bag Explosion – The phenomenon which ensures that, however hard you try to keep your stuff together on the bus, your belongings will end up scattered all over the place, including ones you have never been (see Phebes; see Tortoise Orbit). 

Bag Party – The long-awaited moment when everybody’s main bags are unloaded from the luggage hold to give full access to the stuff you only think you need. Some will not wait for the party and take every opportunity to get their stuff out (see The Oirish). 

Bear – Creatures we have either been trying to avoid or desperate to see (depending on whether we have been out walking or on the bus). Or large, bearded Kiwi. 

Bear Bells – Worn by hikers on their bags to scare off bears – or to irritate their fellow travellers. The same walkers are also likely to carry pepper spray to ward off bears. Local joke is that you can tell black bear pooh because it is full of fruit and gopher fur. Brown bear pooh is lined with bells and pepper spray. 

Bear Bin – Secure metal bin used to store food when camping to prevent Yogi and his mates getting at food. Anything that smells must be kept in the bin when not in use (that’s toiletries and stuff, not my socks, a pair of which were forcibly wedged outside the window in Anchorage). Failure to do so can end in death – either for a camper who has attracted a bear into camp or for Yogi as bears who get the taste for human food are routinely shot. We received a slap on the wrist from Mr Ranger, Sir, for leaving out beer cans. 

Bigger Than Jesus – Nickname for Marlo, the world’s coolest man (inevitably shortened to Jesus). 

Buddy Check – System which ensures everybody is on the bus before we head off. I have to check Mike and Marlo are on board. Nick cheated and picked Phil (tour leader) and Matty (the driver) as we ain’t going anywhere without them. Not sure who, if anybody, is checking I am there. 

Clam – Officially, a type of sea creature used to make a Canadian drink called Clamato Juice (inexplicably drunk by Phil in a pint of lager). Unofficially, schoolboy sexual innuendo.

Crème Brulee – To be said in as posh an accent and loud a voice as one can manage (think Kenneth Williams crossed with Stephen Fry). Ordered by Freddie in such a voice in restaurant in Juneau, just before he got hit by the stomach bug (see What the bloody hell is going on?; see Rothschild). 

Cubby Hole – Only sleeping place on the bus which will not result in somebody standing or leaning on you during a night drive. Underneath the two tables halfway down the bus, originally thought to be dark and uncomfortable, now much sought after.

Cwtchy Coo – One of several contributions from the ‘Welsh’ contingent. In its simplest term, a description of a pretty young lady. In more vulgar form, a description of what would happen if any of us were to get together with said young lady.

Day Bag – Small bags containing essentials, designed to prevent constant raiding of the luggage hold. Supposedly the only things we have on the bus with us. Yeah, right.

Dippy Eggs – Fried eggs with enough runny yolk to dip bread into. Americans would call them Sunny Side Up, although runny yolk should also be available from eggs cooked Over Easy.

Drunken – Early nickname for Duncan, possibly deriving from slip of the tongue. Stuck because it was strangely apt.

Drunken Lords – Early description via Google translate from Spanish to English of Mike, Nick and I on Enrique’s blog. Not sure if the Spanish version is more or less polite about us.

Frangipani – Much-hyped hair treatment at the spa during the cruise. Or nickname for Fran. Not sure how we managed to have a nickname three syllables longer than her actual name. 

Fuck No – Phrase beloved of original driver Martins on the rare occasions when he a) spoke; b) joined us for a few drinks (see Fuck Yes; see Marius). 

Fuck Yes – Companion phrase for Fuck No uttered by Martins (not to be confused with its unofficial brother fuck yeah, which he never said) (see Fuck No; see Marius). 

Green Tortoise – Our transport throughout Canada and the USA and bed for much of the last five weeks. Company formed in 1973 so do not believe any passing hippy who wanders up and says: “Oh man, I rode the Tortoise back in the 60s…” 

Growler – Evidently some form of beer container belonging to Jane which has gone missing on the Green Tortoise. Her constant pleading of “has anyone seen my growler?” met with schoolboy sniggering. 

Has anyone seen…? (also Where’s my….?; also Have you got my passport/wallet/camera/hairbrush?) – Plaintive plea from Phoebe as she attempts to find whichever item of hers has joined the list of her belongings which have been strewn around the bus (see Bag Explosion; see Tortoise Orbit). Followed by looks to Phil, Nick or me to see which of us she entrusted said item to sometime in the last 24 hours. 

Kenny Thomas (abbreviation, Kenny) – Named after obscure singer Kenny Thomas’ solitary hit single Outstanding and used when something (see Dippy Egg) has reached that level. Quite possibly Nick Machin’s finest contribution to the English language (only serious competition coming from Dippy Egg). 

Juggasoraus Rex – Direct steal from The Inbetweeners. Best used to describe when Pam’s cleavage almost caused me to go blind in Vancouver. 

Legal Team – General threat from Freddie, first issued on the Trans-Siberian, to get a high-powered legal team onto us when we were winding him up about plans for his birthday. Only served to make us even worse. Actual legal team believed to be at other end of phone ahead of Freddie’s birthday in Chicago. 

Marius – Alter ego of original driver Martins on the rare occasions when he was able to join us for a few drinks (see Fuck No; see Fuck Yes) and the day after when he was even less capable of speech than normal. 

Night Drive – Form of transport used to get us from one place to the next overnight. First on board should take the beds at the back and work towards the front, leaving the stragglers to fall into bed at the front. At least, that’s what’s supposed to happen. When we are all on board, Matty (or his successors) head to the wheel, start rolling and await the first request for a toilet stop (normally within the first half hour). 

Ongaru – Ancient, mystical term originally thought to derive from West Wales. Shouted as term of encouragement or pleading for somebody to get on with something. Also worked, albeit just the once, to summon a waiter on the Diamond Princess. 

On Top – One of the least popular sleeping berths (except, strangely, with Mike and Nick) on the luggage racks of the Green Tortoise. Comes with unexpected bonus of being groped in the darkness as people search for bags they thought were on that bunk. 

Phebes – What Phoebe officially likes to be called (see Phoebe Kate; see Puggle; see Skanky Weasel). 

Phoebe Kate – One of the things Phoebe is actually called (see Phebes; see Puggle; see Skanky Weasel).

Puggle – A baby echidna (small, spiky, Australian creature). As revealed by Phoebe (small, spiky, Australian creature) in bus quiz in the opening two days, hence earning herself a nickname which has stuck for the rest of the trip (see Phoebe Kate; see Phebes; see Skanky Weasel). 

Randoms – Name given to all outsiders. We may communicate with them, but they will never understand. They weren’t there maaaaan… 

Red Lines – Dangerous shot consisting of tequila, Tabasco and vodka and featuring a red line halfway down the glass as fed to Mike in Vilnius by a strange Icelandic bloke. Resulted in Mike losing much of the next day. 

Rothschild – High-class wine. Entire group left in suspense when Freddie did not attend second wine tasting session on Diamond Princess to find out the answer to the burning question of the entire trip: “How are they going to deal with the Rothschild?”. 

Roy – Strangled shout, initially issued by Mike, as a tribute to former Republic of Ireland manager Jackie Charlton’s summoning of midfielder Roy Keane. In no context to be confused with anybody else of the same name (see Soy). 

Shitfight – Phil’s term for anything that involves a lot of people attempting to do the same thing in a limited space or length of time (used often when loading/unloading bags, entering hostels or – at its best – when boarding a train in Moscow). 

Skanky Weasel – Yet another nickname given to Phoebe after four days on the Trans-Siberian Railway with no access to a shower and limited range of washing facilities. Variation: Cranky Weasel 

Soy –Variation of Roy in restaurants in China (see Roy). 

Terrible – Mike’s verdict on any act or phrase which he deems inappropriate. Most often used after something he has done or said himself. Often followed with the phrase: “I think I may have got away with it”. 

Thank you my friend – Term of address used by Mike. The rest of us were using it without realising within days. 

The Oirish – Easy catch-all name for Leila and Dave. Find one, the other is not normally far away. 

Tortoise Orbit – The strange void into which belongings vanish on the Green Tortoise, only to turn up (hopefully) in a completely different spot from when they were last seen (see Bag Explosion; see Phebes). 

What the bloody hell is going on? – To be said in the poshest possible voice (as only normally heard in an episode of Jeeves and Wooster) when woken during the night on the boat by rolling into the wall (see Crème Brulee; see Legal Team; see Rothschild). Late variation: What the fuck? – Used when Freddie was prodded in the arse while asleep in Vancouver, accompanied by leap and full turn in the air. 

Whiffy – Spanish for Wi-fi. Invariably Enrique’s first question when we arrive at a new destination (see Wi-fi). 

Wi-fi – As much as there may be plenty of sights to see and experience in our new destination, the one thing guaranteed to get half the bus excited is the presence of wi-fi access. Laptops are reached for far quicker than maps, guide books and cameras (see Whiffy). 

Wow moment – The times that make going without showers, changing clothes or much sleep worthwhile and the reason we are all doing this in the first place. 

Share