Saturday, December 1, 2012

"Like In Your Country!"

Leaving New Orleans late afternoon we faced a good few hours drive to Montgomery, Alabama for a stop for the night. I was keen to stop in Alabama as the state fascinated me (don’t ask why!), and I was keen to see if its like the stereotype. The journey wasn't the longest we had done, but had its moments of fun (if that can be the word used), driving up through a another tropical storm, causing torrential rain to come down, causing traffic to come to all of a stop and visibility to like a few meters. However, getting through it and into Montgomery, we arrived at a random motel on the city outskirts late that evening, just in time to see one very sketchy couple rock up and ask for the most expensive room in the place (apparently it had a hot tub in it…). We just crashed...

Driving through the storm
The reason for stopping in Montgomery of all places was due to it being a logical stopping place in terms of getting back to NC, and because I had found online a museum which displayed the history of the South and numerous buildings that were a common design in the past. The next morning we set off early-ish – in part so we could get going at a decent time to NC, but also because of the humidity in Alabama (similar to Louisiana if I’m honest – how anyone lives in that sort of weather seriously astounds me!). After a slight issue of trying to find the damn place, we had to be buzzed into the reception building to pay our dues to wander around the museum. From there we were free to wander around the two blocks of buildings that were across the road. It wasn’t a bad little place actually. It was obvious a lot of care and thought had been put into the way it was layed out, with work buildings together etc, and a few staff members in period costume wondering around answering questions and telling stories. And playing music in one guys case which was pretty cool. 

One of the pioneer houses
A good few hours were spent wandering around the museum, including a very detailed tour of a plantation owners house by an elderly lady. This tour was quite unique as for one when she realised I was from Britain (or Eng-er-land as she put it), she kept comparing things that the plantation owner family would do to what (in her eyes) of British people did. The one comparison that made me nearly fail to keep a straight face was a story about how the wife would take tea with her friends at 4 o’clock. Alright, fair enough… Except for the fact that she then turned, looked me directly in the eye and said “Like in your country”. I had to rapidly look away to avoid laughing in her face… Although really interesting element to the tour was the two other ladies who were with us. They were pretty unremarkable ladies, both middle aged nursery school teachers. The only real difference between them was one was white and the other was black. Now normally this wouldn’t even be mentionable – I mean who cares? But in this instance with the elderly tour guide I was witness to an interesting social situation. The white teacher joined us first (the other was looking after the kids who had come on a trip) and there was nothing out of the ordinary, with the guide taking us around the house, making eye contact and chatting away to the three of us. Then the teachers swapped roles and the black teacher joined us on the tour. This was where it became interesting. The tour guide continued to chat away to me and Lindsay as we walked around the house, however she did not make one comment or even look in the same direction as the black teacher. It was like this woman wasn’t even there. I guess in certain generations segregation is still an issue. Not really sure why I was surprised at it, but I was! 


Leaving Montgomery we faced a rather long drive straight back to Chapel Hill. Made longer by the fact we couldn’t find a damn open place to get some lunch. Or the interstate…. The plan was to power straight through stopping to change drivers. And buy fireworks. Obviously… The buying of fireworks is illegal in North Carolina, but legal in South Carolina (yeah work that one out…) so on the state border there are massive firework warehouses trying to outsell each other. So we pulled into one and spent quite a while trying to get our best bang for the buck (get it?!). This took a lot longer than it should have due to the muppet on the till not having a clue about my British ID despite me pointing it all out to him. Fireworks purchased however we got back on the road North, stopping for dinner at Cook Out (missed it on my travels!), arriving back late into Chapel Hill. 

Our firework hoard
Alabama was an interesting place for sure, and I am glad to have had a chance to stop there, however brief it was. Along our travels (I can’t remember quite when now!) we also stopped for dinner at Crackerbarrel, which is like a centre of all things southern (ALL things southern!). The food was great – deep fried with not much else! The best part of it all was the shop part of the place, of which to note was the t-shirt section. To say these t-shirts were a bit patriotic is a massive understatement. They were hilariously cringey. Gotta love Americans! 

Man, I look so damn American!

Jazzing it up. New Orleans style

Leaving Crystal River it was another 9 hour drive west to New Orleans. Pushing the speed limit meant the time was cut, but it was still a hell of a time sat in a car! The journey passed by with the usual sing-a-longs (although with Lindsay controlling the music at times meant I had no idea at some of the songs being played!), Max Tucker stories (always a giggle) and Radio Lab shows. We hit the outskirts of New Orleans well after dark, and having a few mares with the Sat Nav we eventually found our way to the hotel we were staying in (courtesy of Lindsay’s parents – very grateful!) and then had another mare with trying to find a parking space. Typical! Eventually getting sorted and into the room (which was rather nice I must say!) it was a quick lie down, shower and change and out into the French Quarter to make the most of the short time we had in the city. Wandering around and getting hungry (well I was) we dived into a Mexican place for some food and a bit of a look at some maps and tourist information and the headed towards Bourbon Street.
Bourbon Street is THE party street of New Orleans. Right in the middle of the French Quarter (which is the fancy French looking part of touristy New Orleans) its packed full of clubs, bars, neon lights and revellers. The atmosphere was fantastic. Having a bit of a wonder around we came across a nice little jazz place set into a courtyard towards the top of Bourbon Street and sat down for a Hurricane drink – the archetypical drink of New Orleans. The jazz was really good, and the place was busy but having arrived so late we only heard a few songs before the band ended. Not a massive drama with so many other places on offer, so we picked up our drinks and wondered out onto the street. Bourbon Street area was similar to Key West in the sense that you could wander around on the street with an alcoholic drink in hand. Perfect!

Sunset on the way into New Orleans
Bourbon Street

Jazz band
Chilling with the home boys

Wandering down the street, mingling with the rather wasted tourists we stopped in a couple of different places, some jazz and blues focused, others more mainstream. We found a cool little jazz club towards the other end of Bourbon Street from the first place we were in, which was quite pricy for drinks ($7-8 a pint) but the jazz music flowing out from the door sounded amazing, and the place was small and very intimate for a music venue. Going in we were seated right down the front (perfect!) and ended up staying for a good while jigging to the music and drinking more expensive beer than should have! Leaving the place we both were feeling the effects of the long hours travelling in the day, and so headed back to the hotel room. Well, I was heading back to the hotel room. Lindsay had decided point blank it was the other way, and no amount of logical explanation involving a map could persuade her otherwise. Women, eh?!

Awesome jazz/swing band
The next morning was tourist time. Having had a lovely lie in and thus missing the complimentary breakfast (turns out it was all worth it anyways), we spent a good half hour chatting to the hotel tour guide person, and then headed out into town. Having missed breakfast we went for the brunch option, and chanced the most amazing breakfast/lunch place in the French Quarter. I cant remember its name, but it proclaimed to be world renowned for its Po’Boys (a type of sandwich/baguette style edible thing. If that makes it clear at all…). So obviously I had to have one. And my god it was good! The place was rammed as we left too – guess it was renowned then! The day was spent wandering around the French Quarter, which truly is a beautiful area. Although, with New Orleans being below the water line and therefore doesn’t have great drainage, the place did smell. Not like a gagging foul smell, but certainly a noticeable smell that made one wrinkle their nose on occasion. It was also INCREDABLY hot and humid. I mean INCREDABLY. We had to keep stopping every so often for a drink and sit down! Although this was no hardship as there were plenty of little stalls and cafes with live jazz being played, and local delicacies on offer, so I was more than happy with that! 

Out and about in the French Quarter
Another part of the French Quarter
Being  a muppet. As usual!
Love this sign!
That evening the tourist lady-person had booked us a table at a fancy-cum-traditional New Orleanian restaurant nearby. Creole food – which is eaten in New Orleans and Louisianna – is an interesting mix between French, American and some other styles. Needless to say I was very keen to get stuck in and try some different things, going for some rabbit. I also had an incredibly nice Hurricane drink, which was way better than the one the night before. But also like 3 times the price… The meal was incredible and very satisfying – in true American style there was loads of it; neither Lindsay or I could finish it all! Leaving with rather large food babys and light wallets we managed to burn it off walking across the Quarter to the start of the Ghost Tour. As we got to the meeting place we were treated to the sight of a wedding procession coming down the street towards us – the full on New Orleans experience of brass band, everyone dancing and having a right old jolly and colour everywhere. It had been something I wanted to see but wasn’t expecting and I was incredibly excited to see the procession. Much to Lindsay’s amusement!

Wedding march procession

 New Orleans is one of the most haunted cities in the world – due in part to a huge fire that ripped through the city in 1788, but also has some crazy stories of residents considered to be witches and vampires. Hence why we wanted to go on a Ghost Tour. It was a fair sized group lead by a guide (obviously) who had many interesting and entertaining stories about various places we passed. He would keep saying that if you took a photo of a building you could see the ‘orbs’ of the spirits who died there. I was sceptical, but did it anyways and got a few orbs on the photos. I then later read that these can be attributed to dust particles. Ah well, good activity for the guide to keep everyone’s attention I guess! The tour lasted a good few hours as it got dark. The French Quarter was really cool in the dark, with many of the old lamps still in place, giving the whole area a Victorian street feel in the dusk. I would highly recommend doing a ghost tour whilst in New Orleans – it was really good! And money well spent (of course!). Although Lindsay did later in the evening get incredibly freaked out about ghosts in the hotel room. Which wasn’t completely unfounded as it was an incredibly old hotel, and out room was on the end of the building. No drama, except the floor was the old school wooden floors that you can hear creak every time someone walks over them. And we could hear footsteps and creaking outside of the room on the side facing out onto the street. Freaky indeed…

Haunted house
And with supposed spirits floating around (the white spheres)

Anyways, leaving the Ghost Tour we heading out of the French Quarter for the evening, down to Frenchmen Street, which is renowned for more progressive jazz and music. Despite it being a Sunday night it was buzzing there, with jazz coming at you from all angles from the open doors of the jazz clubs and venues. Going in and out of a few different places – some big clubs and other tiny tiny bars - I was blown away at the quality of music being played on stage. Some bands had only three musicians, others in excess of 10. Yet all of them seemed to give their all on stage, dancing around and playing fast and furiously, sweat dripping of all of them. It was simply amazing to watch and you could feel yourself being drawn in by their vibe. My only complaint of it all was the bizarre policy of some places of ID-ing on the door (sometimes a right pain with a British ID) and then getting ID again at the bar. Minor complain though to be honest! We hung out in the various venues for a good few hours, but with the hardcore day wandering around the French Quarter we were both knackered and headed back to the hotel at the New Orleans early hour of 1.30am. This in itself was an awesome journey as we got a taxi back, and the taxi driver was a total legend telling us about his three kids who “one is a doctor and one an engineer”. Obviously the third was the black sheep then!
The next morning we made the most of the last few hours of being in New Orleans. Lindsay wanted to look around a pharmacy museum that had be walked past on the Ghost Tour the night before, but unfortunately getting there we found it closed. Instead we grabbed some lunch on Bourbon Street (me having some rather nice Jambalaya which is another Creole dish) and wandered across the Quarter to a voodoo temple which I was keen to see.  New Orleans is renowned for its links with Voodoo-ism, as is the Creole culture. But what I didn’t know is the links Voodoo has with the Christian Church from the slaves brought over wanting to maintain links to their traditional ways of life. 

Anyways, the temple wasn’t anything like I was expecting. It wasn’t dark and dingy with satanic symbols and red everywhere. Instead it was quite a normal shop, selling normal christian related things, and the priestess in there was incredibly interesting to talk to (when I could understand her that is!). It really was an interesting experience to go to the temple and see what voodoo was all about. Having said that, I think we had gone to a more ‘mainstream/normal’ place as a voodoo shop we had gone into the previous day was very different, although the basic idea was very similar. It was an interesting thing to go and try and gain some perspective of however, especially with the huge association voodoo has in New Orleans.

New Orleans is one mental place, but I loved it there. It is completely different to any other USA city I had visited, and seemed to revel in the fact it was such a different place. The two nights spent there just weren’t enough – I could have easily spent a whole week there and then some! It was definitely one of my favourite cities I have been too, and I am so glad I managed to get there – also thanks to Lindsay for joining me (and keeping me out of trouble!) and bringing the car!

Looking down the row of tombs in the garden district
As be left New Orleans, there was time for a quick stop in the Garden District where some incredibly nice houses were located, and a poke around the cemeteries around there, which again New Orleans is known for with the huge ornate tombs. Then we had one last stop at a touristy shop for some Mardi Gras beads (which one has to get when ones there!) and then it was time to hit the road to head back to North Carolina. Via that Deep South state made infamous by Top Gear….

Monday, October 8, 2012

Sun, Sea and a Hell-of-a-Lot-of-Driving

Before I had left Chapel Hill to go on the road trip, Lindsay and I had the idea of heading down to New Orleans for a few days, as I was bummed about not being able to make it there during said road trip, and Lindsay hadn’t been for years. The plan was to drive down on the Sunday (14 hour journey-no biggie), then stay a few days and make our way back to Chapel Hill over a few days calling in at a few places in Mississippi and Alabama. I was keen to see the Deep South you see… Anyways, this didn’t work out as due to a family issue, Lindsay needed to head down to Key West. And as this clashed with our planned trip she asked me to come along so it wouldn’t be a complete waste. Gulp…. By all means I was happy to go down to Key West, having never been there, or Florida in my time in the states, but meeting the whole family in the process? Preeeeety nerve racking!

Luckily, Lindsay’s cousin Nick and his girlfriend Jess (who I had met before) were heading down too which was good, and we were picking up Nicks brother Chris on the way, so I wasn’t thrown completely into the deep end. Leaving around 3pm on the Friday we faced a long old journey – 16 hour drive in fact – to the southernmost point of the continental USA. Lindsay and I riding in her car (as we were still hoping on visiting New Orleans on the way back up to Chapel Hill. Just a casual 17 hour detour. Again, no biggie there!), and Nick, Jess and Chris in the other. Which provided no end of amusement trying to wind each other by driving passing each other in an incredibly safe and confident manner with music at acceptable levels. Obviously…

The drive itself was pretty non-descriptive. The interstates do get pretty monotonous, and the time was passed through music sing-along’s, deep discussions on various pointless things, gas stops and me getting overly excited about passing through South Carolina. Yeah, really… The drive continued into the small hours of the morning, with a stop at a hotel near Jackson for some sleep, before continuing onwards towards Key West the next morning. Key West is the furthest of a chain of islands off the Southern coast of Florida, and so the last three hours of the drive was on relatively slower highways over all of the Keys. I would say it was a beautiful drive in which I could see the Keys in all of their amazing beauty, and the clear water reflecting the sky. But I couldn’t. Because tropical storm Debbie was moving in as we approached the Keys. Which we then had to drive through. Which wasn’t so bad for me, as I got all Geography geek-y and found it really cool with the cloud formations and lightening and torrential rain. Lindsay (who was driving at the time) didn’t so much…

Airing the feet
Driving towards Tropical Storm Debbie
The clouds building
Inside the Storm
 Key West is a very hot and humid place. But beautiful. When the storm had passed you could see the beauty of the place – palm trees everywhere, clear blue skies and crystal clear water. We stayed down there for 6 days, sleeping on an airbed in a rented apartment by another family member (Nick Jess and Chris got the sofa beds the lucky buggers…).  The island felt to me just like one of the Med Islands such as Zante and Cos, except a lot more humid, and the night life was very different was the ridiculousness of those places. Seeing as everyone in Key West is over 21, and the majority of people were cruise boat holiday-ers (Key West has a huge port where a lot of cruise boats dock for a night or two), so not quite as mental as the Med, but a similar feel. The biggest thing about Key West is the ability to drink on the streets – unheard of anywhere else I’ve been to in the USA before. Having said that, the place had the usual mix of Cuban/American/Irish places and a lively atmosphere to go with it, which is always good!

Being a complete muppet as usual...
Outside of the family events going on (which I will gloss over in respect of Lindsay’s family, and also because I found it rather awkward being there at those times), it was just like being on holiday and we packed quite a lot into the week. Obviously there were a couple of compulsory nights out, the first being soon after arriving at Key West. Deval Street is the main party strip on the island, stretching a good mile and half, packed full of bars, clubs, tourist trap shops and lots and lots of drunk tourists. As Jess and I hadn’t been there before the other three acted as our guides, visiting a number of usual Key West spots for them. Hogs Breath was the first, a dive bar right at the top of the strip, known for its tradition of t-shirt buying from the place (which apparently has caused accusation of the bar owner trying to take over the world. Riiight….). The place was classically dive bar-esk, and I loved the place. Especially with the Hogs butt on the wall in the style that deer heads are shown. Classic! From there we headed down the strip visiting Sloppy Joes (for a Sloppy Joe drink, no idea what was in it but it was strong!), an Irish place with the worst singer/musician ever, and a couple of others winding up in a small bar mid-way down the strip, rather merry and having a good time. It was a great evening with the other 4, only spoilt by being ripped off by the cab driver on the way back to the apartment. 

Chris, Nick, Jess, Me and Lindsay

Hogs Breath

Sloppy Joes
We were also complete tourists (because you’ve got to when you go somewhere!) and visited the huge concrete buoy that marks the southern-most point of the continental USA. Aparently this is a big thing, and there were scores of people hanging around taking pictures next to the buoy. All very nice and dandy you think. Except with Tropical Storm Debbie having passed by, huge waves were crashing against the sea wall behind the buoy, soaking anyone going for a picture and thoroughly amusing me with the screams at being soaked. Though I guess karma came around when on my turn I got soaked too. Typical… A couple of evenings we visited the Warf, where crowds throng the place and lots of street performers perform and local artists sell their wares. The first time we went on mass we had just got there and suddenly the heavens opened and a storm unleashed itself upon the place causing everyone to scurry for cover. No worries, it being Lindsay’s stepdads birthday we just went to the nearest bar. Standard! The next time was a much greater success, with a beautiful sunset lowering over the water, and a great atmosphere in the air. There was a cracking entertainer (if that’s the right word), who would sit on his box disguised behind tall reeds. Waiting until some poor unsuspecting tourist walked past he would jump up and out of the reeds, causing the poor person to usually scream with terror. This was executed perfectly to Lindsay’s sister (who having been to Key West on many occasions should probably have known what was going to happen) who emitted the loudest scream I’ve heard in a long time, causing everyone to look round at the source of the commotion. Everyone was in hysterics for quite a while!

The waves from Tropical Storm Debbie

Southernmost point of Continental USA

The flooded street from the waves

Wandering down Deval Street

The pool where we were staying
The crazy jump-out-at-people guy

Nick, Jess, Lindsay and I also visited the Butterfly Sanctuary at the bottom of Deval Street for some sophistication in the morning. It was pretty cool with all these butterflies flying around everywhere and landing on people. Think I spoilt it all a bit by acting like a monkey for a lot of the time though… Afterwards we wandered off the main strip to an amazing crepe place for lunch. I mean these crepes were phenomenal! 

In the butterfly santurary
Being a muppet. As usual...
Wandering down to the Crepery
The four of us also (on Lindsay’s insistence) went to a drag show one evening. Yes, you read right, a drag show. Now I had been to a drag show in Chapel Hill (Fierce Thursdays in what was the Lodge), so I sort of thought I knoew what to expect (I hasten to add that it was a mistake going in there, and even John who usually loves outrageous things felt uncomfortable in there!) . Except going into this drag show it wasn’t what I thought it would be at all. There was one main host/hostess (whatever gender they want to be) and three other performers. Ironically enough one of them was the one I had seen in the Lodge before. A scary man/woman if I had ever seen one! Once I had gotten over my initial nerviousness at what was in store for the show (seeing as we were in the gay quarter of Deval Street), the actuall show was quite good and enjoyable. The three acts took turns to perform (some waaaaay more outrageous than others involving the suggested usages of various sex toys), plus the host (-ess?) doing a few numbers. The highlight song was definitely on about chopping of a penis to make a ‘snatch’, which had most in histerics, along with the host consistently picking on people at the front of the crowd (we hung back) in order to try and make them as uncomfortable as possible. One thing I couldn’t get around was the constant stream of people going up to the stage to thrust a dollar bill at which ever act was performing at the time, only to be shown a bit of leg or chest. Not really sure what that was all about! T’was an interesting experience indeed, not being one to turn down new things like that! And I think Lindsay enjoyed it (she better bloody had dragging us all there!).

Drag Show!
The four of us inside
The drag queen host(ess?)
Some poor bloke getting picked on!
Quite nicely, the time spent in Key West wasn’t all charging around doing and seeing things like most places I had been to in the States trying to make the most of the time I had there. We spent a couple of afternoons chilling on the beach (almost unheard of for me!). The first beach we went to was just the four of us again, and the beach itself was beautiful with golden sands, however due to Tropical Storm Debbie the water was churned up and pretty minging. So much so that swimming out to the end of the swimming area was a bit of an ordeal with no one wanting to put their feet down on account of the thick sludge at the bottom of the water. It was minging, although me and Nick found the girls hysterics rather amusing! The next time was a few days later to the other side of the Island with the extended family. The beach was definitely more touristy, but much nicer and more cruicially crystal clear water – just what I was expecting from Key West! Most of the time was spent mucking around in the water, with Nick Jess and I snorkeling (seeing quite a few fish and some rays!) and Lindsay and the cousins trying to drown us (bloody kids…). I also found it quite funny watching the parents try and get round the stringent no drinking laws in force in state parks (as the beach was set in) by sneaking glances around for any rangers then subtly trying to down a can of beer without being seen. In the USA even the adults have to act like kids at times!

The beach

Pointing to London (just)

Jess and Nick on Dans boat (we werent able to take it out unfortunately)
We spent around 6 days in Key West, and great days they were too. Key West is a beautiful part of the world and very different to any where in the States I had been to previously. I’m so glad I got an opportunity to go down there (despite the circumstances) and am incredibly grateful to Lindsay’s family for allowing me to join them and treat me like one of their own (notably Gillian who basically treated me like a big brother- abuse and all!).

 Leaving Key West it was just Lindsay and myself on the long arse journey up to New Orleans. And my god was it a long way! Driving on an interstate is pretty boring. Driving for 10+ hours on an interstate is just damn tedious. We broke the tedium through sing-a-longs, listening to RadioLab (incredibly interesting – highly recommended listen!), reading Tucker Max (hilarious!) and generally winding each other up. As you do…

The drive was broken up by a few stops, in Miami and Crystal River, FL. Miami was just as I imagined it to be, art deco, bikini clad girls and guys who had obviously been shooting steroids into their eyes. After a short drive down Ocean Blvd we struggled to find a place to park (it was a total nightmare! Especially with the American law of not being able to park across the road from the direction you’re travelling in) and then wandered up along the strip to a little diner for a bite to eat. Lindsay saw a dress in a shop window that she ‘absolutely loved’, and so after a bit of banter she went in to find the cost of it. Near $1000. She walked back out pretty quickly… Unfortunately due to having to press on to reach Crystal River that night (which was the otherside and way north on the Florida peninsula) we weren’t able to stay in Miami long. Which was a shame because I really liked the place. All steroids and macho men included.

Driving to Miami

On the beach

Art Deco

We arrived at Crystal River late in the evening, and spent the night in some random motel we had trouble finding. About typical. The woman  behind the desk seemed surprised at our dual nationality military ID’s, but we got the reduced rate which saved us a few bob! The next morning Lindsay had found this cool place where you could tube down the river in an inflatable rubber ring type thing. The actual centre was packed – it being the a Saturday in the summer holidays – with high school kids, and it looked like charge of the light brigade with everyone jumping off the train/trailer thingy which drove us up river, grabbing a rubber dingy and legging it to the river. Kids eh… As it was the river was freeeeezing (compared to the humidity of the Florida weather), but it was incredibly pleasant floating down the river at a proper leisurely rate watching the really nice houses go past. After I had finished panicking about Gators (no seriously I was terrified of coming across one despite the fact that everyone on the river was in a rubber ring!) I really enjoyed laying back in the sun and letting the river take me down stream. Stopping off to climb a tree and swing off (as you do!) it took us a few hours to get down the river, which whilst i didn't want it to end, my shoulders probably did with the sun exposure they got! (Unfortunately there aren't any pictures of Crystal River as I didn't take my camera onto it. For obvious reasons...)

Jumping out at the other end, we had a (semi-) quick lunch in a nearby town and then headed onwards and westwards. To New Orleans…