Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Weekend Full of Music, BBQ and Couchsurfing

Escaping from the farm was a blessed relief, and fantastic four days was lined up as a treat for the 10days of back wrenching farm work. Travelling with Manon, the French girl who was on the farm with me, the plan was to head south to Jackson, MS, then separate and I was going to go to Vicksburg, MS and onto Memphis, TN before flying back to Chapel Hill. As it was, Vicksburg didn’t happen (could find anywhere to stay that wasn’t less than $50) and so I stayed an extra day in Jackson instead. The exciting - but also a bit scary - part of it all? I was Couchsurfing all the way!

To those that don’t know, Couchsurfing is where you stay on a couch in someone’s house in the place you want. By someone I mean a complete stranger. Who you meet on the website. No, it’s not quite like that, and the site you use to Couchsurf is decent enough in you can see peoples past reviews and the numbers of people they’ve had staying at theirs etc, and then choose who to ask to stay with. Anyways, my first experience was in Jackson with Manon (an experienced Couchsurfer which was reassuring) staying with Clay.

We took the greyhound down to Jackson from this random arse village in the middle of nowhere. The greyhound stop itself was a diner place, and the girl sorting out the greyhound tickets was incredibly excited to chat to a “France-and-Englander” (whatever one of those is!).  Being dropped off really early (like 7am early) we had hours to kill until the bus came, so I settled down to a nice American breakfast of an omelette, and Manon soon followed suit. The bus arrived late, so sitting outside waiting was incredibly sweaty in the humidity of Mississippi. Eventually the bus came, and we weren’t able to get on until those that had got off for a break got back on. The stupidity of Greyhound is that if you buy a ticket, you aren’t guaranteed a seat on the bus, so there’s this almost fight to get onto the damn thing in order to get a seat. Absolute nightmare… Anyways, the journey itself wasn’t bad – just long, hot and not that comfortable. 

Pulling into Jackson, MS the humidity hit us once again. I have no idea how people live in these places – it was just so uncomfortably hot! Jackson is the state capital of Mississippi, with a population around 500,000, 70% black. I guess the best way to describe it is like your typical Southern city. Not a great description I know but don’t know how else to put it! Clay very generously met us at the Greyhound station and liberated our bags from us, and pointed us in the direction of the Capitol, and then departed back to work.
Heading towards downtown, we came across the Old Capitol, and I got lost in the museum inside. I found the political history of MS fascinating. It was a beautiful building, and incredibly interesting. Thoroughly recommended if you ever end up that way! As we left the building it rained. I mean really rained. Summer storm style, So after a few minutes deliberation and a bit of a wait to see if it let off a bit (which it didn’t at all), we just legged it a block to a small Caribbean restaurant to get some lunch and dry off. The food was ace in there – jerk chicken was sooo good! After eating and drying off (which took longer than hoped due to the damn AC being on!) we left the restaurant and headed towards the New Capitol (not so interesting to be honest…), scurrying away when Manon wanted to see if the Freedom Bell worked. I think the entire downtown population were very grateful to know it perfectly…

The Capitol

A cool house we saw wandering around
 Meeting Clay we went back to his place, dumped stuff and had a poke around the area in terms of getting a coffee and some bits and bobs from the grocery store. Clay was a very nice lad, and an artist (Echo Mech if you wanna have a look), with an interest in music. That evening we went for a meal at a Mediterranean place, with the waiters overly flirting with Manon. Much to her amusement! From there we went to a ‘pop-up’ art event, which are ‘spontaneous’ in that they ‘pop up’ in random places not traditionally associated with art for a few days and then disappear again. Arts not really my type of thing, but you gotta be open to new things so I went along and found it a fairly interesting experience. Though I’m still not sure how a picture can cost upwards of $100…

The event finished around 10, and so from there we went to a cool little pub/bar type place with some live music being put on. I really enjoyed myself there, except I was incredibly knackered from the 6am start and kept spacing out. It got worse (by my own doing!) in that a friend of Clay’s came over once we had got home (at like 2am) and I was determined to stay up and not miss anything (also my bed was in the same room so I doubt I would have been able to sleep particularly well!). This did lead to me therefore being awake for 22hours straight. And zonked straight out when I hit the hay. Always a good thing!

The live music at the pub/bar type place in downtown Jackson
The next morning I slept in whilst the other two went to watch bike polo (yep, polo on bikes) and then in the afternoon the three of us plus Anne – a friend of Clay’s – departed for one of the best afternoons I have had in the US. We were headed to the Bentonia Blues Festival which was celebrating its 40th year. The festival itself was based around the Blue Front Café (a café on the Mississippi Blues Trail which is a famous and influential place in the development of Blues music), and based on a farm field in the middle of literally nowhere, corn fields on all sides and ancient, rusting tractors dotted around.  It was clear that despite its age it is still not a big festival by any stretch of the imagination, with a rather makeshift looking stage and around 250 people lounging on the grass in front of it. Still, small gigs are usually better, and in this case that was most certainly true. 

The music was dominated blues (obviously), but with a couple of other influenced styles too, and alongside the great smell of BBQ and almost unintelligible speak of the MS delta I was in my element. It was exactly what travelling is all about! We stayed to the very end-at first sweating like pigs in the incredible heat and humidity of the delta; hanging out on the grass, drinking, eating and playing cards whilst listening to the pure sound of blues being played on stage. I really loved just being able to lie back in the sun (or shade as the temperature rose) and let the music wash over me. It was a fantastic afternoon and a great way to experience real southern culture that I had been wanting to do for a long while.

The tiny stage
See how tiny the festival is?!

Cornfields surrounding the festival field
Old tractors around the place

Manon, Clay and Anne
As it was, all good things have to come to an end, and we left having to rescue Manon from a ‘friendly’ married man wanting her affections (yep, married). As we walked to the car we bumped into one of the organisers who seemed totally thrilled that two Europeans had attended the festival. Probably one of the highlights of the 40years!

I had great fun in Jackson with both Manon and Clay, and am incredibly grateful to Clay for putting us up, and to Manon for allowing me to join her on her travels for a few days. Jackson was an interesting part of the world for sure, and I am so glad I went there and experienced a part of Deep Southern culture that I hadn’t had the chance to do before hand whilst in the States. The next day I was heading back north for a few days alone before flying back to Carolina, whilst Manon was hanging in Jackson for another night and then travelling onwards to New Orleans. Clay dropped me off at the Greyhound station, and after a slight panic with the realisation I had booked the ticket for the day after by mistake (idiot) and an incredibly nice lady sorting it out for me (got to love the South!) I got on another Greyhound (ugh) and headed towards the musical city of Memphis, TN.

Friday, September 21, 2012

WOOF-ing. Like a total bitch.

WOOF-ing stands for World Wide Opportunities in Organic Farming, and is basically an interesting scheme where one works on a farm in exchange for food and shelter. I had heard about it from Jon, who was planning on WOOFing up in Canada, and being up for something a bit different and needing to slow down a bit with the spending money for a little bit I thought I’d give it a go. Searching on the website (LINK), focusing on the Deep South where I wanted to go next, I found Broken Magnolia farm located just outside of Oxford, Mississippi. I particularly liked the sound of this farm as it required 25-30 hours a week in exchange for accommodation and food, and (crucially!) they were not vegetarians (as so many of these farms were).

I was picked up from Memphis airport (after an incredibly delayed flight) by Katherine, the 60-something grandmother who owns the farm with her husband, and taken to the farm approximately an hour and half drive away over the state border. The farm itself is in Taylor, a tiny tiny rural village about 10miles outside the town of Oxford. Taylor was a ghost town when we pulled through (stopping briefly at the post office) – the sort of place the Texas Chainsaw Massacre part 2 would be set. Old school style Southern houses around a central square/car park type centre with no grocery store or anything.  It was obvious that Taylor was a wealthy place however, with a brand new housing complex just outside of the ‘downtown’ (if you can call it that!) and lots of little artistic/pottery type shops and workshops. Oh and the shiny cars in the driveways…

'Downtown' Taylor
The farm itself was about ½ to ¾ of a mile away from the ‘downtown’, set over 35 acres in the style of ‘20th century redneck’ (their words not mine!)  with goats, chickens and guineas (not guinea pigs as I initially thought, only to become very confused when presented with a big bird!) as well as dogs, cats and young kids. When I arrived I learnt I wasn’t the only WOOFer on the farm, and was introduced to Manon, a 20-something girl from France who was spending three months moving around the states WOOFing along other things. The family were a nice one, Katherine and her husband (who I didn’t meet) originating from Louisiana and both holding PhD’s. Their son and two grandkids (about 7 and 3) also lived on the farm, with the kids being adorable; coming up to both Manon and myself and chatting away about the farm and whatnot. It was certainly a nice feeling to be in a residential setting like that and not on the road constantly for once!

The 'redneck style' house
Goats roaming the farm

Part of the (huge) patch we cleared
 Now I thought the idea of WOOFing was to be set a project (of sorts) for the time that one was there that would be beneficial to the farm. Apparently I was wrong in this romantic notion, and instead we were put to various shit jobs around the place such as weeding, moving mulch around, weeding, shovelling shit, weeding, feeding the dogs/chickens/guineas/goats, weeding and some more weeding. I have to admit that we did get to help de-worm and relocate the goats, which was great fun trying to catch them all (the trick is to grab their hind leg with one hand, then their horns/neck with another and then step over them so their neck is between your legs and you can then control the horns with both hands), chopping down some trees (fun to begin with and then a right pain) and learning to hang garlic which was quite interesting, but beyond that it was mainly weeding. Which is fine, except I was under the impression that that was not what we would be doing…

The incredibly basic room we stayed in for the 10 days
It came to a head on a couple of occasions. Firstly when the son came and told us we had been weeding incorrectly. Three days into the task. Manon was not happy whatsoever, prompting an argument between her and the son. All Manon and I wanted was a lot clearer communication about what we were supposed to be doing and how they wanted it done. Rather than the ‘do this. Now’  followed by ‘this isn’t right’ approach we were getting. The second incident was towards the end of my time there and I was on the phone home to my parents. The son suddenly came tearing up the hill to our accommodation, hollering about me being disrespectful to his way of life and calling the work he does every day of his life as ‘scat’. Now those of you who know me would know that I would never disrespect anyone like that, nor would I be so disrespectful as to call their living as ‘scat’. I don’t even know what ‘scat’ means! What pissed me off more than that was the fact that all through his diatribe he kept calling me ‘boy’. That did not sit with me whatsoever, and I felt incredibly patronised by it (which I guess was the point).

The hours of work wasn’t quite what I expected either. I knew we had to do a majority of the work in the morning, rising at 6. However, whilst the website page had stated we were expected to work 25-30hours a week, we were actually working 6 hours a day for 6 days a week. So 36 hours minimum. Again, I wouldn’t have found this a problem had I know it from the start. But it was the changing of conditions that really frustrated me. I was also slightly taken aback by the accommodation we were given. Now by all means I wasn’t expecting 5star accommodation, but I sure wasn’t expecting to have spiders everywhere inside, mice running under the walls (yes you read that correctly) and to have to walk through a garage to use the toilet. Neither was I expecting to have to defend my opinions on issues to such an extent that I found myself having to. The evening meal was very nice, sitting round a table in the kitchen, often with the son and grandkids there too and the food was decent as well. However Katherine would have this really frustrating way of drawing you into a discussion-cum-debate, then state her opinions like they were fact and not let you get a word in edgeways from there. In the end I would give up, especially after she claimed the NHS was a dumb idea because people shouldn’t be entitled to free healthcare. And that seatbelts are a way of the middle socio-economic classes trying to force lower socio-economic classes to spend money. Right…

It wasn’t all doom and gloom however. As part of working on the farm we were able to take free Karate classes with the son in Oxford for free, which I took the offer on to begin with and enjoyed it. However as time went I preferred the quiet time of the farm whilst everyone else was at Karate to myself instead. We were also given an afternoon off in Oxford, allowing me to visit the house of the renowned writer William Falkner, and chill out in the town having a drink with Manon. We were also taken to a cool little blues/jazz style concert in the University of Mississippi (based in Oxford) on the Sunday evening, which again was nice to chill out away from the farm and experience something (as such) of the local area.

Oxford centre
Blues/Jazz event in Oxford
As it was, I ended up leaving the farm early; after 10days rather than the 14 I had originally said I would do. I just simply couldn’t cope with the farm work, and the attitude displayed to both myself and Manon on more than one occasion. Manon had worked at another WOOFing farm previously and said to me that what occurred on Broken Magnolia wasn’t anything like the other one, and she didn’t like it one bit unlike the place she previously was. As for me, it was my first and probably only WOOF stint. I really have no wish to do it again in case of it being similar to my experiences at Broken Magnolia. Which really is a shame because I feel that I could have enjoyed myself WOOFing, (mice running in and out of the room and all!) and it was simply the way that both I and Manon were treated at times that really spoilt the experience.
Anyways, both Manon and I skipped off early, being dropped off (rather reluctantly) in a tiny tiny backwards town to spend the now free weekend somewhere else. That place being Jackon, MS.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Road Trip Stats and Musings

May 2012

Looking back on the road trip is an interesting feeling. Seeing some incredible sights lead to phenomenal highs, and the lack of team work from some lead to some pretty bad lows. Overall, I had one hell of a blast and I am so glad I did it with the people I did it with. Here are some stats I tried to work out from the trip:

3651 mapped miles
God knows how many actual miles driven

$1000+ Dollars spent
69 hours solid mapped driving (many more actual hours driven!)
25 days
25 main places stopped at
20 Walmarts visited (approx)
Countless booze
9 people
Numerous arguments
7 states traveled through
1 night fearing for our lives
Untold numbers of ‘are you foreign’ type questions asked
1 amazing trip

I know I bitched about 'certain' people all through the blog posts, but I'd like to point out that these blogs were written by hand on the trip and then typed up at a later date. As such the thoughts etc were from that time and in hindsight I realise that at times I really did get a bit wound up over something really not that important in the long run. Having said that, when you've been driving all day and then don't get any help setting things up from others when you arrive at a destination then it does get incredibly frustrating after a while.

It now being nearly three months (at time of writing) since the road trip ended its crazy to think back to it and writing these posts now really brings home the huge amount of things that we did and saw on the trip. Stories have been told countless times (especially breaking down in LA - I think my family heard that one like 10 times whilst I was at home!), and memories revisited. It had been a dream of mine to road trip in the USA for years, and I was so happy to have been able to do it.

I want to thank all the others who were on the roadtrip with me: Antonia, Amy, Barney, Eshe, Jon, Kim, Michael and Wahid. You all made the road trip what it was, and I did truly enjoy sharing the epic journey with you. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

San Fransisco (Parte Deux)

We were back where we had started – San Francisco. Or “The city of fuck-off hills” as I like to call it. Dumping the bags at the hostel the four of us who had dropped off the RV headed off in search of lunch, ending up in tiny place in China Town which had some pretty amazing food indeed. With a follow up cheeky cocktail (and banana friters!) in the establishment next door.

China Town
 With the issue of 7 of us sneaking into the booked room of 6 (surprising easy actually!) we couldn’t all check in at the same time, especially as Eshe was with us till the evening despite not checking into the hostel. As such Barney and I stayed outside the hostel whilst they all checked in, getting increasingly cold and bored. So did the logical thing of finding the nearest alcohol serving establishment on the corner of the street. And what a find; they offered $2 beer (which admittedly did nothing towards getting drunk at all, but who’s complaining really!) and $5 pizza and beer. We were in there for a while! Plus the other took a lifetime and an age to sort their lives out…

Kim, Amy and Antonia

Playing pool
 Having finally made it back to the room and getting sorted, we all headed en mass to get some dinner. Back to the pizza place. Me and Barney were rather happy at that one! The meal was lovely – definitely recommend eating there if you are ever in San Fran (its on the corner of Stutter and Taylor). Sadly we had to say bye to Eshe during the meal, her flight to DC being that evening, and the group was whittled down to 7. After the meal Barney and Wahid decided to be old men and go to bed, so the rest of us hit the streets to find a drink (being Saturday night n’all!), chancing on a dive bar a couple of blocks from the hostel. It didn’t ID, and had a jukebox and pool table. Pretty good! We chilled out there for a few hours drinking, playing pool and singing along to the jukebox, with a rather bizarre pool match occurring between Jon and Antonia against some latinos who seemed to change the rules every shot claiming it was ‘American Rules’. Yeah right mate… Getting back to the hostel, everyone passed out pretty quick with the day being a long one. 

The next day, after a disappointing breakfast with Barney and Wahid, we had a wonder around the shopping district, as Kim wanted to get a few bits and bobs to take home with her. The plan was then to walk to the Golden Gate park and chill out, but intercepting plans with Barney and Wahid (who hadn’t joined us shopping) we met up with them at a bar that was supposed to have a table tennis table. And wow what a bar… The strange thing about San Fran is how the areas can change drastically within a block, with some times a certain block can be very different to other blocks around it. This was the case with the location of this bar we arranged to meet Barney and Wahid at; the bar (called Club 21) was located in quite a poor neighbourhood (not a particular issue), except for the fact that everyone inside looked very desolate or very mean. And the place stunk of piss. Lovely…. Me being me however was still keen to go in and have a drink for the experience and story, but the others weren’t so keen, and as such we made our way over to the much nicer neighbourhood of Haight Ashbury to another bar with a table tennis table. Which just so happened to accept only passports as ID. Typical… So instead we went over the road to a little café for a drink and some lunch. 

Kim, Amy, Jon, Antonia, Me

Haight Ashbury is a rather nice, gentrified area of San Fran with a definite quirky feel to it. Jon and the girls went shopping, whilst Barney, Wahid and I went for another drink. Standard! We ended up in this very bizarre Arabian themed cocktail bar, with an incredibly annoying American man talking incredibly loudly about politics to random people who weren’t interested in the slightest. Talk about conforming to stereotypes… Being served a random cocktail by the barmaid (knocked up there and then off the top of her head-very impressive) talk ranged from the Falklands (again), war on terror and my discovery of a homeless guy in the toilet butt naked. No joke. Feeling rather merry we left the Arabian place in an effort to find the others, and in the process Barney and Wahid became obsessed with finding a chess board (no idea where that came from!) and I realised we had missed Kim who had left to get her flight. Oops – sorry mate… We found Jon, Antonia and Amy and they proudly showed us their purchases. Chief being some natural product that is supposed to be a natural, legal high. Except it smelt suspiciously like tea… Cue a huge amount of ripping from us three there!

Looking up into the hills around Haight Ashbury
Dinner was at a gourmet burger place (can’t remember its name) which itself was quite an experience. On the surface it looked like quite a nice place, big burgers with different combinations. However the server (the place was like a fast food restaurant where you go up and order at the till rather than a traditional resturant style where you order at the table) was a complete bitch making a snide comment about the lack of tip. Look love, all you’ve done is punch some buttons. Ive even had to pour my own drink. Maybe when you had bought my food to me (which involved a minimal effort on your behalf) I may have considered giving you a tip. Ungracious bitch… To make matters even worse Jon and Antonia, who ordered after me, had a gratuity charge added to their order. Rude. 

The meal got a touch bizarre when a homeless guy wondered in with his pants falling down not leaving much to the imagination (second time for me. Fantastic…). Obviously he was asked to leave, and so (in what I can only guess is an attempt at protest) he pushed over a chair and stormed out. Getting confused with which way the door opened in the process. Yeah, stick it to the man, mate!  The evening was spent on a trip to the cinema. To be honest I wasn’t that keen on going, as movies can be watched anywhere, but I went along with it. And to be honest watching Sasha Baren Cohen lick someone’s armpit in ‘The Dictator’ wasn’t exactly a great evening. But there we go.
The next day was a pretty wet and miserable one, so after a lazy breakfast at the Sutter pub (nearest of a pub have been to in the USA and definitely recommended!) we headed back to the cinema. Yep, twice in 12 hours. Afterwards we hung out in the pizza place and the hostel again. Jon had already left that morning, and it was my turn in the evening.

Saying goodbye to the 4 left was a strange experience indeed. It was a final end to an incredable month and one hell of a journey. An incredibly enjoyable part of my year aboard, and definitely one of the highlights. From a road trip and San Fran it was onwards in my travels. Back east to the country. Rural Mississippi to be exact.