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…

Sunday, October 7, 2012

A Weekend Full of More Music, BBQ and Couchsurfing

The Greyhound to Memphis was long. Really bloody long. And those Greyhound busses aren’t the most comfortable of things either. I was met in Memphis by Carlos, a 20-something Marines Reservist. I was a little nervous about staying at his place, being my first Couchsurfing experience alone, and the fact that he was a big Marine type. As it was he was sound as fuck, and a great laugh to be around. 

Driving back to his apartment, I dumped my stuff by the bed I was staying in, and returning to the kitchen was presented with an opened beer. Straight away I knew I would get on with Carlos! Hanging out in his apartment playing Xbox, drinking beer and exchanging stories we were joined by one of Carlos’ friends (really awkward I can’t remember his name…) and we headed out into downtown Memphis for a couple of drinks. We went to two or three bars and sat around chatting and drinking away (always a good night there!), exchanging stories and me asking about Memphis and the places to go and see (ever the tourist!). Crawling back into bed around 2am, I was knackered. As per usual for spending all day on a bloody coach…. 

The pavement down Beale Street
The next morning Carlos had to work early (well 10am) so I slept in a bit and left for downtown Memphis around 12.30pm. It was a bit of a trek, walking around a mile to the tram stop and then a 15mins or so on the tram into downtown. Needless to say I was rather worried that I would a) be on the wrong tram and b) get off in the wrong place and be in a sketch part of Memphis. Thankfully the accent worked out well for me and the tram driver and an incredibly old black man (who I had no idea what was saying) showed where to get off. Downtown Memphis was a pretty cool place, with trams running around the place and the usual smattering of Southern style housing. It was quite touristy, but I wasn’t surprised by that at all. Kicking off my lone tourism in style I headed towards the Mississippi river. Simply because one has to see it really! From there I wandered down the rover and back round, and into the downtown area before heading towards Beale Street. This is where all the jazz and blues clubs are located, and is definitely a very fluorescent part of town! I visited the Rock and Soul Museam located just of Beale Street, and it is definitely worth a visit if you are ever in Memphis. Charting the history of blues through to rock and roll and modern day influences, I found it fascinating, and also found some great artists to download when getting home!  It also had a cool feature on the audio tour where you could listen to blues through the ages. Which wondering around I did as it was sure more interesting than listening to some tour guide harp on about working in the fields. 

Beale Street

Memphis Trams
From the Rock and Soul Museum I caught the free bus to Sun Records, where many famous artists like  and the one and only Elvis Presley were discovered and recorded. Before going in I went on quite a walk through the Victorian District (where lots of amazing Victorian style houses were located) and around 2miles out of my way to find a bloody cash machine. In the searing heat. Fantastic… However, upon eventually returning to Sunset Studios I was able to afford to join a tour. This again was a fascinating tour, with lots of history and artifacts including original instruments and recordings. The tour itself was just under an hour and again I was in my music-loving element listening to old school Blues and Rock and Roll. 

Houses of the Victorian District
Leaving the Sun Studios I headed back to Carlos’ place, stopping off to get him a case of beer as a thank you for allowing me to stay with me (gotta be polite and all!), and then onwards with him to the number 1 BBQ place in Memphis; Central BBQ. To those of you that don’t know, BBQ is pulled pork, slow cooked and served with a based sauce. I have to say, despite being a fairly naive BBQ eater (I wasn’t a big fan of the stuff in the dining hall at UNC) I absolutely loved the BBQ there. It was amazing! I remember from a class at UNC that I took that BBQ varies from state to state and even regions within the state, with each area being fiercely proud of their BBQ. Apparently NC BBQ is predominately vinegar based, where as in Tennessee it was Ketchup based. Interesting bit of useless knowledge there for you!

Sun Studios

Inside the recording studio where Elvis sang

Recoding studio from a different angle

That evening was spend chilling out and playing Xbox (being all lad-y and all!), and the next day I was leaving Memphis. I had a great time in the short amount of time I was in Memphis, despite being on my jacksie for a lot of it. The city was definitely a cool place and had a great vibe to it, and I would love to got back and experience it a little more. I am incredibly grateful to Carlos for putting me up and being such a nice guy and joker (scary Marine stuff aside!)

From Memphis it was time to head back North-East to where my home was in the States: North Carolina and more specifically Chapel Hill.