Saturday, 19 February 2011

Who Dat? Oh, Hey Baby!

After the trauma of a bus journey so long and so tedious and hair raising that it should have it's own blog post we needed somewhere to relax and Tulsa was just the ticket. Gorging on delicious food and drinking micro brewed beer from across the states really recharged the batteries and a big thank you must go out to Sam and family for putting us up and making us feel like part of the family. Much needed.

We arrived in N'Orleans after a 13 hour drive from Oklahoma in a comfortable and air conditioned car which made the whole journey seem like a pleasent dream. Especially when we arrived and noticed a positive swing of 40C compared to Tulsa's -20C the previous evening. We found ourselves basking in a positively balmy 18C in the positive which we hadn't felt since the height of the UK summer.

The first night was taken up adjusting to what can only be described as a debauched atmosphere prevelant throughout the city. Drinking in the street is encouraged and a ubiquotous Daiquiri called the 'hurricane' a bright red icey concoction so strong it actually hurt to drink, was a nice way to ease the 13 hours of stiffness from our weary limbs.

The music in New Orleans is unlike anything I've ever experienced. Every bar had a hugely talented band comprising of, at least, a trumpet, a guitar, a saxaphone and drums and the music drifts out and mingles together with the smell of Jumbalaya and Gumbo to create an absolutely unbelievable atmosphere. How an entire city can be so laid back I have no idea, particularly after the still raw and visible effects of Katrina a mere six years ago.

The next day, a saturday and our first full day in what was rapidly becoming our favourite leg of the trip so far, we decided to throw caution to the winds and follow the advice given to Judge and Pat, our travelling companions, on their flight to meet us in the Big Easy.
"If you aren't completely drunk the whole time you're in New Orleans, then you have completely missed the point".
Words we took to heart and the saturday turned, in predictable fashion, to flash memories of a fantastic time had along Bourbon and Frenchman Streets listening to Jazz, Blues and an assortment of Brass Bands, that piss from a great height onto the twitching, talentless corpses of 99% of the dross that infects the UK and American charts. I honestly can't find the words to impress on you how good New Orleans is, and if you ever get the chance I urge you in the strongest possible terms to visit.

The next day, our last, began with a chorus of what sounded like screeching drills, hammering and angle grinding. I thought it may have been coming from inside my own head and was a new side effect of a hangover so intense that it hurt to look at the inside of my eyelids, but no, it was the soothing tone of the hostel building some new rooms to accomodate the influx of guests for Mardi Gras. It turned out to be heaven sent because it made sleep impossible and we were forced out of our beds to get some breakfast and it was here that we met Phillip a young canadian who as it turns out has a knack for finding the craziness.

"Yeah I got the route down here but I was just wondering how safe it was going to be?" I started listening as Phillip quizzed one of the hostel workers regarding something called the 'Second Line Parade' which happens every sunday in different areas of New Orleans. On this particular Sunday it was happening in the Lower Ninth Ward, an area you might recognise as being the one completely devastated by Katrina. Phillip it turned out, needed people to go with, as the area itself is one of the poorest and therefore one of the less salubrious and more problematic, shall we say, that N'Orleans has to offer and a 5ft 5 white Canadian would have been a curiosity to say the least. It sounded like it was a little edgy, a little off the beaten track and alot of amzing fun. The only thing was that the route was not published as it was strictly a local tradition and one that few tourists ever got to hear about. Phillip had got the information from a local guy who was returning to rebuild his mothers house, long since devastated by the Levees collapse. We were on board.

We got the number 84 bus with more than a little apprehension and rode around the devastated lower Ninth Ward faces pressed against the glass in awe at the still prominent devastation. Houses still with furniture in them and eery messages spray painted on them. "NO DOGS SEEN"- "GAS OFF"- "1 SMALL DOG" and the strange crosses and code devised to let the clean up crews know which houses contained dead bodies and where they were located. These sat side by side with houses that had been completely renovated. It truly was an extremely strange feeling. We got off on one of the main roads before the bus returned back over the canal to New Orleans city centre and started trying to locate the parade.

We eventually saw flashing lights in the distance and followed the atmosphere. We walked past the NOPD vehicles that had been blocking the roads and found ourselves faced with a truly sureal scene. Row upon row of souped up cars lined the central reservations, 24 inch rims glinted in the sunlight as powerful stereos blasted out Hip Hop at ear bleeding levels and the smell of BBQ permeated the exhaust fumes of the high powered motorcycles openly doing wheelies past the yawning police officers with locals on horseback following behind. Absolutely. Fucking. Mental.
We looked around at each other, LITERALLY the only 6 white faces as far as the eye could see.

We carried on walking and tried to find the parade, it had recently passed and we caught up with it outside 'The House of Dance and Feathers' where the band had stopped and were playing in the middle of about 2000 dancing and singing bodies. I don't know what any of the music was or who it was by but what I can tell you is that it was exactly of the right and pertinent for that moment. The smell of weed was pungent and the police seemed to be mingling freely and shaking hands with guys who looked like extras from an episode of the wire. Gold teeth glinting and everyone in their finery out to impress and party away the warm sunday afternoon. A mobility scooter pulling a huge cooler passed and we walked alongside it and got a couple of beers to walk along with. Emma nipped over to a van with a guy in the back cooking BBQ Sausage, Burgers and 'Poke Chops' and the parade continued for another hour or so until it reached it's conclusion and eventually the crowd accepted the fact that the show was over. We walked to the bus stop and waited for the traffic to clear with huge smiles splitting our faces. We had all experienced something that we would never forget and this goes down as one of the standout experiences of our lives so far. I say that in all seriousness as I am not one for hyperbole.

In a way I was glad we left the next day as it would have been extremely difficult indeed to top the previous days shenannigans so it was tinged with sadness but fully satisfied that we picked up the hire car and set off with Judge and Pat on the next leg.

Next stop, loads of different places. Road trip from N'Orleans to Vegas.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

What's your worst public transport story? This is mine..

What's your worst public transport story? Everyone's got one. I've been on an Edinburgh bus, more than once, with people smoking heroin at the back. I've been on the Megabus from Edinburgh to Dundee with sick from one Dundonian class act rolling from the front to the back with every tap of the break and burst of the accelerator from the unwitting driver on the deck below. I've been on a citylink coach from Sheffield to London where a baby two rows in front of me has refused to stop crying for the duration of the journey. For all I know, he's still crying now. But none of that could have prepared me for what we were undertaking when we boarded the NY to Tulsa, Oklahoma, Greyhound bus service. 34 hours of unadulterated bad time.

It started innocuously enough when we boarded at 9.30am at the Port Authority bus terminal on 42nd street. A nice empty bus with maybe 4 other passengers which wound it's way through the city to Newark in New Jersey. From there it was fairly uneventful until we reached a place called Harrisburg in Pennsylvania  when two women boarded, shepherding 6 feral children all of whom had menacing looks in their close together eyes.

Luckily we were due for a change of bus soon enough so we put up with the raucous screeching and unbridled seat kicking for an hour or so before it was time to change.

I can't remember the names of every tin pot town we went through so from now on I'll mention only those of importance. After having managed our disappointment of seeing the 6 child party boarding we got on our connection and the despair truly began. I noted there was a bit of a buzz, people seemed to be getting on famously, I thought to myself, then, I started to zone in on specific conversations.

'Just got out today' I heard one guy, who could only be described as a gang member, say. He had 'Soulja' crudely tattoo'd on his hands.

'Bitch I toldjoo, I'll be back at 7!' Another exclaimed before raising his voice further to a booming baritone 'MOTHERFUCKER GONNA HAVE TO WAIT!'

I sank down into my seat and tried not to catch anyones eye. Although it was hard not to. I now understood why people had sucked in their breath sharply when I'd informed them of our plan to ride the Greyhound.

When we arrived in Pittsburgh, a city freshly defeated in the Superbowl the night before, we all had to disembark only to re-embark the same bus 30 minutes later,  this became somewhat of a pattern over the next 26 hours.

On re-embarking we noticed the loudest of the passengers, a guy called Chris, who I had heard to remark earlier 'this medication of mine is making me see everything, two' and that's verbatim by the way, was still in the concourse with his face pressed forelornly against the glass door as the bus pulled away. What happened to Chris? 'Oh he'd been dranking' the 17 year old couple who'd been taking the brunt of his frankly terrifying chat for the last 8 hours, told me.

Chris ejected, the bus now had a semblance of normality, that is to say we didn't feel in immediate danger, and things remained like that all the way to Columbus Ohio.

I'd been having fitful 7 or 8 minute bursts of sleep for a while, but when the bus pulled into Columbus I rubbed my eyes and sat up because this was worth a watch, roughly 18 Amish people boarded, resplendent in full Amish gear, beards and matching 1950's luggage. They stayed on for a while and although the most serene part of the journey it was undoubtedly also the most surreal.

As we entered the midwest at daybreak the Amish alighted only to be replaced by the most motley crew yet. A band of what could only be described as 'Midwest Tweakers' that is to say, prescription drug addicts, got on and things took a turn for the worse.

The previous bus drivers had all been keeping a close eye on the earlier reprobates and had so far managed to instill a modicum of decency and good behaviour but that all changed when a little old guy with a stinking attitude took the wheel. He was a law unto himself. He kept his eye on the road and that was that. The Tweakers had taken to openly drinking and at one stage a full blown fight broke out at the back. A race issue I later found out, but I personally, had a suspicion that it was alcohol related. Thankfully Emma and I, had the foresight to take seats at the front by this stage so we were, to a certain extent, removed from it. As much as is possible on  a single decker bus.

The atmosphere remained tense until we arrived into a town, I forget the name, somewhere in Missouri. I had learned by that point in the journey, that when you have certain amounts of whatever the stress hormone is called, coarsing through your veins, sleep is impossible. Auditory hallucinations however seem to come thick and fast. 'What was that?' I'd ask Emma, she would look over her book at me, confused. 'I didn't say anything' she'd reply.

We changed here for the final bus of the journey, and so, thankfully, did the fighting, buck toothed yocals who'd been putting a dampener on our jolly sightseeing tour. We breathed a sigh of relief and normality (sic) was restored. We hunkered down for the final 8 hours and even had a conversation with the tattoo'd guy from the military sitting next to us who it turned out had another full 2 days, before he got to his destination in LA. The chat ended almost immediately after it became clear that he genuinely believed that the end of the world was coming on December the 21st 2012. I put in my earphones at that point, even though my I-pod had run out of battery.

We eventually made it to Tulsa unscathed, where we met our good friend Sam, we'd made his acquaintance in Budapest 3 years ago and tomorrow we drive, that's right, drive, down to N'Orleans after having spent the most relaxing couple of days, gorging ourselves on hamburgers and Mexican food and drinking delicious beers from around the world.

Greyhound still had a nasty surprise for those who's journey hadn't finished, there was a snow storm coming in, so the bus was terminating there for the evening. 'We'll be putting you up in the local homeless shelter' I heard the rep say as he faded out of earshot and we climbed into Sam's nice warm 4x4.

Without doubt the worst public transport I've ever experienced but it was just about worth it for the glimpse at the US's underbelly and an America that not many tourists get to experience. One of those ones that's bad at the time but good for a story. That's easy for me to say now, I wasn't the one who got done in.

Next stop N'Orleans.

NY, NY so good they named it twice. Taking a bite out of the Big Apple in the city that never sleeps and other cliches.

How would it make you feel if you'd been saving for three years for a trip around the world and then you got to the airport hungover but giddy with excitement for the inaugural voyage and you find that your flight has been cancelled due to to three feet of snow in New York? Well that's how I felt on arrival at Heathrow Airport 2 weeks ago. The veins in my head prominent and fully expecting to be spending the night in an airport hotel we went to the American Airlines desk to be told that 'yes our flight was cancelled but we'd been put on the next one which was 2 hours later'.

Relieved, we spent 5 hours traipsing around Heathrow taking photos of expensive mineral water and Foix Gras and looking at gaudy jewellery I'd never buy even if I could afford it. A largely uneventful flight followed (Wall Street 2 should never have been made) and we landed in NY City. We were full full of bravado about getting the subway from JFK but as our body clocks were telling us it was already 3 am we opted to battle through the illegal touts and queue for a city sanctioned Yellow Cab.

The snow drifts saw cars buried up to their windows and it made me wonder how in gods name they'd cleared our runway at JFK briefly, before returning to contemplating how I could possibly be this tired and not be unconscious. We dumped the bags in our hostel on 101st and Broadway and went across the street for the obligatory Brits abroad 4 drinks before bed. 9am UK time and 4am US saw us finally hit the hay.

I'm not going to bore you with a list of what we did but I will say that the MoMA was excellent. A drinking session on the concourse of Penn station until 1am was super, although the beggars get increasingly more aggressive as the night unfolds, Justin Bieber getting boo'd at the Knicks game restored my faith in the US, basketball and Americans simultaneously as I wiped the tears of laughter from my eyes and the food they serve should be shared as the portions would make the guy from Man vs Food blush. Tipping is a pain in the arse. And drinking in NY is expensive as hell (unless you are on the concourse of Penn Station).

We also spent 3 nights in Brooklyn in the well known hipster area of Williamsburg. Imagine Shoreditch in London. Total bellends with side partings, walking around in sunglasses with one lense popped out or a monacle. Top hats and silver topped canes were de rigeure for those in their twenties and well muscled men with tiny sausage dogs dressed in jerkins, hats and Converse All Stars were way more prominent then I ever want to see again but by jove there's a good atmosphere and a plethora of excellent food and quality bars that stay open late.

It was here that we spent our last night, we were supposed to be watching the superbowl but we got to talking to the coolest person we met in NY, a bartender in the 'Sin Lounge' who on hearing that were on the first stop on a round the world tour would not hear of us paying for any of the beers or whiskeys she insisted on plying us with for the rest of the night. Who won? Well I found out in the paper the next day that it was the Packers but to be honest I couldn't have cared less.

Next stop, Tulsa, Oklahoma.