New York, again.

It was with some business as yet unfinished that I made my way back down to the Big Apple to stay with Jon, who was living in Harlem, having been awarded a scholarship for his skill on the saxophone. His apartment had at its foot a very handy all-night bodega with delicious grilled beef rolls. Very delicious after late nights in the Manhattan island.

Jon, post Rebel Bingo.

Me; post-Rebel Bingo.

There was around a week until I was due to fly out to Iceland, and Lee-Anne had managed to get tickets to a baseball game between the Yankees and Mets, part of the so-called “Subway Series”. I caught the subway up to the glittering Yankee Stadum, and asked a few questions of those attending.

When they asked who I’d be going for, I pronounced the Mets, “because I hear they’re the underdogs”. The look of horror on their faces betrayed a disapproval beyond that of simply being a supporter of the other team. “What?” I ventured.

“They’re…they’re not gonna win!”

“Exactly, I want to go for the team that’s not supposed to win,” I replied calmly.

“Why?!”

“‘Cause they’re the underdog…”

“Yeh, well, we’re goin’ for the team that’s actually gonna win.”

I decided then that in order to squeeze the most authenticity out of this experience, I would do as New Yorkers would, and go for the more favoured team. So it was that I walked into Yankee Stadium a Yankee supporter, and left with the traditional Sinatra song they play after a Yankee victory – an exciting eighth inning ensured a win for the pinstripes.

Staying with Jon allowed me the chance to go to Brooklyn, where he had friends and specifically Williamsburg, where the hipsters and hasidics mingle strangely with each other, whether out of forced irony (the former) or sheer coincidence (the latter). Here we attended Rebel Bingo, for which Lee-Anne had to wait to get the text containing its location mere hours before it began. Jon and I also met up with his local friend Lisa, who knew a lot about the lower east side (L.E.S.) and of cheap mexican and beer, the consumption of which I needed no more convincing to do. The Met was the latest in my cultural escapades, and its treasures were stunning to behold – even if I was wondering what the morals were behind these acquisitions.

Samurai armour – the Met

Anubis, The Met

Japanese sword, Medieval knights, The Met.

Van Gough, The Met.

Gaugin, The Met.

Scattered among my many activities that week was a visit to the Apple Store on 5th Avenue, where I became acutely aware of my presence in the very centre of capitalism (as though the requisite visit to Times Square hadn’t already hammered this point home), the Imagine memorial in Central Park (along with the less-visited northern sections), and a few drinks with Jon, Lee-Anne and her friends Melissa, Iresh and Dharmesh at various locations, most spectacularly Melissa’s apartment complex, which had a rooftop from which the skyline stretched out far into the blue. A murder mystery whereby the participants follow the clues laid out by actors who are out and about in the city was a particular highlight, as was – of course – Shake Shack.

Creme Brulee donut. Yep.

Drinks on the East Side

The view from where we had pre drinks – Melissa’s apartment complex.

Cos ya gotta.

Me. With ribs.

Another last-minute Museum Of Modern Art (MOMA) visit was just managed on my final day, cut even shorter by the fact I realised three stops on the subway that I had left my charger at Jon’s apartment. I arrived at the museum with minutes to spare. “Hi! I know there’s only ten minutes till closing, but I really want to see one painting and I’m flying out to Iceland in a few hours…”

“Oh, uh…there’s only a few minutes to close,” came the reply.

“Yeh, I know, but I only want to see that piece, then I’ll go.”

“Uh, yeh…ok. But you can’t take those in,” she said uncertainly, pointing at my backpacks.

“OK, well can I just leave ’em behind there for seven minutes?” I was laying my usually-failsafe Aussie accent on pretty thick by this point.

“No, you’ll need to take it to the bag check; over there,” came the reply, along with a finger pointing doubtfully to the other side of the foyer.

“Right, yep, son I can’t just…”

“No, all bags have to be checked.”

I sighed audibly and deeply, and hustled over to the bag check.

“Hello sir, your number please?”

“My what? Oh, no, I’m just zipping up to see painting and got told to come over here and check these…”

“Sorry sir, gallery’s closing,” the guard helpfully interrupted.

“Yeah, but I’ve got what? Seven minutes or so, right?”

“Exactly, so we can’t check any more items, sir.”

“OK, but I only want to see one painting – I promise I can be back by closing!” I could feel the minutes helplessly ticking by.

A sigh. “OK, but you’ll have to hurry.”

I took this helpful advice on board as I hoisted my two bags onto the counter. Just when I thought I was free, “Do you have any laptops or other electronics in these, sir? You’ll need to take them out and check them separately.” Actually, yes.

“I…what? Uh, no,” I lied, figuring that doing so would save me another minute I didn’t have.

Having completed the check-in process, I dashed to the check-in guy (“Better hurry!”). Just as I was almost at the elevator, I had to double back, and ask the girl at reception where the painting was. A brief flash of understanding crossed her face as she replied, “third floor, first room on your left. As you walk in it’ll be behind you on your right.” I repeated this under my breath and got told to “just go on up” by the ticket check when I was searching hurriedly for my ticket, again. I let out a quick, grateful sigh of thanks and jumped on the elevator. From there the instructions held true, and at the completion of them, I turned, and let my eyes fall upon Van Gough’s brushwork, as presented by The Starry Night. The painting insisted on dominating my sight; never was the word “vibrant” more apt. The sense of life and movement sucked me in as the contours began to wriggle in front of me. I was completely alone with it, and it seemed to know this. I promptly forgot all that was going on around me and, in hindsight, I saw irony of having to work so hard for such an effortless viewing experience. I didn’t have to try to drink in the lumps of the stars, or the yellow of them fading into blue whilst somehow never quite resorting to green, or the thrilling swirls that impossibly blow within that blue night sky. I had earned this solitude and, upon leaving, did not want for even a single extra moment with it, so unique and wholly mine did I feel this experience was.

Super secret bar. Grand Central Station.

I left New York with what I figure must be a universal feeling; that there was so much left undone. It overwhelms, but pulses.

New York subway, approx. 3.30AM. A guy reading the bible, next to a guy who won a hip-hop award that night (in his left hand) – when asked about it, he was most proud.

Advertisements
Image | Posted on by | Leave a comment

Boston

The rain began falling the morning I left for Boston, and didn’t abate for my entire stay. I was to stay with Rose, a friend of Carmella’s, in a suburb called Jamaica Plains, where  she lives in an apartment prepared for visitors – a mattress and linen tucked behind a partition in the kitchen. I was greeted there by Steve, an aspiring hip hop artist from Rhode Island. The Rhode Island accent is an extremely thick one, and Steve was able to speak in it on almost any subject in one hell of an engaging way. Sporting a crew cut and having a penchant for plain white t-shirts, he typified the generosity shown to me by this apartment inhabited by Steve, his girlfriend Becky, Rose and their friend Romain.

Beacon Hill alley

Arboreum

Despite the rain, the nearby Harvard Arborium proved to be the place to reignite my love of parks – particularly those nestled in an urban setting. Whilst walking through that gate does not immediately shove the city unceremoniously from my mind, it does…smoke it out to an extent. This living museum proved more fascinating than I would have imagined; species of tree that take many years to mature are side-by-side with common Massachusetts types, but with explanations as to why they are unique. However, I was at this point escaping from an unknown city, and it was Boston I was excited to see the next day – it lay just beyond my sight. This was the first time I had explored the outer part of a city before its centre – the usual way is of course to work one’s way out from the centre. But I was more than content with being in Jamaica Plains. The rain continued unabated, but it was of no concern.

Harvard was the first destination on my list. Being a Deakin Arts graduate, – one of Australia’s younger universities – I was keen to get a read on the “atmosphere” of one of the world’s best-known education institutions. I was armed with Romain’s walking guide to Cambridge (the suburb Harvard dominates) and got facts and stories about every location I stopped at. It was out of semester, so there was not an all-encompassing buzz that one would expect, but I was rather glad of the half-full feel of the place; so engrossed was I in reading the anecdotes from the book – ranging from students tossing heated cannonballs from their dorm windows (you can still see the dents) to the great rowing races – that I would likely have run into a great many fellow walkers. A highlight among the sights there was the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Enthnology, and the glass flowers exhibition, which is exactly what it sounds like. So incredibly lifelike and stunning are they, that there are multiple signs saying words to the effects of “yes – they are glass!” Convinced that my new-found knowledge justified my telling people that I had received part of my education at Harvard, I tucked into some pizza at a student bar, met a Californian surfer (of course), and went on my way to the poet Longfellow’s house. There was a floral show out the back, and the ladies there waived the entry fee because of my accent, and invited me to have a cup of tea before the winners were announced. Even Longfellow may have struggled to find the words to express such…pleasantness.

Glass flower

I had only a couple of days more in Boston, and had decided to concentrate my efforts in the Beacon Hill and waterfront areas. Steve knew of an African-American museum on the way, and we visited that before setting off for the cobblestones of Boston’s past and present elite. The plants on the balconies of Beacon Hill dripped with moisture while the cobblestones glistened in sympathy. This is a place where poets, politicians and movers and shakers gather in equal measure, and where the lamplight bouncing off the stone walls where they meet the dark footpaths perfectly sum up my wider impression of Boston.

A flower show at Longfellow’s House

When we got back after walking these hilly streets full of stories (including one of two sisters’ double homicide) and beautiful architecture by Charles Bulfinch, I was keen to find a bar showing a Bruins game (basically, any bar in Boston). I strongly believe sport serves as a worthy “access point” for any city, but for Boston in particular. They truly are sports-mad, with Bruins and Red-Sox jerseys prevalent among the standard pedestrians on its streets, regardless of whether there is a match that day. It is a slightly different prospect from Melbourne, where there are multiple team possibilities for a local to support in many given sports (as is the case with the AFL and A-League), thus “splitting the vote”. At the bar, I discussed with Steve the weather – which he had repeatedly apologised for – and how it affects one’s impression of a city. For me, it had not dulled my love for Boston: in fact, it had elevated Beacon Hill in particular to a level of American Big-City-Old City beauty hitherto unseen. The old red brick buildings had such warmth as to defy the dark grey of the sky and rain. Indeed, the prevailing memory of the suburb is one of ethereal glowing orbs of light, caused by spheres of mist bouncing off street lamps into hundreds of tiny drops broken off from the larger and acting like a warm extension of the light itself.

Building mist

In any season, then, a city can reveal different attractions. I guess, as seems to be the pattern of my travel diaries thus far, it is just the people who matter. And, once again, in the flat on a high floor of that apartment block in Jamaica Plains, Boston, I found yet more generous folks proud of their town. And rightly so.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Amherst

Amherst is the very definition of a College Town. Central to its geographical centre – and existence – is the presence of Amherst College; home of one of the premier humanities degrees in the USA. Western Massechusetts (“West Mass”) plays host to this small town, and I was glad to see it finally, given the sudden stay in NYC had thrown my proposed order of events in the North East into disarray, and I was afraid I may not make it to Amherst.

Waiting for the bus...

An easy bus ride from the Port Authority got me to the centre of Amherst, where I was met by Carmella, who Tom and I had met in South Georgia, and had offered some handy floor space at the farm she works at nearby.

Standard back-of-seat Greyhound fare

The farm, Stone Soup, is an organic vegetable farm with around 10 workers, and is a 15 minute car ride from town, and that night there was to be a party. This was primarily because some of the interns had dumpster dived a deep fryer, expired chocolate bars and still-frozen chicken. The afternoon’s preparations were for an outdoor party, but come sunset, the rain began (and, by the way, didn’t stop for the remainder of my stay in Massachusetts). The party, however, went ahead and, given how many folks there had just graduated a day prior, it was quite the turnout. One friend of Carmella’s had even written a musical for kids, and regaled us with its hilarious, whimsical tunes.

However, the primary reason for visiting Amherst was The Homestead, where the poet Emily Dickinson spent most of life. Having avoided the worst of a hangover, Carmella drove me into town – she knew exactly where the homestead was; the Dickinsons having played a significant part in the growth of Amherst’s academic reputation through the mid-1800s. Indeed, Carmella walked through part of the property most days when she attended the renowned Amherst College.

The Homestead

Through the light but steady rain, I spied two people sitting on benches; deep in conversation and in defiance of the rain drops filtering through the trees above. It was Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost – both in silhouette form – impossibly discussing any number of subjects. I determined to take a closer look after my visit, and slowly strolled up the hill toward the house.

I joined the ninety-minute tour of both the Homestead and the Evergreens, where her brother resided. For the main part, the house remains as it was in the mid-1800s, when Emily had lived there with her father, who founded Amherst College. We made our way up the stairs of the Homestead to Emily’s room, where, due to several reasons, she spent the majority of her life. The guide, an older gentleman with the soft voice and knitted jumper expected of a literary sort, quoted Emily  – speaking to her niece, Martha – as he closed the door: “just a turn, Maddie, and freedom!” she would say as she locked it. Yet, looking around her room, preserved to the last detail – including the shawl she died in; white, of course – I felt as though I had a few precious moments with her: inescapably contained in that room where she wrote vast sheafs of some of the greatest (and unconventional) poetry the world had seen to that point.

I looked out from the same window she did whilst writing; perhaps wore the floorboards a little more where she had long ago tread. I gazed at the bed she slept – and died – in. None of her words as a Poet came to me, however (I have no memory for such things) but I learnt a little of her as a Person, and one who was simultaneously the most down-to-earth and most removed from it that I knew. “I dwell in possibility”, she once said, and for a few moments I had some insight into the possibility produced by a mind which was itself absent from the wider world. There was a solemnity there; partly because of the knowledge that she had died there, or that she had suffered from a suspected case of unrequited love, but also filtered through the constant hum of the light rain outside. It was, of course, beautiful, but the reasons for this were complicated. Undoubtedly these conditions are conducive to writing poetry with the complexity of Dickinson’s, something which I now feel I sorely lack.

Profound toilet experience

Personal inadequacies brushed aside, we moved on to the Evergreens, was home to Emily’s brother Austin for many years after he was qualified as a lawyer, and as such was an altogether different experience. It was decorated in the style of a young who’d suddenly come into more money than he could tastefully spend, with imported trinkets large and small crowding the darkened spaces of the home. However, as with The Homestead, the place has some pull, as Emily must have felt when she left her neighbouring house for the first time in five years to comfort her brother after the death of his son  – and thus, her nephew – Gilbert.

The Evergreens, next door

The Dickinsons loom large in the Amherst psyche, and a direct link to Emily, Martha (“Maddie” of the aforementioned quote), is still remembered by some of the older townspeople. Even Ralph Waldo Emerson came to visit several times, such was the renown of the family.

On leaving (and after buying the t-shirt), I began to think about the visit, and what a wholly different experience it had been to visiting the grave of an icon. This is because they were never there at the grave. The body was, and still is; but to know something about a giant of literature, nothing comes close to being where they not only walked, but thought; and felt.

On leaving

Emily Dickinson’s house is unique among writers’ homes because of the sheer amount of time she spent there – thinking, writing and dwelling in possibility. I can’t be sure how long they had been there, but she and Frost, a fellow inhabitant of Massachusetts, would have had a lot to talk about throughout imagined conversations on those benches; rain or no.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The North East

New York, Train To.

The decision to take the train from one New to another (i.e. Orleans to York) was a very deliberate one, which raised quite a few eyebrows when it was mentioned. I have a child-like love for trains, and this meant taking a flight was out of the question. So it was I gave Tom and our generous hosts a big hug each, strapped on my pack for the first time in a couple of weeks, and took a 5.30am stroll through the streets of New Orleans; past bars with music still being played and jovial (read: drunk) folks partying on along the street, as usual. I found it hard to believe that my destination was going to be any more qualified for the title of The City That Never Sleeps than NOLA.

In the warm, glowing-orange light, I took my seat in the muggy Amtrak train, and though we were still in the city limits, when the air conditioning sucked the Louisiana humidity from the air, so it also removed me from New Orleans, imbuing me with a determination to return many, many times.

The trip took six hours longer than was expected, which resulted in a hastily rearranged stay in New York, when I was supposed to be going on to Boston. A frenzied flurry of emails from an internet cafe (they still have those?!) I stumbled upon had me desperately asking friends for my friend Lee-Anne’s (Les, as in “Lower East Side”!) number, during which time she emailed me back anyway, saying it would be fine to crash at hers. GIving me a bed in one of the world’s biggest cities where previously there was none. I knew enough about US rail systems to build in a delay buffer, but six hours was a little surprising (as, I’m sure, a tree down due to a tornado was to the operators). The tornadoes had killed more than 100 people in Alabama alone, and after day broke, we cruised past the ruins of houses, along with the sinewy remains of the upper half of trees framing the destruction.

The damage in Alabama

This delay nonetheless allowed me extra time to talk to – or simply observe – characters such as the retired teacher from Kentucky (she gave me some hot tips), retired high-up defence guy from D.C. (“yeh I’m tellin’ ya – you Oss-eez SHOULD be scared!), the mature-films actress (whose reticence about revealing her occupation became understandable when she pointed out that we were seated opposite the priest who read his bible most of the trip), the tornado refugee from Mississipi (I’m gettin’ the f— outta here once and for all, had two a’mah cousins die last week cos a’this f—in’ wind), and, by far the most entertaining characters, an elderly couple who got on somewhere in Alabama. After having the concept of a reclining seat explained to him, the male of the couple turned to his wife, his already-lilting south Alabama accent taking on a glorious, singsong melody: “well, golly jeepers! Yeh’d think they might even have a TV in here! There’s for sure more room’n I thought there’d be, ain’t there darlin’?!” With this, he removed his hat (of the type so tattered and aged one marvels at the idea that money actually changed hands for it at some point in time), pushed back what hair he had left, shook his head in a final gesture of marvel, and, as everyone eventually does, Settled In For The Ride.

Teacher and Defence dude, respectively

New York; on Being There

So fixated was I on finding a bed for my that night, that my first impression of New York was not as overwhelming as it may usually be. The colours, noise, horns and imposing structures and advertisements simply worked their way into my consciousness with little fanfare. So it was that Les and I chatted into the night within the confines of her “very-NYC” compartmentalised apartment. The excitement of seeing a familiar face from Home in another place entirely so far away never dulls for me. It is as though, despite knowing the other was there – or coming – respectively, there remains a trace of excitement in…coincidence.

A beautiful green chunk nearby the Battery Park area.

The following days were spent putting ticks beside Les’ handy list of “to do”s. Whilst I had a couple of things of my own to get done, the sheer size of the place means that, once again, it is a huge advantage having a local to show you around, or at least make very informed suggestions. Katz’s Deli for some pastrami, a meander around the financial district, where three disparate groups of demonstrators had overlapped: teachers wanting higher pay (who asked me to join them), people against the pay of Wall St execs, and the bunch who were convinced that the world was to end on May 21st. A visit to Central Park was the first of many I would make over my time in New York, including the “Imagine” memorial and the little-visited North-East side.

"I'll have what I'm having" - Katz's pastrami.

Prophetic Protests - or not.

Central Park

Central Park

A visit to Ground Zero was something I had been turning over in my mind: was it a little crude to visit a site renowned simply for the fact that thousands of lives ended there one day (after all, no-one goes there to see where the World Trade Centre once stood, but where it was destroyed). Eventually I came to the conclusion that, in fact, this was one of very few defining moments for my generation. Any such moment inevitably involves knowing Where You Were When It Happened, and I wanted to be where many were on September 11, 2001, whilst I was watching vague TV reports late on a Thursday night at home on a cold night.

I knew going into it, then, that I had effectively come to see nothing – more specifically, the absence of something. In this, however, I felt unfulfilled by the experience; much like going to a celebrity grave, you are acutely aware of something being simply not present. I acknowledged its importance, but moved on.

St Paul's Church, beside Ground Zero.

We went to Top of the Rock (Rockefeller plaza is the second tallest building in NYC, with stunning views over Central Park), and scored last minute tickets to House of the Blue Leaves, with Ben Stiller and Edie Falco, where our seats were three metres from the stage, and where my keen eye spotted Ben Stiller’s father (of Seinfeld fame), who said hello to me first. Shake Shack, too, was a highlight, providing quality shakes and juicy burgers. One night, our plans went awry when my pocket timer had remained set on New Orleans time, and was an hour late for a dinner with Les. I write this only to point out how thoroughly she bucked the cliche of nasty New Yorkers by being utterly forgiving of her out-of-his-depth-and-phoneless Australian chum.

Our view of Ben Stiller treading the boards for House of the Blue Leaves

Les and I at the Top Of The Rock

Top Of The Rock

There was a little left to do, but Amherst and Boston beckoned, meaning – given the reshuffle my NorthEast trip had undergone – Lachie In New York would have a sequel.

Brooklyn Bridge - probably taken around the time I was due for dinner...

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

New Orleans

We spent an incredibly uncomfortable night in a Memphis hostel, which somewhat spoiled the delicious ribs we stumbled upon in an alley, at Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous: they are apparently so famous, the US ambassador Robert D. McCallum invited the  restaurant’s staff out to Australia to cook a Memphis barbecue for a fourth of July celebration in 2007. We happened to be there when the Grizzlies won the first playoff game in their history, and got heavily involved (read: drunk and full) with the locals.

Dawn on the Amtrak

After a dawn walk through Memphis’ musical landmarks, as well as the balcony where Martin Luther King, Jnr was shot (and where I wrestled with whether to take a photo or not – eventually I decided against it), we boarded the train bound for New Orleans. Tom and I had just settled in, when I saw the flash of a very familiar white sticker on the luggage of the male member of a middle-aged couple. The sticker was the logo for Melbourne public radio station Triple R. Of course, they were from Melbourne, and thus added yet another bow to my “small world!” quiver.

Post-Storm Mississippi

We pulled into NOLA (New Orleans LouisianA) station already a little overwhelmed – it was this city around which we had planned our travels in southern USA, and it felt a little like we had reached our providential destination, for it was from here that Tom and I would go our separate ways, and the Jazz Fest we had been inexorably travelling towards. As the train rolled in, we saw prevalent signs of Hurricane Katrina – arrays of hastily-constructed new housing, and the visual presence of high-water marks on the clearly-older homes. The latter are solid brown horizontal stripes bearing the dried particles and memories of that event. Such is the volume of houses with these lines that it seems like either a macro-level art installation, or the result of a bunch of local kids having run rampant with a few pots of brown paint and a passion for aimless vandalism. The contrast between the uniformity of the high water marks and Katrina’s blind, rampant destruction was a cause for thought, but there were many more insights into this city and Her history to come; the gravity of this city’s emotions had only just been hinted at in my mind.

The French Quarter

We were to meet a girl called Bec – at that point still a stranger with whom I had only communicated via email. The connection between us, then, was tenuous at best, but, seemingly, quite standard as far as travellers go. I had met a few Americans in Arequipa, who had provided moral support while I had attempted to fix my iPod, which had inexplicably “erased” itself. After a four-hour session involving complex IT skills on a 10-year-old Peruvian computer, I succeeded in my task, and engaged in an exchange of travelling experiences, and where we were heading next. Upon mentioning Jazz Fest, one of the group, Jacqui, mentioned that a friend of hers from Boston had recently moved in to NOLA and may be able to host Tom and I. Now, this sort of sentiment is common enough amongst travellers caught in the thick of a conversation; before thinking, offers are made to “call my friend – I’m sure he’ll be cool with you crashing!” or “here’s my email – come stay when you’re in Australia!” These are usually said before considering whether they are actually feasible, preferable or even possible. Thus when Jacqui said she’d put me on to Bec, I didn’t take it as gospel, and certainly didn’t rely on it.

Par for the course in the French Quarter

African American Indian Chief

Finally, over a month later, after formulating various alternative plans (including the likelihood of us successfully rocking up with our packs and doorknocking places to stay), I got an email from Bec, offering us some space in her apartment. All those seemingly empty offers of discussions past had come to something, and Bec met us in a rather upper-class establishment on Bourbon St, where we were congratulating ourselves on reaching this final destination by drinking – naturally – a bourbon.

Bec lives with her partner Conor on the corner of Frenchmen and Decatur streets, and this couldn’t be a more ideal spot to be, since Frenchmen Street is the less boozy and rowdy cousin of the well-known Bourbon Street. Tom and I would be crashing in the loungeroom – a generous guesture toward a couple of Australians who until minutes ago were mere strangers, but in keeping with the accommodating attitude I’d encountered thus far on my travels.

Bec, Conor, Tom and myself

I won’t write at length about the Jazz Fest, except to say that it was two weekends of incredible food (crawfish [“crawdaddies”], seafood, po’ boys, soft-shell crab, jambalaya, gumbo, dark-fried chicken, real lemonade and smoothies abounded)

The food - as good as the music

…and music (Tom Jones, Arcade Fire, The Decemberists, Michelle Shocked, the Marsalis family, Michael Franti, Robert Randolph, Trombone Shorty, Rotary Downs, Washboard Chaz, Wilco, any First- and Second-Line brass bands, and basically anyone on the Gospel Stage were highlights).

Michelle Shocked

A little morning gospel

Sequinned blender krewe

The final Saturday – the biggest of the festival attendance-wise – saw us get passes to the Miller Lite Tent, courtesy of a friend of a friend, and we spent the day in and out of the VIP enclosure surrounded by water misters and free alcohol. The Australian accents of Tom and myself were the impetus for many curious conversations; how boring it now seems to be going to a music festival at which you share the same accent as the vast majority!

Lars Endegran - 93 years old.

Arcade Fire

Suzi Quatro with Arcade Fire

Mr Franti

Saturday crowd from the Bud VIP tent...

The real key to my feelings about NOLA, however, is the people, and their interactions with their magnificent, fascinating city.

The pride associated with being a NOLA resident (or, at least, a frequent visitor) is palpable among the people there. This takes various forms, but foremost among them is the Fleur de Lis. Whether it is on a flag, stuck on a car, bolted to a letterbox or tattooed on a person, this is NOLA calling card, much in the vein of I ♥ NY.

The Fleur De Lis is everywhere

Sculpture Garden

Jam on the riverfront

Some midweek ciders beside the mighty Mississippi

Though they obviously are in the United States, many NOLA residents seemed to consider themselves distinct from them. The open container law, wherein people can have a drink on the street, – or take a beer from one venue to the next as long as it’s not in glass – is testament to this. On the Monday after our arrival, news reached us – and the USA – that Osama Bin Laden had been killed by US troops in Pakistan. Upon reading of the crass, raucous celebrations taking place in other parts of the nation, I asked some residents how they felt about it. They were uniformly happy he was gone, but were far from the “vengeance has been wrought” mindset. To them, it seemed a world away, as many things do in New Orleans. There is a definite emphasis on local, rather than federal, politics, and, while this may at first seem self-centred, consideration must be given to Katrina, and putting it in contrast with September 11 was difficult to avoid, given the timing of Bin Laden’s death. The response to the events of September 11 2001 was swift; within minutes firefighters and other authorities had swarmed the site of the Twin Towers attacks. The pain was national; even internationalised. TV crews lingered for weeks. Compare this with the response, four years later, to the damage Hurricane Katrina wrought, and the response to that by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It was days before a substantive action was mobilised, and by then the damage was done to the people of New Orleans – both physically and to their patriotic-minded psyche.

Not altogether uncommon

We went to the house of some friends of Conor and Bec in Treme, a suburb of wildly varying incomes, where Scott and Diana lived with their children in a beautiful colonial-France-inspired home (this aesthetic is common in NOLA) not far from where we got on the bus each morning for Jazz Fest. After initial conversation starters, the words turned to the forthcoming hurricane season, when evacuations are a bi-yearly occurrence, and many people make plans around them, resulting in a surreal proposition to Conor by one of those present: “you should evacuate with us this Summer! We’re goin’ to the beach house!”.

Treme dinner, moonshine and stories

In between many, many tastings of home-made/brewed/distilled lemon- and orangecello, beer and whisky, Al, a friend of Scott’s who’d come for dinner too, began to talk about Katrina. He’d broken some checkpoints and come back early to check on his house off Magazine Street, on the West side of the city. He was on a motorbike, and skirted the edge of downtown: “oh man, the smell. Boys, you’ve never smelt anything like it…” Al was middle-aged and slim, with short-cropped hair, and was wearing the standard outfit for locals on a humid night like this one – shorts, a short-sleeved shirt and thongs. “It was thick, and a deep, deep brown, and even though I couldn’t see ’em, I knew there were bodies in there; you need more than mud and trash to make a smell that bad,” he guaranteed in his Louisiana drawl.

Katrina leftovers in the outer parts of town

By this point, most of the other guests were joining in with their own stories of the days and weeks surrounding Katrina. And, as these faded in the haze of moonshine imbibed that night, I sensed an unexpected enthusiasm permeating those sitting out the back late that night. I had asked cautiously about Katrina, but now suspected they felt a certain relief in being able to recall their stories to the uninitiated.

Banksy

“The fact is,” Scott said, “people lost interest a couple years ago, but we’ve been dealin’ with it constantly since ’05”. When he’d returned, theirs was the only working shower in the suburb. They’d offered it to the volunteers working in the vacant block over the road (which is still vacant), who began to take up the offer with uncharacteristic fervour – so much so that it was becoming something of a space issue. When Scott delicately put this to the woman in charge over the road, she laughed and pointed out the reason for the volunteers’ eagerness: the dog. Scott and Diana had brought their dog with them when they evacuated, and had been one of the first to bring it back to the city. The volunteers, the woman said, greatly appreciated being able to see and play with a healthy, happy dog, instead of the many emaciated strays and dead Katrina had produced. Indeed, many of them had lost their own pets in the hurricane, and Scott and Diana’s property housed within it one of the very few moments of happiness the volunteers had in no doubt difficult days.

The ensuing days saw New Orleanians pitching in; if their property was OK, they would find someone whose house wasn’t, and help them out.

Streetcar driver (don't call 'em trolleys!)

Still, problems here remain, and the list of violent crime victims and their cause of death on the side of a church is testament to this.

On the side of a church

Yes, the people of New Orleans were (and are) angry – at the president, at FEMA, at their police force – but they also realise that anger does not in itself rebuild cities, nor does resilience. Instead, they have gone about simply beige in New Orleans again, and attempting to reestablish whatever that entails. High water marks, abandoned cars, memorials…these serve only as a reminder of the temperamental geography of this much-loved city. But the Fleur de Lis, the music wafting drunkenly through the moisture-heavy air, the cheeky attitude to life – these are the true indicators of New Orleans’ character; one that I fell very much in love with.

Matt (mid-popcorn-throw), me, Tom, Bec, Conor and Kam on the biggest day - Saturday.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Great Smoky Mountains

Upon setting off for the Great Smoky Mountains, we had heard reports of tornadoes tearing through Missouri and parts of Tennessee. Naturally, I thought this was cool, and emailed family and friends, relaying this very exciting news. Unfortunately, this was the last they would hear from me for five days, given the trip to the Smoky Mountains was taken as a slightly last-minute event. And, with reports of over one hundred dead, this resulted in a lot of worry Back Home. But, this cursory email from a guy regressing back to his days when he wanted to be a storm chaser was soon forgotten, and Tom and I piled into our rented Smart Car with all our travelling gear, plus borrowed camping gear, all with just enough room for supplies to be bought en route.

The Smoky Mountains form part of the Southern Appalachian Mountains, and straddle the border of Tennessee and South Carolina; they’re also the US’ most visited national park.

Leaving just after lunch, we arrived in the newly settled dark; and as in Chile, I had the opportunity to view a landscape I had been sleeping in for several hours as the morning light touched upon the canvas. Tom and I awoke as the sun filtered through the Appalachian trees, and noticed that the RVs present the night before had, for the most part, moved on, and we were sharing the campgrounds with very few people.

The campsite

Tom had noticed there was a scenic drive going on a loop around some of the other campsites, and decided we’d take it in with the other (literal) Sunday Drivers. Pleasant would be the word to describe it, and much of the cleared frontier land was aglow with the warm heat, and the greens of the fields brightened under the sun.

Scenic times indeed

We later offset this sojourn with an easy walk on a nearby track. It was the first of three increasingly difficult walks we were to take, and in the interests of succinctness, it involved three things of particular note:

– An utterly crystalline swimming hole that the stream we were walking beside opened into; with a waterfall pouring into it from another source, somewhere in the mountain, high above the lagoon. After a couple of hours’ walking, a splash into the water was crushingly refreshing.

– At lunch beside the stream, just below a walkbridge, Tom called me over – he had spotted an enclave of thirty to forty butterflies, forming a melange of colour whose pulsing did not change even when approached by two curious humans.

Not even half of them...

– A bright yellow-and-black-striped snake, which only made its presence known when I came within two inches of stepping on it. Visibly aggravated, it thankfully decided on flight rather than fight, and irritably slithered away up the slope next to the track.

Next day, we Stepped It Up A Notch, deciding to take a track that was a little longer, climbed a little higher, and would take us into the guts of the Smokies. It was a warm, muggy day (as they all had been since setting up the tent), and we were around twelve minutes into our expected four-hour hike when I spotted what was to be one of the highlights of my entire trip: a rustle of black and tan fur and movement off to our right, about four metres from the path. We HAD taken the “beware of bears” signs seriously, to the extent that we had put our food in the car at night, and read about the possibility of sightings. Of course, whilst doing so, we had wordlessly acknowledged that we were childlike boys at heart, and agreed on how COOL it would be to see one.

I alerted Tom in a quiet but urgent voice, which I later reflected sounded like my Teacher Voice, an indispensable part of a profession that I’m absolutely convinced has never been this instrumental in saving lives: “Tom, bear. To the right. TOM. BEAR. JUST. THERE”. A brief, hasty search on his part followed, and an identifiable stiffening of the limbs to match my already-frozen stance. Gradually, however, we stepped backwards from the creature, around ten metres away from us. It became aware of us (or at least acknowledged us) at this point, raising its head and looking straight at the two disbelieving Australians. Much later, it was agreed that the bear’s subsequent two or three steps in our general direction constituted a definite indication of an intent to rip our limbs from our torso. The colouring remained a mystery, however, and we were busily racking our brains trying to remember any content in the literature that could shed a light on whether Grizzlies roamed these mountains. We were (and remain) reasonably sure it was an adolescent, and the presence of a mother was the main worry for both of us. By this point, we had backed away twenty steps or so, and we watched with equal parts fascination and frustration as its presence prevented us from moving with our planned hike. Finally, we decided it had disappeared enough into the foliage for us to go and do the same into the path, and onward we went. It was later confirmed to be likely an adolescent Black Bear, whose colouring starts light, and grows darker as they age. With a little research, it was also confirmed that the mother was indeed the more present threat to us, given they are normally quite a docile species, EXCEPT when cubs are involved.

We collected a stick or rock each, and made plenty of noise as the path took us higher, knowing that a surprised bear is an aggressive bear, so the more warning they get of our presence, the better. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the leafy green foliage began to give way to brown-tinged, skeletal trees studding themselves into the strangely wet ground, eventually falling away to one side of us, whilst climbing the other. The wind began to build, too, in seemingly ravenous gusts, as though it had had to make do with devouring leaves for many years, and had not seen souls up in these parts in a long time. This was a beautiful but desolate place, so close to the lush scenic-drive-dominated lands below.

Forearmed is forearmed.

Contrast to the lushness below; note the birds in the air

The next day I was very excited for, because we planned to venture not only into another state, North Carolina, but because we were going to do it on the infamous Appalachian Trail. Both Tom and I were fans of Bill Bryson’s “A Walk In The Woods”, wherein the author embarks on an attempt to “through-hike” the entire Trail, along with his equally hapless companion, Katz. Whilst the Trail is usually many hours hiking away from the nearest town, in this case it pauses near the once-beautiful-but-now-altogether-vomit-inducingly-kitsch town of Gatlinburg. We drove up a mountain, finding a park amongst the globs of day-trippers, to where the trail picks up again after breaking off on the other side of the asphalt, meaning that every through-hiker must pass through the parking lot as something of a curiosity on show, which must be mildly mortifying to a person who, at this point of the Trail, must have gone several months having very limited contact with modern civilisation. Buying into the zoo-display analogy, both Tom and I were keen to catch sight of a real-life through-hiker in its natural habitat: the Trail. And, given our luck the previous days, we were quietly confident. These people usually spend at least six months hiking the Appalachians, an undertaking that requires a very certain degree of insanity – not to mention a tolerance of body odour beyond most people’s comprehension. Before long we had begun hiking the path, and left the gathered masses behind, and ruminated on how remarkable it is that a slight gradient and ever-increasing distance from one’s car can act as such strong deterrents for so many people.

Soon after, we sighted our first streak of white paint on a tree trunk, the emblematic marker signifying the Trail. We passed bear traps and beautiful old-growth trees, all the while drinking in – and moving amongst – the silence up there. Eventually we came upon one of the many shelters that dot the Trail, and there we found a heavily bearded man of about sixty, very well worn-in clothes and a nature about his personality that was ever-so-slightly askew…this, undoubtedly, was that most fascinating creature of the Appalachians; a real life through-hiker. I did not get his name, – a typical situation on my travels, when you’ve been speaking for so long that it becomes a little strange to ask their name at that point – but we found out he had been on the Trail for two months already, and that he and his as-yet unsighted friend were a little “delicate” after a night out in Gatlinburg on the Whisky.

“It’s a hell of a lot different down there from up here, that’s for sure,” he observed.

“Hell of a lot different down there than most anywhere!” his Trail partner cheerfully chimed in from behind the shelter’s blue tarpaulin facade. He emerged a minute later, and began gathering firewood just as it began to rain. We stayed on the balcony, eating our lunch as the drops formed a sheet of water in front of us. It emerged that they were in need of reading material, and were extremely grateful when I left an old National Geographic with the first man: “better than food! I finished my book a week ago!”

They did not know how far they would get, nor did they seem to mind if they finished or not. It turned out the first man had a deadline; a wedding – in September.

“However far I am by then, I’ll be happy enough,” he said, as the conversation’s spark eased, along with the rain. Here were a man and his friend so used to each other’s company, it seemed both a relief and a challenge to have third party conversation partners. Sensing our time was up with these two men – what mystery surrounding them! Where did they come from? What motivates them? Could they even put it into words? – Tom and I said our goodbyes. As we were walking back the way we came, it struck me that these men, indeed, all those who walk this trail, would find the practice of going back to where you came a difficult one to undertake. They walk in the same direction for over half a year, never going backwards, always edging closer to an endpoint so far in the future that maps showing it on the same page as the beginning are reduced down beyond all recognition. For many months on end, their life is viewed in a 1 : 250,000 scale, a massive shock of perspective. I tried to understand what that does to someone’s mind, but could not comprehend it. Going from such a macro-oriented viewpoint, to ensuring menial tasks are completed, is such a leap beyond me and how I perceive my life. As if to demonstrate this, just as the two men were about to disappear from our view, I turned and saw the first man stare out at the vista for a while longer. Finally, he turned, walked down the steps of the shelter, and wordlessly began helping his friend gather firewood. To them, this was just another day on the Appalachian Trail. At this very pre-September moment, they will still be somewhere in the very definition of “backcountry”, completing their stated aim of “at least eight, hopefully twelve miles a day”.

Final dinner

The next morning we packed up the Smart Car again, and hit the road. The weather seemed to have closed in, and the wind had really picked up, wobbling our feather-light vehicle all over the road. Then, after an hour or so or NPR (our sole oasis in a desert of preacher-personality-driven Christian radio), the radio began making strange sounds. Buzzing, zapping, whining, screeching…then a fuzzy, male, Southern-US-accented voice came on, saying “there is a tornado watch current for…” – at which point he began reeling off mysterious names. This presented something of a problem; namely that we had no idea if the green-sided highway we were wobbling down was included in this “Tornado Watch”.

“Is that us?”

“I dunno, where the hell are we?”

“I dunno, but that second county sounded kind of familiar for some reason…”

“Is that the one the tornadoes are east of?”

“I dunno…”

etc.

The view from the car

We decided to simply continue driving, knowing full well that the What You Don’t Know Can’t Hurt You maxim never was less apt. The rapidly blackening clouds told us we may in fact have been in danger for the third time in four days. We kept a sharp eye, and when the clouds had reached a shade resembling that of the highway we were hurtling down (insofar as hurtling is possible in a Smart Car), the snap, crackle and pops began once again. This time, the ghostly announcer had replaced the “watch” in Tornado Watch with “warning”. Tom and I immediately wrestled with the semantics and concluded that our likelihood of dying in a manner befitting the film “Twister” had just increased. What were we supposed to do? Pull over? Speed up? Stay in the car that went into death shakes at the slightest shiver of a tree’s leaves? Or run to…where? The very trees that in the wake of such events are inevitably described as having been “snapped like matchsticks”? Finally, we used our regional upbringing – and thus years of obsessing over oncoming weather – to analyse our approximate direction, the proportionate lighter shade of black that towered over that portion of the highway, and concluded that, in fact, we would be fine. This was cosily followed by a detailed analysis of who was the Helen Hunt, and the Bill Paxton, of our Twister-esque situation.

It was absolutely pouring down by the time we got back to Nashville, and after meeting a Bostonian in town for a marathon, I logged on at a Starbucks whilst waiting for the Greyhound to Memphis, we realised the seriousness of the situation: the tornadoes we had been warned of were in fact the tail end of a spate of disastrous twisters that had been pummelling Tennessee and its surrounding states since we had left for the Smokies; since, indeed, I had emailed my family and friends with the exciting news that tornado warnings had been issued for our area, then been conspicuously silent for four days. With a great deal of guilt, I finally replied to the increasingly concerned and urgent emails that had been sent to me in the past few days, and boarded the bus, in one last push of Southward travel.

The mission across the road, Nashville

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Nashville / Murfreesboro

After a brief bus-related mishap, – involving Greyhound changing its station address in Brunswick without notice and us chasing down our ride to the station and breathlessly asking him to speed down to the other – we arrived in Nashville, after a ten-hour ride, at four in the morning. Here we were met by Tom’s expat cousin Colin, who strolled in wide awake, instantly spotting the two fellow Australians, sitting fatigued on a station bench: “well,” he chirped, “here’s a couple of likely lads!” He drove us back to his family’s house in Murfreesboro, about twenty minutes outside of Nashville where we slept off a hefty debt.

Nashville Greyhound station. About 4am.

Later in the morning, Colin’s wife Karen – a native of Southern US – came to pick us up, and we headed towards our destination for the day: Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU). Karen runs several english classes there, and was more than happy to dissect the far-right outlook of most of her Tennessee neighbours with razor sharp humour. It became apparent that, rather than let the more extreme views of her neighbours get to the family, they use whip-smart language skills and a wicked sense of humour to brush it aside.

A little down-home advice...

Following a sit-in at a tutorial, there was a lengthy Q&A with the students about Australia – “Ohmygawwwd, I just wanna listen to ’em talk alll day!” – which evolved into a long lunch with two of them; the brilliant Corey and Christian. As unlikely a pair as I would encounter in my travels, they provided one hell of a double-act and were as entertaining as they were inquisitive, given Christian’s preference for any silence to be filled with hilarious anecdotes or observations, contrasted with Corey’s quality-over-quantity approach.

Myself, Christian, Tom, Corey and friends in the MTSU caf.

Karen took us to pick up the kids, Tasmin and Sofia, and offered to take us to some local sights. Murfreesboro was at the centre of many battles of the American Civil War, and played host to the Battle of Stones River; lasting from December 31 to January 3, and resulting in an estimated 23,000 casualties over its four days. Of particular interest to us was the so-called “Slaughter Pen”, supposedly the Most Haunted Place In The United States. It is a rocky, area with very little cover, where the Confederates attacked early in the morning, and Philip Sheridan’s Union soldiers were forced attempt to hold their ground, or at least slow the advancing attack from Patrick Cleburne’s men. With neither side giving an inch with any ease, the only brigade left for the Union was made up of men from Illinois and Missouri. The resultant bodies strewn across the ground at the battle’s conclusion was said to resemble a cattle slaughter pen. Given that it is anecdotally severals degrees cooler than its surrounds, the Slaughter Pen would seem to meet the criteria for any place to be haunted (as far as this is possible), and indeed many report seeing the ghosts of soldiers seemingly unaware they are dead, not to mention a particular apparition who is said to appear during reenactments on the anniversary of the battle. Reenactors say he appears at the darkened edges of a campfire, or leaning against a tree. He is supposedly aware of the action, yet somehow removed from it, and though his uniform means he blends in easily with the terrestrial humans, he is said to disappear when sensing someone approaching him. I saw no such things, but, despite myself, could not shake the lightened-stomach feeling that something was not “right”. The silence there is certainly in contrast to the surrounding environment, with not even a tweet from any birdlife…

History is fun!

The Slaughter Pen itself. Spooky.

The Battle of Stones River was pivotal...

We followed this up with a brief tour around town, past the elegant, Italianate mansions, some of which were caught in the Civil War, and saw the down-home Mom-And-Dad Stores one imagines when thinking of such a place. One of these sold us chocolate-coated potato chips, which was…interesting. There is a definite charm to such places, even if the slightly questionable (at least, to me) moral beliefs are only ever a “God Hates Fags” bumper sticker – or a Republican administrative office –  away.

Alive and kickin'!

The next day, we visited The Hermitage, the former home of Andrew Jackson, who was president from 1829 to 1837. This acreage held up to 44 slaves at various points, and Jackson himself was revealed to be a most fascinating man. Suffice it to say he certainly earned his nickname Old Hickory, especially through his numerous – occasionally fatal – duels.

The Hermitage

Of particular – if perverse – fascination was the slaves’ quarters. Crowded conditions, along with hidey-holes for their few worldly possessions, are my pervading memories of those houses. Such an horrific concept being so accepted, and in such beautiful surrounds, was too much of a paradox for me to fathom, but it was only through experiencing this that the many Civil War sites dotted around the town’s surrounds began to truly resonate.

Slaves' quarters

That said, there are many in Middle Tennessee who believe the Confederates did not in fact lose the Civil War, or that the basis of its being instigated in the first place is a total misunderstanding (this was witnessed in both bumper sticker- and verbal-form). Interestingly, there was a lot of assumed knowledge in the tour, such as referring to his wife Rachel Donelson simply by her first name from the outset, with no context. Karen later informed us that the students here are well-versed in the rich history of their town; though I can’t speak to the political tint it takes. Clearly, my (and Tom’s) fascination with the South was just beginning.

The work bell

We then went to downtown Nashville, where country music emanates from every signal box, meaning the pining for lost loves and years put to countrypolitan-friendly chords is only ever a block away…we, of course, had to visit the Honky Tonks; a stretch of street packed with country music and neon 24-7. While it was a little hokey, we comforted ourselves with the knowledge that Jack White lives here, so it must be OK. We followed this brief walk with a visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame, where there was much memorabilia and exhibits to be viewed (the details of which are a little lost, due to the overwhelming amount of content there – an enduring problem with museums that are simply…TOO big). Highlights included Elvis’ Cadillac (replete with gold trim and in built phonograph!),

Elvis' much?

the black suit Johnny Cash wore at the Folsom Prison gig, and some stunning early footage of the blues, from whence country and western came.

Reference to Ada Habershon / A.P. Carter

Country Music Hall of Fame - shaped like a piany!

Colin had arranged a night on the town for us, and a visit to the Five Points was necessary – in Nashville’s historic East End, this area has become something like a Fitzroy for the city. We saw a gig at a nearby bar, and hit the Honky Tonks around midnight, where the walls of cowboy boots suddenly came to life, and the hokeyness was embraced by all present (Tom and I included). Many will notice this section is a little breezed through – this is primarily due to the fact that it was Nashville, we were seeing a show in a divey bar you’d never go to as a tourist, and…the beer there is cheap. With variations on the One Four Five progression pulsating through our heads, the night was ended with a dose of that ex-pat tradition, a late-night AFL game streaming over the internet. Turned out to be Gold Coast’s first win.

A Honky Tonk joint - the boots are a giveaway...

Only space was on stage!

Honky Tonks by night

It became apparent over this stay that it was the first time I was staying somewhere that had become a brief second home, thanks to the generosity of people who moments before meeting them, were strangers. Outlined above is the initial experience of doing things otherwise impossible in a hostel/hotel situation, and it became a way of travelling that unlocked many more incredible experiences for me. In the South, you feel truly amongst the heart of America. Having not been to New York at that point, I felt I was getting a unique insight into What America Is – going from the bottom up – and one which, in hindsight, I certainly would not change.

Worse places to have a barbeque

Tom, Colin, Sofia, Me, Karen and Tasmin

Tom finds his forte

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment