Around the World Trip – USA (part 3)
No, unfortunately, the title doesn’t mean I met Donald Duck’s nephews… Next stop after a mere 17 hour train journey was Kansas City, a town with little options for budget accommodation. Never mind I thought, at least I can take advantage of my own hotel room and catch up on some sleep. WRONG! There was essential roof maintenance meaning lots of banging, drilling etc. The people in KC seem a little strange. Firstly, the receptionist asked me if one room key would be enough (huh?!) and then told me there was a package for me (it was addressed to someone with the surname Brittain and she remembered I had Britain on my passport – oh dear!). When I went out for pizza the waitress said “Aaah” when I spoke. They really do like my accent here, should be interesting tonight, I thought. WRONG! After walking past a biker bar, complete with scary looking fat guys with t-shirts that said things like ‘The fatter the wheel the smaller the ass looks’ I found a bar that sells 44oz beers (2 2/3 pints – why?). However, as the night wore on, I soon grew tired of people mimicking my accent and treating me like I was some kind of oddity, like the Hobbits from Lord of the Rings, and retired to my room. On checking out my expensive room became even less value as I was hit with three taxes on top of the standard charge. Next stop – the Windy City, Chicago…
After the heat of Kansas City, I made the long trip to Chicago to be met with a biting wind and a mighty 8C. As I had no clothes to cope with this temperature I was limited to what I could do, retreating to the warmth of inside at every opportunity. Luckily, most of the time during my stay it was reasonably warm after the first day’s cold spell, although there were still plenty examples of the Windy City’s four seasons in one day weather patterns. The train ride had slowly worn me down with the man behind me singing, plus a fat guy snoring and yet another man hocking back the snot in his nose. Together these two were making the kind of snorting and grunting noises that made the train journey seem like travelling in a carriage load of pigs on their way to the slaughterhouse! Not good.
Anyway… last time I was in Chicago, Millennium Park wasn’t open (despite being post-Millennium) so I took this chance to see its unusual features: the snake-like BP Bridge, the interactive Crown Fountain (left) complete with projected images of locals that change every 15 mins, the Mecchano-like Pavilion and the most bizarre of all; Amish Kappoor’s ‘jellybean’ stainless steel sculpture. Unfortunately however, the latter was being polished and was covered by a tent and impossible to see. This is only done once every five years but takes 6 months to complete! I also visited Lincoln Park Zoo and saw my first polar bear, plus the tourist trap Navy Pier and the trendy shopping area called the Magnificent Mile where the Water Tower and Hancock Observatory can be found. The observatory’s viewing deck, high above the city offers great views but unbelievably charges ‘Amusement Tax’ on the already expensive admission charge! This place is tax and tip crazy!!
My hostel was in a great location in the fashionable Lincoln Park area, close to bars and music venues. However some of the people in the hostel were less than desirable. For several days there was a group of Chinese opera singers walking around on tip-toes and taking every chance to attract attention by singing at their top volume. After several cracked windows had been replaced they eventually sung their way to another city. I was still left with a psycho in my dorm who talked gibberish and showed be his lens-less glasses that “…helped him use the internet” apparently. Oh dear! Luckily he was thrown out after a couple of days.
By this time I had chatted to a big Aussie guy called Scott who I had seen in San Francisco and Vegas in passing and was in the same hostel as me yet again. It turns out he was doing the same trip except Memphis. We had a few beers one night and ended up in an uptown Jazz club with some locals, which was a new experience. Earlier in the week I had visited my first blues bar, which was cool, but I really don’t get Jazz. All the musicians play endless solos, there is no structure to the tunes and most people there were complete geeks! A unique experience nonetheless and what a great city.
Next stop was a day in Memphis Tenn-uh-see. After arriving very early I had plenty of time to sight-see. First stop was Graceland. I knew the mansion is smaller than most people would expect, but only two of the four floors are open to the public anyway and there are other buildings on the property so it’s still impressive. My favourite room was the Jungle room, complete with green shag-pile carpet on the floor, walls and ceiling! Although I’m not really an Elvis fan, what I saw and learned underlined what I already knew – the man was a pioneer who changed the face of modern music. I didn’t realise he had released over 90 albums, selling over 1 billion! He also helped out many needy causes without seeking publicity, so I’ll overlook the 30+ cheesy films he appeared in (what was he thinking?!) Even his personal jet had the same ostentatious furnishings as his mansion; and he did have a penchant for unusual cars/buggies as well – he converted a snowmobile to a ‘grassmobile’!
The rest of Memphis included a visit to a restaurant/bar called Huey’s to have one of their ‘famous’ steak burgers. It was so big it was held together with a wood skewer, hundreds of which were hanging from the ceiling. I tried to get mine there, but gave up after failing and catching it in my eye on its way down. I also saw the massive pyramid function centre, the National Civil Rights Museum and Beale Street – countless blues bars with flashing neon signs. I was so tired that I retired early as my train was at 6.30am the next day. I could have done with an extra day but the hotel was too expensive to justify it. I didn’t get a chance to see Mud Island, in the middle of the Mississippi River, Sun City Studios or the Peabody Hotel, where resident ducks take the elevator down from their home on the roof to the fountain at ground level every day at 11am!! I kid you not. Only in America would this happen – why can’t they fly? At least the early night gave me the chance to see my favourite ‘celebrity’ news reader, Wolf Blitzer on CNN. Great name. Another thing, plenty of reports on American TV are captioned with ‘Recorded live – earlier’. What’s the point of that?!
Next stop was the city that gave the world Louis Armstrong, New Orleans, to meet up with Scott again for us to experience another party town, but this time with the threat of violent crime hanging over us if we wandered a couple of blocks too far (one tour operator gave me a city map but drew a line and wrote ‘Danger’ and said don’t go into that area!). Man it was hot!! The first night we went to the ‘legendary’ Tuesday night at the Maple Leaf, a music club off the beaten track. We witnessed a brass band night; music that is similar to jazz but a bit more lively, with less geeks nodding their heads, smiling and giving each other the thumbs up every few minutes. Good to experience but still not my thing, but at least it wasn’t the marching brass band that I was expecting on arrival after paying the cover charge. Well how was I to know? I didn’t know this type of music existed a few weeks ago.
The main tourist area in NO is the French Quarter, much of which is in serious need of renovation. It would look amazing if some money was spent and it didn’t smell so bad! Having said that, the architecture of the FQ, and the posh Garden District, in addition to the hundreds of gothic tombs that line the cemeteries make NO a crowd puller. The reason why no-one is buried underground is that NO is below sea level and prone to flooding and they found that dead bodies tend to become displaced and float around in such a scenario!
The FQ is pretty much an all night drinking area, with the smell of urine and vomit announcing our arrival on the infamous Bourbon Street. During the annual Mardi Gras, girls show their breasts in exchange for bead necklaces, meaning that the one with the most necklaces has the least class but is presumably the ‘winner’ if she can walk home under the weight of tons of cheap jewellery. It seems there are plenty of people (mostly men) who are trying to keep this ritual alive all year long. In amongst the strip-joints and cocktail bars there are some decent blues/jazz bars there, but most are pretty bad and you need to explore other parts of the FQ to find the better places. Scott dragged me into a seedy-looking strip club and I managed to get into an argument with a stripper who had an arse not unlike the surface of the moon in size and smoothness. She started mouthing off to me as I hadn’t tipped her and seemed to take offence when I said she didn’t deserve one! I’ve no idea what she said as it was pure southern drawl but we decided to take our ‘legendary’ Hand Grenade cocktails (bought earlier – you can wander freely with drinks like Vegas) and leave quickly before I got shot. I hate those places anyway. I only went in because it was free.
Five days was too long to spend in NO and, after seeing several alligators on a swamp tour, we were struggling for things to do by the last day, when we decided to have a ‘Taste of New Orleans’ – four locals dishes: Gumbo (fish slop), Jumbalaya (spicy slop), crawfish (crustaceans actually, not fish) and red bean slop (I couldn’t finish it). The jumbalaya was okay but it seemed like prison food to me! Worth a try though.