Mandy and the World

Find out what I've been up to on my overseas adventure!

Mandaura the Explorer (with esteemed comrade Hugo) – Part IV

The Midwest to NY

Ahhh the Midwest… Home of bourbon, motor sports and rednecks. We felt our trip would be incomplete without a (small) taste of this part of America. So from Washington D.C we headed out toward Kentucky. Our first stop was a picturesque bourbon distillery called Four Roses in a little town called Lawrenceburg. I’m not so much a whiskey girl, but Hugo and Laura are big fans.

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The tour took us through the working distillery and the process of bourbon making. To be called bourbon, the whiskey has to be made in the United States with a minimum of 51% corn grain, distilled at no more than 160 proof and aged in a new white oak barrel charred on the inside. The barrel can only be used once, as this gives bourbon its distinctive flavour. Four Roses has been around since 1860 and they are interesting as they have 10 different types of bourbon produced form two ‘mash’ (the grain combination) recipes and 5 different strains of yeast- you can buy the single barrel varieties too, which all taste slightly different. I didn’t mind at least one of the varieties we tried after the tour, but Hugo and Laura both left with some bottles!

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We headed on to Bardstown, which advertised itself as ‘America’s most beautiful small town’ (not sure if they were given the title or if they just made it up…) Here we had a delicious lunch of Kentucky specialties at a little family restaurant- some fried chicken of course, and a ‘hot brown’- like an extreme welsh rarebit. It’s a piece of toast layered with sliced turkey breast, smothered in cheese sauce and topped with bacon strips then grilled!

The hot brown came served with a ‘congealed salad’ which I can only assume is another Kentucky specialty except it sounds disgusting. We asked the waitress what it was and she replied ‘It’s Jell-o with pineapple in it’, which sounded more like a dessert, but it showed up in a big slab with mayonnaise! It tasted ok (better sans mayo), but Kentucky, this is a problem… Just because it is served on a piece of lettuce, it does not even remotely constitute a salad, and as such, should not be adorned with this false title! Maybe you could consider changing the gross name too…

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After lunch we visited the history of whiskey museum which took us through prohibition, as well as having lots of fun paraphernalia to look at…

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After all the whiskey touring, we went to St Louis, Missouri. We drove by the famous Gateway Arch and checked out Forest Park, an urban green space bigger than Central Park, with it’s beautiful, with lakes and streams. Later, we headed to The Hill district, St Louis’s ‘Little Italy’ for dinner to try the local toasted ravioli. We ended up at Mama’s, one of the two restaurants in the district that claims they invented the dish. The little parcels are actually deep fried and naturally, were delicious. We then headed into town to visit the City Museum which was open til midnight.

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This place was definitely a highlight- it’s like a crazy playground maze made out of urban materials with a few little exhibits on antiques or preserved insects thrown in for good measure. It’s quite hard to describe what it was like, the place is designed by a sculptor and is just amazing. We started up on the roof where there is a ferris wheel, a couple of giant slides, and an old school bus hanging off the edge of the building.

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Inside a few of the exhibits were closed, but we made a shadow puppet with an interesting character called Stuart and then explored a bit of the ground level, including two suspended aeroplanes which were part of the creation. I would absolutely go back again, you could spend ages in there exploring! And they are still creating new spaces so it’ll probably be even better in a couple of years… I’ll see you again St Louis 🙂

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The next day we were off to Kansas City for… wait for it… NASCAR! We’d managed to get some cheap tickets and thought the experience would be well worth the hike. Luckily for us, there was a Walmart about a 20 minute walk from the speedway, so we were set! We had by this point gotten into the habit of counting how many ‘friends’ (other campers) we have in each parking lot. And Kansas was a record- there would’ve been at least 20 other vans/RVs. We’d looked into camping at the speedway and it was $150, so Walmart campers: Winning!

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So here’s another fun fact: you can BYO booze to NASCAR! You are only limited by the size of the bag you bring, but we picked up two cooler bags that hold 16 cans for $10 each and a case of 30 beers for $20 so we were set!! Booze is soooooo cheap in the states… The only thing you weren’t allowed to bring in with you were firearms… phew!

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NASCAR is pretty much as boring and repetitive to watch as you’d expect. Which is probably why you need all that beer. Sad to say, but this means it is actually more exciting when something goes wrong! Whenever anyone spins off the track or crashes the crowd is up on their feet yelling and cheering! NASCAR is actually the 2nd most watched sport in America (only to football) which is worrying… watching the cars go round n round n round on TV is not quite the same as being in the crowd at the speedway… They can be more entertaining than the cars at times!

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We watched the whole 200 laps (a short race!) then went across the road to Hooters to round out our experience… Hooters was also what you’d expect… greasy food, beers, a whole lot of dudes and teeny underage waitresses in minuscule shorts running around the place. It was good to check out once but not somewhere I’ll rush back to (though the wings were very good…)

The next day we started making our way up toward Chicago, driving part of Historic Route 66, which included a giant statue of Paul Bunyan holding a hotdog, and visiting a maple sirop farm at Funk Grove. We had lunch at Sonic, a drive-in restaurant (kind of the epitome of laziness) but we felt we had to try it. We just sat in the car, ordered through a speaker and then someone brought out our food and we ate it in the car!

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My first night in Chicago I stayed with Hugo at his friend Joe’s place- Laura had a conference to attend in the city. Joe has a gorgeous dog called Zeus who is part wolf and freaked a lot of people out when we walked him down to Humboldt Park! We had a pretty quiet night in but did get to try some deep dish pizza from Giordano’s which was AWESOME!

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The following day I met up with Chelsea who I’d met in Nicaragua. We had a great day wandering around the parks, visiting Buckingham Fountain (apparently featured in the opening credits of Married With Children), visited Cloud Gate- colloquially known as ‘the bean’- which is a giant mirrored sculpture in Millennium Park and then walked into the city where I saw a piece of the Sydney Opera House attached to the Tribune Building.

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We ate Italian beef sandwiches for lunch, went up the John Hancock Building for a drink with a view at Signature Bar on the 96th floor, and wound up at a Cupcake ATM! Best invention ever!! After saying goodbye to Chelsea, I finished the day with a run out on Lake Michigan which was beautiful.

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Chicago is a big city, but seems pretty laid back and is really clean and pretty- I really enjoyed it. On our way out of town we did the last foodie taste test- the Chicago dog, traditionally served with relish, peppers and a pickle spear, but NEVER tomato sauce (a challenge for me, but even more so for Laura who ‘likes ketchup on her ketchup’!). We went to a little store called Gene and Jude’s who did a roaring trade in simple, unattractive but delicious hot dogs, and we managed to eat them without cheating and adding tomato sauce!

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We next headed to Cincinnati, Ohio, for some Friday night college football! We used AirBnB again and stayed with a couple of college students a short walk from campus, so we were right in the thick of all the action. During the day we checked out Eden Park, overlooking the city from the top of Mt Adams, and then visited the Freedom Centre, a museum about slavery and particularly escape via the Underground Railroad. This was a network of people who risked their lives to help shelter and guide escaped slaves to freedom in the states of the north (of which Ohio was on the border). There were some really incredible stories in there.

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In the evening all the festivities had kicked off in the neighbourhood, with every 2nd house seeming to be ‘tailgating’ (pre-drinking/partying before the game). The street was covered in red and black, the colours of the University of Cincinnati’s team, the Bearcats, and when we left for the game there was a steady stream of people moving toward the stadium.

We arrived in time to see the team run onto the field accompanied by a 300 piece marching band, a show of fireworks and the rah-rah-rahs of 4 troupes of cheerleaders! Pretty epic. There were about 32000 people at the game and I don’t think anyone was cheering for the opposition, Temple… When Temple scored, the huge crowd was dead silent, but when the Bearcats scored, the sea of red erupted with shouts and applause, the cheerleaders stirred into action, music played and the army cadets even fired off a cannon and dropped for a round of push ups!

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The half time entertainment was the 300-piece marching band playing some Beethoven excepts while marching into different formations surrounded by some baton twirlers and girls waving big flags. There was even a bearcat called Lucy from the local zoo visiting- I had no idea a bearcat was even a real animal! I thought it was a made up name, but it is actually the informal name for the binturong, an animal native to Southeast Asia. Who knew!

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After the game, Hugo’s dream of attending a college party was realised when our hosts took us to one around the corner. There was a guy on the door playing bouncer and enjoying his power trip, but he let us in and we inched our way upstairs into the packed house. I felt so old, everyone looked about 17! There was a keg in the kitchen and people were selling beers for $5 (!). Beer-pong was also going but to stop mess they were using cups with water in and just sipping their beers which Laura was appalled at. Naturally she stepped up to show the kids how it should be done. Hugo on the other hand fell asleep on the couch after all his excitement much to our amusement!

After hitting Columbus and Pittsburgh, we then headed on to Philadelphia, via Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s capital. It was here we ate our first ever cheesesteak (it didn’t disappoint!) and afterward visited Pottsville, where we toured America’s oldest brewery, Yeungling- since 1829. The brewery tour was awesome, but packed as it was a public holiday and a free tour so everyone was doing it!

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We saw the old hand-dug caves which were used for temperature control back in the days before refrigeration (took them 10 years to dig!), the kegging room, the currently used kettles and brewing equipment and also the bottling shed. We finished off with two decent samples- the beer is great, but not very widely distributed- mostly just the north-eastern states of the US.

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We arrived in Philly in the evening, celebrated Canadian thanksgiving with a nice meal on South St and parked up at the lovely riverfront view Walmart for the night. It was actually quite close to town for once, but bit of a scary clientele with domestics in the car park and shoplifting scandals in store!

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My next morning was spent at the University of Pennsylvania’s dental school as I’d had a horrible toothache over the past week and decided it was time to stop putting off getting it checked out. Unfortunately the verdict was I needed a root canal, but I managed to get away with a temporary procedure that should tide me over until I’m back in Aus and covered by health insurance! 3 hours later I met up with Laura and Hugo and we explored a bit in town.

We ate Philly cheesesteaks (again!) at Pat’s King of Steaks, allegedly the home of the ‘original’ cheesesteak and open since 1930. Sylvester Stallone also apparently ate here in the filming of Rocky (one of them), and there is a little memorial stone in the pavement to commemorate the occasion. We walked into the centre through the Italian Market, a stretch of Mediterranean and Mexican stores and restaurants, as well as Washington Square, one of the original parks William Penn laid out in Philly and arrived at the Independence Park where sadly we really noticed the effects of the US government shutdown which was still dragging on.

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We peeked at the famous Liberty Bell through a pane of glass, but many of the historical buildings such as the US Mint; Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed; Congress Hall, the seat of government when Philadelphia was the capital and the National Portrait Gallery were all closed.

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We then visited the Reading Terminal Market, full of amazing food, and walked by City Hall, which is topped with a statue of William Penn and is supposed to be the tallest masonry building without steel infrastructure in the world.

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Hugo and I then walked up to the Art Museum to join all the other Rocky fans running up the stairs and posing at the top just like Sly Stallone did!

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Hugo took a bus to New York the next morning to catch a friend, so Laura and I went on a little adventure to Jersey before meeting him there. We stopped in the faded casino resort of Atlantic City and ate some fish and chips on the boardwalk, then headed up to Seaside Heights, home of the trashy reality TV show, Jersey Shore. Both towns were pretty dreary and abandoned looking, probably a mix of the off season, grey weather and the still tangible after-effects of Hurricane Sandy. We didn’t hang around long and rolled up to the interestingly named Cheesequake State Park that afternoon.

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Cheesequake was a bit strange as it bordered with suburban streets and had a freeway running over the top of part of it, but still felt like you were out of the city! We went for a run to the lake as the sun was setting over the autumn coloured trees, then cooked a curry for dinner and made smores over the camp stove while two racoons watched us. It was a really nice last night of actual camping (as opposed to the Walmart variety!).

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From there it was off to New York, New York! We kick started our visit with lunch at the renowned Carnegie’s Deli which was packed. We shared a ridiculously expensive but extremely enormous corned beef sandwich which was plenty to feed us both as it came with 5 pickles too! Our afternoon was spent at the Natural History Museum (of ‘Night at the Museum’ fame).

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After a couple of hours in the incredible museum looking at the fantastic displays of dinosaur bones and taxidermy animals amongst other things, we went to Magee’s Pub for a beer, which the set of How I Met Your Mother is based on.

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We stayed with Laura’s friend Dave that night in a cool area of town called Hell’s Kitchen- his 28th floor apartment had a wicked view over the city.

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We dragged ourselves up next morning after a few too many beers to hit more Manhattan sights. We started the day with NY bagels and headed to MoMA (the Museum of Modern Art) which was a bit strange at times, but had some really impressive work. Strange was mostly the performance art, one of which was this lady walking slowly backwards through the museum (I don’t get it) and some of the really abstract stuff, like this painting called ‘Boy and a knapsack’…

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But there were some amazing pieces by Monet, Matisse, Picasso, Frida Kahlo and Andy Warhol amongst many others. We left for lunch at a hidden place called The Burger Joint, located in the lobby of the fancy Le Parker Meridien behind a red curtain. There is just a long line of people and a little neon burger sign telling you it exists. The burgers were good but not spectacular considering the wait, but I guess you mostly wait for the novelty of it.

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From there we walked 5th Avenue, visited Grand Central Station (which made you feel a bit like you were in a movie) and then walked the High Line, a mile long piece of old railway that has been converted into a park running above the city. Super cool concept. During the day we noticed that Pie Face has made it to NY- I wonder how long til they’ll be on every block like in Melbourne?! Last activity for the long day was taking the ferry across to Staten Island for a free view of the Statue of Liberty by night. It actually goes pretty close to the statue and the ferry is free, so I’d totally recommend it for budget travellers in NYC!

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As an aside, the ferry website is pretty hilarious, with many ferry ‘facts’, many of which actually just recount disasters from the ferry’s history! For example:

  • ‘On July 30, 1871 at about 1:30 pm the ferry boat Westfield II experienced a catastrophic boiler explosion while in the slip at Whitehall. Several days after the disaster it was revealed that at least 85 people had lost their lives. Several more were added to the death toll weeks later.’
  • ‘On February 8, 1958 The Dongan Hills was hit by the Norwegian tanker Tynefield. 15 passengers were injured.’
  • ‘In 1960, a bomb was set off on the Knickerbocker.’
  • ‘July 7th, 1986 a mentally disturbed person (Juan Gonzalez) with a machete attacked passengers on a ferry. Two people were killed and nine others were wounded.’

…etc, etc… So if that doesn’t put you off- go for it!

After a night out in West Village, we headed out to Brooklyn to meet my friends Ange and CJ for brunch at a trendy little place called Reynard’s. Ange and I went to uni together and haven’t seen each other for 2 years since she and CJ have been living and working in the UK, but as fate would have it, we were all in NY on the same weekend! It was really nice to catch up, and as the Brooklyn Brewery was across the street we continued our catch up there til Laura and I had to head off for the first of our wedding activities.

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Laura’s friend Ariela was getting married and I was lucky enough to score an invite too, but the activities for this big Jewish wedding were a multi-day affair! I was pretty excited to be going as I’ve never been to a Jewish wedding before. Saturday afternoon was a meet-n-greet at a friend of Ariela’s place, an amazing house in Great Neck (near Queens) with had a 4-tier backyard which went right down to the waterfront on the bay.

Later was a special ‘VIP mystery activity’ which we had to get on a bus for and drove for about an hour to arrive at an indoor multisport centre! Ariela and Harris had wanted all their friends to meet and have some fun so everyone was familiar with each other at the wedding, so we were all split into teams and had to do a range of novelty races and activities against each other, winding up with a 50 strong adult game of musical chairs. A really awesome idea which was lots of fun!

Sunday morning Laura and I spent in Flushing, a huge Chinese neighbourhood near Queens. We enjoyed a walk through the park, saw the ‘Unisphere’ sculpture and the tennis centre where the US open is played, and ended with some quality dumplings, noodles, pork buns and bubble tea, reminding us of our Asian adventures in Victoria St, Melbourne back in days of old!

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In the afternoon, it was wedding time! We prettied ourselves up and walked down to the Queens County Farm Museum which was like a little slice of countryside right in the heart of Queens. It is actually the oldest continuously farmed piece of land in NY State (since 1697!). At the beginning of the wedding Ariela and Harris had their own separate receptions- the guys drank whiskey and sang songs and the girls drank cocktails and went to greet Ariela and the mothers of the bride and groom. We went on a hayride around the farm before Harris was danced in to Ariela’s reception, held overhead on a chair of course, with all of the guys singing raucously and even a couple of brass instruments playing along!

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Afterwards  was the ceremony, which was beautiful. It was conducted under what is called the chuppah, a piece of fabric strung up on 4 poles which represents the home that the newlyweds will share. Ariela and Harris had got all their friends and family to make a little square which were patchworked together in the centre of the chuppah- gorgeous! After the breaking of the glass, it was time for the reception.

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The main part is called the Horah and involves a lot of singing, dancing in circles and entertaining the bride and groom who are every now and then lifted up on their chairs above the crowd. Ariela and Harris had a particularly long horah, and it was so cool to see everyone get involved! After there was the meal, more dancing, some amazing speeches and of course more dancing. It was such a fun wedding, I felt very lucky to have been invited along to join in the festivities!

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The last wedding activity was a breakfast the next morning where Hugo joined us, and then we hit the road once more. We stopped in the interestingly named town of Mystic, Connecticut for a seafood lunch, before rolling in to Boston in the afternoon. We checked out Bunker Hill where a massive obelisk has been erected to commemorate the first battle of the revolutionary war. The patriots actually lost, but apparently ‘severely damaged’ British forces, ‘killing or injuring half of their troops’… but the numbers indicated only about a 10th of the British forces had been killed, and who knows what counted as injured in these stats!

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A short walk away was the USS Constitution, nicknamed ‘Old Ironsides’, the oldest warship in the world still afloat. There was a little museum there which had an upper level appearing to be mostly aimed at kids, but entertained and informed us just as well on what life was like on the sea back in the 1800s!

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Our evening was spent walking a little of the Freedom Trail (though we were too late to go in to any other museums) and hunting down the best Boston Crème Pie in Boston. We ended up at Mike’s Pastry Shop, and walked out with a delicious slice of crème pie… as well as a choc-chip cannoli and a piece of NY style cheesecake!

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Our final night in the US was fittingly spent at- you guessed it! Walmart. We pulled up in Salem, New Hampshire, which meant crossing into our 5th state for the day! The following day’s trip to the Canadian border was made a little more exciting by pulling up for gas in a town called Franconia, which had one gas station, unfortunately adorned with a hand-written sign saying ‘No gas’! So for the 3rd time this trip, we refilled from our 5 gallon reserve in the back. After we’d filled up in the next town, we said goodbye to cheap gas and booze, and it was off to Canada, the final leg our our epic roadie!

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Mandaura the Explorer (with esteemed comrade Hugo)- Part III

The East Coast

Our first stop on the coast was Charleston, South Carolina. A picturesque, affluent little town on the water, Charleston has a much darker history than its appearance suggests. Back in the 1600 and 1700s Charleston’s port was the heart of North America’s international slave trade. Even when the international slave trade was ceased in 1808 Charleston was still a hub for the internal slave trade where slaves were transported from other states and sold to work the many plantations (predominantly rice) that brought Charleston its large income.

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On our first day in the area, we visited Drayton Hall, the only original colonial era plantation home surviving in the area today, managing to withstand hurricanes and the civil war (apparently by putting up small pox quarantine flags around the property so it was left alone!). It is situated on the banks of the Ashley River, which back used to be lined on both sides by plantations.

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Drayton was a rice plantation and had of course had many slaves working the fields and also helping run the grand home. The house itself has been preserved, rather than restored, which means it is being kept as is, not glammed back up to its colonial glory. It was unfurnished inside because of this, but it was cool to see what each of the generations had added to the place and see the original colonial décor.

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After spending the afternoon wandering the cobbled streets of Charleston, we indulged in a nice dinner at Fleet Landing, an old navy base on the waterfront converted into a restaurant. Laura and I tried the local She-Crab soup (like a bisque made with crab meat and crab roe), and I had a seafood platter with another local addition- called ‘hush puppies’, delicious fried balls of cornbread!

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From this part of the trip our urban camping takes a turn… I will digress a little to South Carolina, where we tried to visit Congaree State Park, but they didn’t allow van/RV camping. Then the park ranger said ‘You know you can camp at Walmart right?’ We had been told this before but weren’t sure if it was allowed… We asked, ‘So it’s legal then?’ and she replied, ‘Yes, they encourage campers!’ We didn’t go to Walmart that night, we went to another state park instead, but this conversation definitely impacted the course of our trip!

So to continue… outside of Charleston was our first Walmart camping experience… Before you judge us, let’s argue the pros! It’s actually very convenient, because 1) it’s free, 2) it’s open 24 hours so you have access to the bathrooms whenever you want them, 3) because it’s open 24 hours they have security patrolling the car park all the time, and 4) there is usually a McDonald’s or Subway inside where we can grab a coffee in the morning. Perfect! The cons are obviously that it’s Walmart, and therefore filled with monsters (especially in the wee hours of the morning and late at night). But hey, worth it for the benefits of free camping with facilities and coffee, right!? :-p

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In the morning we returned to town and visited the Old Slave Mart, which is pretty much what it sounds like- an auction yard for the buying and selling of slaves. At some point once the international slave trade had been abolished and internal trading of slaves still happened on the street, some high flyer decided it wasn’t good for the image of the city to have all this happening on the street…. So instead of abolishing it they put it behind closed doors. Nice… here you read stories of how families were torn apart as different members were sold to different owners with no respect to family ties, and more old advertisements of slaves and their various ‘uses’.

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Afterward I went to see ‘Rainbow Row’, a bunch of colourful old houses, and met ‘Spidersquirrel’…

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Then  checked out the pier and the waterfront park where I was amused at the warning signs by the fountain…

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Why it would be necessary to have a lifeguard for 1cm of water (if that) on the concrete I am not sure… On our way out we stopped at another cool old town called Georgetown where unfortunately disaster had struck. The main street was closed off and there were old school fire trucks from all the surrounding towns still fighting a fire which had broken out 12 hours earlier.

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Sadly it had burned down a row of heritage buildings housing restaurants, shops and homes above. All the people got out ok apparently, but a couple of pets didn’t 😦 We didn’t hang about too long as everything was shut, and headed on to Myrtle Beach.

We had received mixed reviews of Myrtle Beach, with lots of the locals telling us how fun it is, but our guidebook making it sound a bit touristy and trashy, so we decided to check it out for ourselves. We were going to be camping at Walmart again, so decided to whip up some tacos in a local park for dinner and check out town before heading out to our ‘campsite’!

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The park was pretty dodgy and appeared to be filled with bums, so we were making haste and just starting to pack up when we were approached by Timothy, a spaced out street guy who innocently came over asking ‘What y’all doin’? Oh, making tacos? I love tacos! Can I have one?’ So we donated him 2 tacos while he jumped from topic to topic of conversation, repeating several trains of thought multiple times. We backed away slowly toward the van as he attempted unsuccessfully in succession to plant kisses on both Laura and I and gave him a number of reasons why he couldn’t camp with us before he gave up and we managed to escape!

We checked out the ‘action’ in town, which pretty much ended up being a dead boardwalk, several arcades and the highlight- the Gay Dolphin gift store, which led Laura to dub Myrtle Beach ‘the place where amusement parks go to die’…

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We played a few games of Skee Ball in the arcade and Hugo tried his hand at Deal or No Deal before drowning our disappointment in an overpriced candy shop and heading to Walmart.

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We continued up the east coast to Cedar Island, our jumping off point for the Outer Banks, a series of little islands running up the coast. I never knew this area existed but it is beautiful and I’m glad we got to explore a bit of it!

On arrival at Ocracoke, the southernmost island of the Outer Banks, we were greeted by a sleepy, quaint little waterfront town which immediately felt like a perfect place to relax. We first poked around a little museum chronicling the island’s history, including the many hurricanes that have hit the area over the years, and exploring the strange local accent stemming from old English called ‘Hoi Toid’ (apparently a take off of how the locals said ‘high tide’). The accent has neutralised a lot these days with constant visitors and new residents moving across as the area is not so isolated, so sadly we didn’t really get to experience it!

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Ocracoke is also famed as the place where the infamous pirate Blackbeard (aka Edward Teach) used to hang out and eventually was killed. At the Blackbeard museum we learned he apparently hosted the biggest gathering of pirates that has ever occurred in North America a couple of weeks before his death here at a place known now as Teach’s Hole. Basically a giant pirate beach party! Not a lot is known about Edward Teach before he became a pirate, but it is believed he was pretty well brought up in England since he could apparently read and write. He was apparently a gentleman with the ladies too, despite his fearsome image (he had multiple wives)! He had about a 2 year stint as a very successful pirate before he met his end off the coast of Ocracoke and was beheaded in 1718. The legend is that his headless body swam around the boat three times before it sank and that his ghost still haunts the island looking for his severed head! Thankfully we didn’t run into him during our short stay…

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During the afternoon we hired some bikes and rode out to the lighthouse and then around to a little walking trail at Springer’s point which leads to Teach’s Hole. It’s not the nicest beach, but has a calm sound where they would leave the ships and is a pretty secluded beach perfect for a pirate piss-up!

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We then rode up the coast a bit and stopped in at the beach where I enjoyed my first ever dip in the Atlantic! It wasn’t too cold but the sea was pretty rough that day, it was super windy and the waves were so strong so we didn’t stay in too long. On our way back to town we had a lazy afternoon beer at Howard’s Pub, which has been a local watering hole since 1850.

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We had a nice dinner in town accompanied by the acoustic tunes of a cool folk band, then went in for some country tunes across the road at the Jolly Roger (Wilbur Gupton could play a mean Johnny Cash cover!) before heading to the one late night establishment on the island, Gaffas, once the Roger closed at 10.  The whole town seemed to be there, we ran into both the band and our waitress from dinner as well as our bartender Jimmy from the Jolly Rodger! Things got pretty loose there with all the locals buying shots for us (or knowing the bartender well enough to get them free!) and the jugs of beer going for $7!!

Laura went drinking with the waitress and Hugo and I ended up at a house-party with the band, going via a little Mexican restaurant which was closing down and having a party to try and sell the rest of their booze! There I practiced some Spanish and of course drank tequila (which apparently helps the Spanish…). The band’s house party got too loud for the neighbours who told us the sheriff was on his way, which led to everyone walking all the way down to Teach’s Hole for a ‘beach party’ which just turned out to be standing on the beach chatting (or passing out on the beach for Hugo). Eventually it got too cold and we walked aaaaaall the way back to town. It’s actually pretty far, I think it took Hugo and I almost an hour to make it back to the campground just before dawn!

Needless to say, the next day we didn’t get the early start we’d hoped for, and I spent most of it in a world of pain sleeping off my hangover from hell in the back of the van! The drive up the outer banks is meant to be quite scenic as they are so narrow in places you can see the coast on both sides. I managed to look out the window at the stripy Cape Hatteras lighthouse and later on even sat up to see the giant mansions which looked like blown up doll’s houses roll by.

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By the time we got to Fort Raleigh on Roanoke Island I was alive enough to come out and learn about ‘The Lost Colony’. This was where the English first tried to settle in the 1500s, so sent out a small group of colonists. Things weren’t going so great for them, so they eventually convinced their governor, a guy called John White, to sail back to England and get them more supplies. So off John went, but unfortunately for him and the colonists, war had broken out with Spain and John couldn’t get funds or a ship to get him back to Roanoke. When he eventually returned 3 years later, the whole colony had disappeared leaving only the word ‘Croatan’ etched into a tree. This was an island nearby which John tried to get to but a storm forced him back to England, so the fate of the colony (including John’s daughter and her daughter Virginia Dare- the first English child born in America) was never discovered… very interesting.

From Roanoke we drove to the nearby island Kitty Hawk, where the Wright Brothers made their historic first flight in 1903. We wanted to go to the museum there where you could see a replica of their original flyer, but due to our late start it was unfortunately already closed. That evening we landed in Virginia Beach, a slightly less awful version of Myrtle Beach. My first meal of the day was a giant pizza- the only available sizes were large, extra large or jumbo! We didn’t really spend much time in town before heading out to our campsite (read: Walmart) for the night.

The next day we went on a historic adventure of colonial America along the colonial parkway in Virginia. First stop was Yorktown where the last battle of the Revolutionary War was fought and the British surrendered to the American (and French) army.

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The French were integral to the American victory, though you never really hear about it… We figure it went something like this:

America: ‘Hey guys, we need some back up over here…’

France: ‘Oh really? Who you fighting?’

America: ‘The Brits’

France: ‘Sweet! We’ll be there. How many troops do you need?’

So they came, they conquered and once the battle was over they shipped off back to France…

The highlight of Yorktown was seeing an 18-pound cannon fired twice. Apparently they only do this once a month and we had come on the right day! Quite the process- it requires a 6-man team and quite a few pieces of equipment so was very impressive to see!

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Next stop was Williamsburg, the old colonial capital which today is a ‘living’ colonial city with people in period dress roaming around saying ‘Good day’ and running the stores and stuff. We had a walk around the old streets, sampled some treats in the sweet shop and took an obligatory photo in the stocks before heading off to Jamestown.

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Jamestown was the first permanent colonial settlement in North America. They picked James Island as it was on the river in a good defensive spot and there were no Native Americans living in the area. But the place was pretty swampy and didn’t have a good source of fresh water, so there was probably a good reason why the Native Americans didn’t snap it up! Not exactly prime real estate, but pretty…

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Jamestown is mostly famous for the historic characters of John Smith and Pocahontas, although their real stories aren’t nearly as romantic as Disney might have led us to believe! And Disney got their facts all wrong for the record. John Smith was a good explorer, but sounded like a bit of an arrogant prick by all accounts and he never married Pocahontas (though she did apparently save his life when he was captured by her tribe). She was actually already married to a guy in her tribe, but then married a settler called John Randolph when she was about 19. (I understand the confusion Disney. It seems like every English settler was named John.). So then our young Pocahontas changed her name to Rebecca and renounced all her traditional ways- dress, language, customs… She eventually moved to England, had a baby and then died of unknown causes when she was just 22. Not so faithful to the ‘Colours of the Wind’ huh?!

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All you can see of Jamestown nowadays are ruins of the original building foundations though there is a museum exploring relics that had been found and piecing together the life of the settlers. We learned about the kind of things they resorted to eating during ‘the starving time’ from remains discovered, including turtles, shoe leather and each other! A recent find was the skull of a young girl dubbed ‘Jane’ which has cut marks in it, hypothesised to indicate someone tried to get into the skull to eat the brain! They think she was about 14 and recreated her appearance to bring it home too…

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We had dinner in Richmond at a little hipster café called Black Sheep which was on Man vs Food at some point. They make enormous sandwiches out of an entire baguette and call them battleships instead of subs, so Hugo felt obliged to tackle one! The final result? Man: 1, Food: 0.

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We got into Washington D.C. pretty early the next day and hit the ground running after hearing about the potential government shutdown in the next 24 hours (don’t even get me started on how silly even the concept of that is!). We went to the state capitol and walked 1.9 mile-long park up to the Washington Monument. Washington is really into it’s reflective pools… Lots of significant buildings and monuments seem to have one. Taj Mahal inspired maybe?

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Anyway… after that we made the mandatory visit to the White House where Laura and Hugo thought it would be fun to play ‘spot the Mandy’ taking pics with all the tourists…

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On our way down to visit more monuments we noticed that one of the main roads was closed off by police, traffic at the crossroads stopped both ways. We got an inkling that something was going to happen so stood around on the corner for a while. Another police car rolled up. A helicopter flew overhead… Eventually after looking down the empty road for another 10 minutes, a police motorcycle with lights flashing came around the corner. Followed by several more motorcycles, police cars, and then the presidential limos followed by yet more police cars. We caught a brief glimpse of President Obama as he drove by which was a nice addition to our day in the capital! Though these guys might not have been as excited as us…

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From here we visited the Vietnam War memorial, engraved with the names of the whopping 58,195 soldiers who died in the line of duty, the World War 2 memorial- very pretty, and the Abe Lincoln monument. This one took me by surprise… I was expecting a statue of Lincoln with a little plaque or something, but instead there was a large staircase leading up to a giant columned building housing an enormous 6 metre tall statue of Lincoln! Wow. The site is also famous as the place where Martin Luther King Jr made his ‘I have a dream’ speech.

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We spent the afternoon in a few of the national museums in case they were closed the next day. We got stuck in the Holocaust Museum for several hours, a very well put together but very confronting exhibition that was hard to draw yourself away from. We checked out the Air and Space Museum’s exhibit on the Wright Brothers where we got to see the original flyer from 1903, so that eased our guilty conscience about missing the replica in Kitty Hawk! The exhibit was awesome- it really is incredible how they worked out the science of flight. Their flyer has been re-canvassed which is why it looks so new, but the frame is original…

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Lastly we had a quick run around the Native American Museum- my favourite bit was hearing stories of creation from the different tribes. After that we caught up with Healy who we’d met at Burning Man and was very kindly putting us up while we were in town. We hit a nearby bar to watch some Monday night football and learn some of the rules from Healy while indulging in some beers and nachos. At midnight we found out the government shutdown was going ahead because the US Congress still couldn’t come to an agreement…This meant all ‘non-essential’ services (including national parks, monuments, museums, etc.) would be closed til they could sort their shit out! Grrr!

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Luckily for us the International Spy Museum is privately owned so that is where we headed next morning. This museum is AWESOME. It is set up so the first part you go through is like you are going through spy training. You have to pick a cover identity and memorise the details, then you’d get tested on various parts of you cover story as you went through. You also learned about disguises, hidden cameras, transfer of information (codes, dead drops, microdots, signals), escape… it was really hands on and lots of fun. There were also heaps of displays on real spies, double agents, blown covers, spy activity during the wars, and a whole James Bond exhibit. Sign me up for spy school!

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For our last evening in the capital, I got to meet up with Lindsey, another of my study abroad friends from first year uni who I hadn’t seen for 8 years. We had dinner at a nice Thai restaurant and talked non-stop for several hours. It was so good catching up! Sadly it was again very brief, next morning we were on the move again, heading into the mid-west.

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But that’ll be in the next chapter… 🙂

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Mandaura the Explorer (with esteemed comrade Hugo) – Part II

The South East

From Houston, we landed in New Orleans – ‘The Big Easy’ as they call it, where it’s legal (in fact, encouraged) to purchase take-away alcoholic beverages and roam the streets with them! In New Orleans we tried out Airbnb, a website where you can rent out a room in a house (kind of like couchsurfers, but you pay), and met our friendly host Lawrence at his conveniently located house within walking distance of the trendy Frenchmen Street and the famous French Quarter.

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Our first night was spent checking out Frenchmen St, where we found a little bluegrass band playing in the doorway of a closed café, on the next corner saw a jazz band complete with sousaphone and then had dinner accompanied by more jazz. We ended the night at a little dive where Lawrence used to work, offering 24 hour karaoke!

After a few more beers, Laura agreed to sing with me only if they had ‘our’ song (Party All The Time, by Eddie Murphy and Rick James). We were in luck and it was apparently the first time this amazing tune had ever been sung on the Cajun’s stage! Hugo followed up with a rousing rendition of Get What You Need by the Stones, and Lawrence serenaded us with George Michaels’s Careless Whispers before we headed home.

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We kicked off our Monday morning with a typical New Orleans brekky- beignets (a French pastry that is pretty much a glorified doughnut without a hole under a mountain of icing sugar) and coffee, at the famous Café Du Monde, which has been serving this local specialty (and nothing else) since 1862! We roamed the French quarter which has plenty of cute shops that I was strong enough not to buy anything at (very difficult) and also saw the oldest catholic cathedral in the US overlooking the perfectly manicured Jackson Square.

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On the banks of the Mississippi we found out what a gamble it was taking a paddle steamer back in the day, with a >50% chance of a crazy accident occurring which would most likely sink the boat! Also learned this fun fact: did you know that by the time it gets to New Orleans, the Mississippi carries silt and run off from 30 US states as well as 2 Canadian provinces? How crazy is that! File that one away for the next trivia night peeps…

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Once our travellers brains were tired from this learning overload, we hit up a street corner dive called Johnny’s for some real deal shrimp po’boys (basically a baguette sandwich filled with battered shrimp, mayo and salad) and some gumbo (a thick stew often with seafood in it), both typical of New Orleans. On our walk home we were offered cocktails (to go, of course!) by a friendly bar girl on Bourbon St, and we indulged in a Hurricane to accompany our several block walk back. This blend of rum, fruit juice and grenadine was apparently invented in New Orleans in the 40s by the owner of O’Brien’s pub to get rid of rum (which was not so popular at the time), and distributors made him sell the rum before he could get in more whiskey!

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Our dinner was at a more fancy restaurant where I tried yet two more New Orleans specialties on this short Louisiana foodventure- the jambalaya (a rice dish kind of like paella) and some crawfish étouffé (which is Louisiana for crayfish smothered in a spiced sauce). We checked out the renowned Bourbon St, which was a disappointing hive of neon trashiness and cover bands, but we did indulge in some cocktails in novelty take-home glasses! After, we retreated to Frenchmen St for an awesome jazz jam to wind up our night.

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My Louisiana foodventure was completed with a southern soul-food breakfast of grits, cheese, eggs and sausage with a side of biscuits and gravy- neither very attractive to look at, but both pretty delicious! Our next stop was Jackson, Mississippi, for which we were repeatedly asked ‘Why?!’ by locals and interstaters alike… And when we arrived we began to understand. Not the most beautiful city- on our approach we weren’t sure if we were still in the industrial outskirts or the city itself. But no, it was the actual city…

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We visited the prettiest building in town, the State Capitol, for a rundown of Mississippi’s history- slavery, plantations, the making of laws, values of the population back in the day.

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We then went to the Smith Robertson Museum which was Mississippi’s first school for Negro children, opened in 1894, and now home to a cultural centre housing exhibits on different aspects of African American life and culture.  There was an unfinished exhibit on the journey from Africa which looks like it will be really good. Currently you can see the plans for the layout of slave ships and how many people they could fit on each, stacked away on ‘bunks’ barely more than half a metre high for the long journey. They also had a life size model of what the inside of the ship would be like. Very provoking.

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After Smith Robertson, we planned to go get some more soul food and head out of town to a state park on the way to Memphis, but Bernadette had other plans… She broke down just around the corner from the museum! Laura managed to start her again but she died again at the next intersection. Hugo and I got out to push her to the kerb, and a local guy came by to help, telling us luckily there was a mechanic around the corner. Hugo walked over and came back with Bud, the owner of Stokes Repair Shop, a tall lanky man with a thick accent we struggled to understand! Bud had a quick look and then got some of the guys from the garage to come and push Bernadette round to his shop- quite the operation! We had to stop a bit of traffic to cross over, but made it!

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While Laura and I sat out of the hot sun on some dusty chairs in front of a huge fan in the garage, Bud’s investigations determined we had a problem with either the ‘core’ or the ‘scrivnut’ (at least that’s what it sounded like he said…) But all we knew for sure was ‘She got no fire!’ which Bud kept repeating animatedly, so we assumed an issue with the ignition. We had to wait til morning til he could see if he could get the parts to test her out, so looked like we were spending a night in Jackson!

Bud got his lady to come and pick us up and drive us to a hotel. On the way we asked her if there were any parts of town we should avoid, to which she replied, ‘You’re in it!’ We got a room next to a cheap and dirty restaurant called Shoney’s and since we hadn’t eaten since breakfast headed over there for dinner.

So at this restaurant, you could get the all-you-can-eat dinner buffet for $9.99. But because it was steak night, we were informed you could buy any steak and get the buffet as well for free. We asked the waitress, ‘But what about this steak that’s $6.99? Is the buffet still included?’ to which she replied ‘Yes, the buffet is free with any steak.’ We were a little baffled by this and clarified at least two more times (the waitress must have thought we were a little bit mentally challenged) but we finally accepted that it was cheaper to get a bacon-wrapped steak AND the all-you-can-eat buffet. So we ordered 3 of those. How could you not?!

The buffet was ridiculous, including all the southern favourites like fried chicken, mash and gravy, battered deep-fried okra, and even had a salad bar and a dessert bar. Needless to say we all overindulged. And went back again for the breakfast buffet in the morning! In our defence, there were actually no other food outlets nearby, but still… No more Shoney’s for the rest of the trip!

We basically had to wait for Bud to call after that, so checked out of our cheap hotel and walked into ‘town’ to find a McDonalds (aka, the universal centre for free wifi, cheap coffee and toilets). This involved walking along a dirt road in what felt like rural America, at which point I asked Laura if she was sure we were going the right way. She assured me we were and sure enough, we emerged back onto a paved road with cars and the golden arches in sight. Jackson is like no other state capital I’ve ever been to, that’s for sure! Around midday Bud called with the good news that Bernadette was fixed. We cabbed over to the garage and after a bit more of a chat, lots of thanks and some long goodbyes, we hit the road to Memphis, Tennessee.

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We made it to Memphis just after the 4.30 tour at Sun Studios had taken off, and jumped onto the tail end. Sun Studios is famous for launching the careers of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and BB King to name but a few. It is still a working studio too. We got to listen to some original studio recordings (including Elvis’s first demo which cost him just $4 to make back in the day!), look at a whole bunch of old music paraphernalia and stand on the spot where Elvis stood to record his first single for Sun. Very cool!

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That evening we tested out some Memphis-style BBQ (even though Texas is the most famous, several other states have their own spin on barbequed meaty delights). They use a dry rub on their ribs which is different to Texas, but it was pretty damn delicious too! After dinner, we checked out an old, haunted burlesque club-cum-bar in town called Ernstine and Hazel’s. Downstairs it was open mike night, so pretty full of people and quite warm and lively. Upstairs though it was totally empty and creepy. We went up to have a poke around and use the old bathroom (complete with ancient claw-toed bathtub) and took some pictures to see if any showed up some ghosts (which they didn’t).

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While we were up there, a ghost tour came by so we eavesdropped on several stories, the most disturbing about how apparently a prostitute had her throat slit in the bathroom (that very one I had just been in!) and there have been numerous reports of people getting locked in there, seeing blood stains appearing in the bathtub, and hearing knocking coming from the inside of the door!! Ahhhh! So glad I hadn’t heard that before I went in- I was creeped out enough as it was!

And to top all this off, one of the locals told us that the owner of the bar had shot himself in there just a week earlier. We looked it up and there was a news story on it, just saying he had been found dead on site. Even though we didn’t see any evidence of the supernatural, I can totally believe that place is as haunted as they come!

After all that excitement, we went to check out the famous Beale St. We saw some ‘duelling pianos’ – two pianists at two grand pianos on stage playing requests from the crowd, and saw some awesome bands play at BB King’s Blues Club and the Beale St Taphouse.

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We ended up camping in a proper camping ground for the night after asking our new local friends at Ernstine and Hazel’s if there was anywhere safe and out of the way we could urban camp… We received the answer: ‘Well there’s plenty of places you could pull up that the police won’t bother you, but no-where that’s really safe…’ Luckily we were able to camp right outside Graceland so we would be raring to go for our 9am tour next morning.

The home of the King is as extravagant and outrageous as you’d expect it to be, and was totally worth the visit. He had 3 TVs installed in his basement side by side (because he heard President Johnson watched all 3 news channels at the same time and thought it was a good idea) and covered the walls of his pool room in drapes of colourful fabric.

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He even had a ‘jungle room’ put in inspired by his love for Hawaii. This room’s walls, floor and roof are covered in green shagpile carpet, and it is decked out with carved wooden furniture and an indoor waterfall (naturally…)!

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Elvis enjoyed racquetball too so had his own court built, which has now been converted into a homage to the ’68 comeback special and a fantastic display of jumpsuits. We saw his trophy room, of course brimming with awards spanning his extensive career in both music and film.

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And you can also visit the graves of Elvis and both of his parents. Here is a random fact that I didn’t know before visiting Graceland- Elvis had a twin brother! Sadly he was stillborn (he is buried in their hometown Tupelo in Mississippi), but can you imagine two Elvis’s?! Wow.

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The other exhibits we went to showed off Elvis’s car collection (I want his purple Cadillac so bad!)…

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…and also his pimped out private jets. The Lisa Marie had 24ct gold sinks, a kingsize bed on board and sitting room with a bar installed! Luxury. It was a really enjoyable morning- I probably could have spent a day there, as there were more exhibits we didn’t get to, but such is the nature of our whirlwind trip!

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We had a Memphis chopped pork sandwich for lunch (AMAZING) before checking out the Lorraine Hotel, where Martin Luther King Jr was shot and killed- now home to the National Civil Rights Museum. It was very interesting to find out more about the event and the investigation and conspiracy theories that followed too. From there, we hit the road to Nashville.

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We were lucky to be put up by my friend LeighAnn, her hubby Mike and baby Ezra in Nashville. LeighAnn and I realised it had been 8 years since we’d seen each other! We met back in my first year of uni when we lived together at Deakin and LeighAnn was studying a semester abroad from her uni in Ohio. It was so good to catch up but was sadly very brief! That evening there was a festival on in town, and we went to a free ‘backyard party’ at a local record store where some Canadian country artists were playing. They were also giving away free beer and free gourmet grilled cheeses from a local food truck, so it was pretty much the epitome of amazing events for a backpacker whose finances are dwindling!

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Later we went into town to check out Broadway, the main street for all the honky tonk bars. We went to Robert’s Western World which was the best music of the night, checked out a trailer-park themed bar (complete with AstroTurf and college 80s party going on), and found a grizzly in a neighbouring bar…

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On our way out of Nashville, we hit up Third Man Records, Jack White’s recording studio which was pretty cool to see, and also went to the Johnny Cash Museum. Johnny lived a very full life- like Elvis, very much a family man- and I learned he was very passionate about prison reform. He performed a lot in prisons and also advocated for better penitentiary systems- he had a lot of great ideas around this.

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Our next stop was Atlanta, Georgia, where we had tickets to the Midtown Music Festival. We were hoping to arrive by 6 to see Phoenix but got stuck in a traffic jam on the way in which had us crawling for almost an hour! We eventually arrived at our fancy sounding hotel ‘Savannah Suites’ which was in a not-so-fancy part of town, requiring 24-hour security and ID recorded and checked for every person each time they entered the property!

From there we walked up to Piedmont Park, about 20 minutes from the hotel, and managed to catch the end of Cake’s set. We then got to see Journey play which was pretty awesome. We were kinda confused to see such a young, energetic lead singer up there (he sure didn’t look like he’d been singing since the 70s…), but we learned from Google the band had discovered the Filipino singer via YouTube in a Journey cover band and since they were after a lead singer and liked his style, they asked him to join! Gee technology is amazing!

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The next day it was sadly pouring with rain so we delayed our departure for the festival so we would definitely last til the end to see the Red Hot Chilli Peppers play. We sacrificed Weezer (who Laura and I had recently ‘seen’ for free anyway… by picnicking out the back of the Sidney Myer Music Bowl when they last played in Melbourne!) and planned our arrival for the Arctic Monkeys at 4.30. After packing our vodka in Ziploc bags for smuggling (like the classy citizens we are), in we headed in all our rain gear.

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Laura and I wore thongs but when we saw the state of the ground decided we would be better off to suck it up and go barefoot, or risk losing our shoes forever in the piles of mud! The festival was great despite the weather and how dirty we were by the end! The Chillies were definitely my highlight.

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From Atlanta, our musical escapades were complete for a while and we headed back to the wilderness at Poinsett State Park in South Carolina. We had a campfire and made smores (which consist of a toasted marshmallow and chocolate between 2 graham crackers which goes all melty and delicious in the middle for those who have not had the pleasure…).

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We got out for a hike the next day which was very welcome given our sedentary lifestyle (and all the smores the night before!). We took a trail north which had a few interesting things to see according to the ranger. We started on a wide sandy track, but after a couple of enormous spider-webs in the face (and corresponding spitting-out-web while hitting ourselves all over and dancing a crazy jig to make sure there were no spiders on us) it became apparent these trails were not often walked… This led to us each brandishing a large stick and waving it around in front of our faces the whole way as we forged ahead- would have been quite the sight to see!

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We saw some monster spiders, a lot of little frogs, a stash of old moonshine barrels rusting down by the creek, and the interestingly named ‘Screaming Shed’ – a creepy abandoned old house in the woods. There was a memorial to a man who died in 1969 who presumably used to live there before it fell into disrepair.

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We ate lunch on an old railway bridge over a small waterway inhabited by hundreds of fuzzy caterpillars. Beyond the bridge, the railway-line-turned-trail looked even less well-worn than that along which we had come, so we decided to head back, sticks in hand! We hiked back into the park and around the lake which was pretty before returning to camp exhausted.

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Laura made us a delicious tinfoil meal of chicken and veggies in the campfire that night, and I did choc-caramel bananas in the fire for dessert (we won’t mention more smores for second dessert…)

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Being in the woods for a couple of nights was a very nice end to a run of cities and busy days, which prepared us for our next leg of American history touring up the east coast…

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Mandaura the Explorer (with esteemed comrade Hugo)- Part I

The South West

So… from Lake Tahoe, our happy trio set off across the south of the US at breakneck speed in our comfy campervan, Bernadette. Our first stop was Yosemite National Park. Despite the huge forest fires sadly devouring a large portion of the park at the time of our visit, unaffected areas were still open, so we decided to try our luck. On our way it looked pretty smoky and hazy, so we were a little worried, but closer to the park it was actually much clearer. The drive into Yosemite was stunning, with huge craggy rock faces, alpine trees and beautiful lakes visible from the road.

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We camped in the highlands at Tuolumne Meadows and arrived in time for a little afternoon hike to the nearby Dog Lake (we’re still not sure why it was called that) and Lembert Dome (in geographic terms, known as an ‘erratic’- a huge granite boulder carved out by glaciers). The trail was easy walking but scenic, rocky with towering evergreens all around. The lake was beautiful, and the views from the top of the dome at sunset were amazing.

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In Yosemite, we were in bear country, so had to store everything with a scent (all food, drink and toiletries) in a bear locker. The resident black bears have a great sense of smell and have been known to break into vehicles if they can smell food in there- not exactly what you want when you’re sleeping in said vehicle! But we managed to cook our dinner, enjoy our campfire in the alpine chill, and sleep our first night in the wilderness with no bear troubles!

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The next day we took off to the nearby but entirely different Death Valley National Park. On the way we stopped to buy food and supplies and actually contemplated buying firewood for another campfire that evening- little did we realise how little of an understatement the name ‘Death Valley’ was! The temperature climbed steadily as we drove into the park, and the wind whipping through the non-air-conditioned van felt like a hairdryer blowing in your face. Bernadette’s temperature gauge peaked at 49.5°C!  After stopping at the visitor’s centre, we learned that the world’s hottest air temperature had been recorded in Death Valley at the aptly named Furnace Creek- a mild 56.7°C in 1913! We also had a look over other enticingly named sites to visit in the park- Deadman Pass, Starvation Canyon, Funeral Peak, Hells Gate or Devil’s Hole… And decided on a spot of auto-touring instead of the hiking we’d initially envisioned…

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We stopped at the Mesquite Sand Dunes, a bunch of dunes randomly sat in the middle of nowhere; visited the Badwater Basin, a salt flat and North America’s lowest point at 282 feet below sea level; went on the Artist’s Drive to see the Artist’s Palette to admire the multi-coloured volcanic hills in the late afternoon sun before heading to Zabriskie Point to watch the sunset send splays of pink and mauve across the desert sky.

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From there on a tip off from the ranger at the visitor’s centre, we headed out of the park to a clearing by the side of the road to set up camp where the elevation was a little higher and the temperatures a little cooler. Cooking our dinner resulted in a large scale moth massacre as they flew from far and wide into the flame of our cooker, and meant we all squished into the back of the van to avoid the onslaught to eat. We then settled in for the night and tried to sleep despite the temperature, which had just dropped to 28°C by morning!

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Next stop- VEGAS BABY! We had to put Bernadette in for a service as 2 weeks in the dusty desert had made her struggle, then we took off to an outlet mall as I realised I had nothing to wear out in a US city… Scummy backpacker clothes that have been worn over and over again for 6 months and jelly shoes or thongs (both of which are slowly falling apart) were probably not going to cut it! I managed to get a dress, shoes and bag for under $50 so a successful outing! And now I will look like I’ve only had one night out this entire trip as I’ll always be in the same outfit in the pics… Oh well!

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Anyway, we had booked to stay at Excalibur, a medieval themed hotel as you may have guessed. We had a huuuuge buffet dinner (when in Vegas…) and oh my goodness, you should have seen the dessert selection- I was in heaven! (those are not all mine below by the way…)

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We prettied ourselves up for our first night on the town, then set the tone for the night by heading across to the Coyote Ugly Saloon for some beers and a boogie…

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After more bars, more drinks and more dancing, we eventually headed back to the hotel. Laura and I decided we wanted to go to the food court, so we gave Hugo the other key and said we’d meet him in the room. We got waylaid by a random dude throwing his money around on the tables and spent a while gambling away his hard-earned cash. Despite us telling him he should stop letting us choose because we kept losing, he kept throwing money at us saying ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s only paper!’

After a while, we wanted to go, and when the dude went to get a drink, Laura said ‘Mandy, run!’ so we took off across the casino (me barefoot by this stage), literally sprinting, and on the slope down to the elevators took a massive tumble right in front of the security guards. We made it to the elevators with bruised and carpet-burned knees (and egos), only to find Hugo wasn’t in the room! I just had visions of him passed out in the street somewhere, so we went back to find him.

On our way out the security guards asked us if we were ok, but were still laughing about our fall and wondered out loud if they could get a hold of the security video to watch it again… We were just trying to describe Hugo to them, saying ‘He’s English and kind of walks like this…’ (cue Hugo swagger with party arms demo) when who walks down, but Hugo, doing exactly that! Ah, reunited…

We got to bed by 6 and awoke with a shock at 11 as we had forgotten to set an alarm and had to go pick up Bernadette by 12. After a quick food court breakfast (cheeseburgers, corndogs and cinnabon…) we were off again. Ah Vegas… One night was probably enough…!

Once we’d picked up Bernadette and left with much lighter wallets, we headed off to check out Hoover Dam at the Nevada-Arizona border which was pretty impressive, and had a swim in pretty Lake Mead to help combat the still heat. We made it to a cute little town called Springdale just outside of Zion National Park, where Hugo and I had our first taste of Wendy’s burgers and we urban camped outside a Laundromat.

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The next morning we checked out the amazing Zion, with its red-brown layered peaks and canyons towering in all directions. We did a couple of short walks to see a spring called Weeping Rock, and some small waterfalls at the Emerald Pools. We drove out along the beautiful scenic highway which featured an impressive mile-long tunnel through solid rock constructed in the 30’s on our way to the Grand Canyon.

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We got to the north rim of the canyon late in the afternoon, but unfortunately it had been raining, and though still amazing, a lot of the views were fairly obscured by fog so we were a bit disappointed. Also, because there was thunder it was considered too dangerous to walk the rim of the canyon in case of lightning strikes, so we couldn’t do any of the little hikes we’d wanted to either. We made a game-time decision to drive the 215 miles (4 hours!) around the canyon to the south rim, camp there overnight and try to catch sunrise over the canyon in the morning.

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We woke at 5.15am to drive in to the viewpoint. It wasn’t raining but was still fairly cloudy, so sadly we didn’t see the sunrise. The views were incredible though, and I could see the little Bright Angel Trail winding down toward the canyon- one day I’d love to hike all the way across! We consoled ourselves with a giant breakfast and several coffees at IHOP (International House of Pancakes) and headed on for a big day of driving across to Santa Fe in New Mexico.

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This was the first day I had a go at driving Bernadette- on the opposite side of the road! After not driving for 6 months I was a little nervous, but it was mostly freeway, so despite hugging the right a little and occasionally flicking the wipers instead of the indicator, I did ok! The other tricky bit is our fuel gauge and temperature gauge don’t work, and our speedo is in km while the speed limits are posted in miles, so it takes a bit of calculation to work out how fast to go, and some careful monitoring of our odo to make sure we have enough fuel!

So Santa Fe… it was a weird city. To start, we took the bus into town with some interesting characters, like a woman who mumbled to herself the entire way. The centre was fairly compact, but also super quiet and felt more like a small town than a state capital! Hugo was keen to secure himself a pair of cowboy boots so we looked at several cool stores, resulting in Laura walking away with a very nice vintage pair, and Hugo leaving with none! We filled our afternoon with a visit to the Palace of the Governors, the oldest state capital building in the US dating from Spanish occupation in 1610, and also checked out the New Mexico History Museum and learned about the history of cowboys, yee-hah!

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That evening we tried to go out. We had a beer accompanied by awful karaoke at Cowgirl’s, then went to a bar we’d googled which was meant to have funk music, but on arrival it was actually 80s night, and not a soul was in the room! Actually. I don’t even remember seeing a bartender downstairs in all the excitement of the disco ball and coloured lights… So out we went, and followed the sound of some music we’d heard on the breeze. We found a grungy little bar in a basement which had the biggest number of people we’d seen all day! We hung out there for a little while, and when we were ready to go, had to wait half an hour for a cab from the city’s one cab company to get ourselves home.

We weren’t exactly sad to leave Santa Fe, and were excited to arrive in Roswell the next day. This town is home of the 1947 ‘Roswell Incident’, where there were allegedly UFO sightings, alien sightings and a UFO crash which was then supposedly covered up by the government. The whole town is built on this alien conspiracy; chock full of stores selling alien-themed tat, even the street lamps are shaped like alien heads! We spent some time taking fun photos with aliens in Area 51, and then examining evidence from both sides of the story at the National UFO Research Centre and Museum (which almost has the 3 of us converted into alien conspiracy theorists!)

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We shacked up for the night in another national park called Carlsbad Caverns. We went to watch the underwhelming bat exodus at dusk, and then lived it up in the luxury camping ground which had hot showers and wi-fi! (Our standards have fallen such that we’re generally happy if we can shower once every three days at present…)

In the morning we checked out the cave, which was incredible. We walked down til we were 750 feet below the surface and admired the beautiful decorations. It is enormous, we spent a good couple of hours down there, and didn’t even walk the whole way around the inventively named ‘Big Room’.

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That afternoon we headed off to another inventively named place, a town called Junction across the border in Texas. The unexcitingness of its name is no disguise, it really was a bit of a backcountry Texas nothing town! On the way in we had a mishap when Bernadette ran out of gas. I was driving and had no idea what was happening as I’ve never run out of fuel before! But we’d been carving up the freeways at 80mph and must have been chewing more gas than we had calculated… So I pulled over on the side of the road, and Laure and Hugo set to work pouring our 5 gallons of fuel left over from Burning Man into the tank. The spout was broken so they McGuiver-ed it with one holding a tent peg to open the tank and the other pouring into a paper oil cone… I sure felt like the useless girl, til Laura said ‘Mandy! Where’s the photos?!’ so I set to work doing what Mandys do best!

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When we made it to Junction, we entertained ourselves doing a few loads of laundry before urban camping behind the local library. The highlight was getting our first taste of Texas BBQ at a nondescript little establishment called Lum’s, attached to a gas station on the side of the road into town. But what a gem, the pork ribs and beef brisket were amazing! So was the mac and cheese and coconut cream pie… I’d never eaten brisket before and it was just melt-in-your-mouth meaty goodness.

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We are starting to realise why America has such a reputation as the world’s fattest nation… There is some amazing food here and it is all soooo cheap! To upsize anything from the smallest size (which here is equivalent at least to a medium anywhere in Australia) is like 25c. This is what we in the field call ‘an obesogenic environment’ for sure…!

BUT, though that side of the American reputation is somewhat founded, the world’s general negative preconception of the American people, in our experience thus far, is not. We’ve been taken aback by everyone’s friendliness. If people notice our accents (which frequently they don’t it must be said), they’re very keen to talk about where we’re from and how we know each other (an Australian, a Canadian and an Englishman travelling together is generally a very confusing concept for most people! It sounds like the beginning of a joke…). But then people give us all sorts of tips for the local area, declaring ‘Welc’m to Amurica! Y’all injoy yurselves!’ which is really nice!

One thing that does irk me here is the tax and tipping. Sure, have sales tax, but if you know how much the tax is and it’s the same state wide, just add it in to the price on the tag for crying out loud!! It’s so annoying going to the counter and thinking you have the right change and then they say a completely different number and you’re like ‘oh yeah, tax…’. In a place where disclosure is expected because the fear of litigation for anything and everything is rife (eg. any menu with meat on it has a little asterisk saying ‘eating raw or under-cooked meat can be harmful to health’…), I’m surprised it’s not mandatory to declare the ‘real’ price with tax included. It all seems like a bit of false advertising to me. But anyway, on top of the tax is also the tip. In any sit down restaurant, the standard tip is 20%. Then in a bar, you basically just tip a dollar any time you order. This whole system is really testing my mental arithmetic…!

So anyway, from Junction, we headed to the big smoke in Austin. We were pretty excited for this part of our trip as we are all pretty into the live music scene and were heading toward a number of iconic locations. We began our drive into Austin with a couple of wine tastings in the Texas Hill Country, a wine region we never knew existed! We felt a little awkward arriving at Hye Meadow Winery at 10am, the same time as the girl who opened shop did, but thankfully she didn’t think we were deros, waived the wine tasting fee for us and was full of great tips for Austin!

We lived it up in Austin at the Quality Inn, which aside from having beds and a shower (luxury) had a pool and free breakfast… where you could make TEXAS SHAPED WAFFLES! Incredible. But amazing as that all sounds, we did actually leave our hotel a number of times…Our first evening was spent at The Whip Inn, a gem disclosed to us by our mate Trish at the winery. It is right next to the freeway and used to be general store, but has now been converted into a funky little pub with a huge range of boutique beers, Indian-inspired cuisine and live jazz.

The next day we whizzed around the city, visiting the State Capitol, a very impressive edifice and the largest state building in the US (everything’s bigger in Texas!) before going on a food trailer hunt down in ‘SoCo’ (local lingo for the South Congress neighbourhood) to get the famous Torchy’s Tacos and try Gourdough’s gourmet doughnuts. Neither disappointed, though the doughnut was actually a food highlight of the trip so far… We had the ‘Funky Monkey’, a delectable combination of brown sugar, bananas and cream cheese icing atop a fresh doughnut- literally one of the most incredible things I have ever tasted in my life! Probably a good thing they only exist in Austin, otherwise my future career as a dietitian may have been in jeopardy once I started recommending everybody try all the flavours at Gourdough’s…

Hugo had boot-finding success later in the day, picking up a sweet pair in python leather to Laura’s and my relief (we had spent many hours in various boot shops by this point!). In the evening we checked out the main drag, 6th Street, where we saw some cool music early in the night- an amazing duo called Thomas and Hall (https://www.facebook.com/ThomasandHall for anyone interested in a listen) and then bar hopped our way around ending up at a little rockabilly bar. Unfortunately I lost our camera that night which is why sadly there are no accompanying pics for Austin… :-/

The following day we headed to Houston, where we spent the afternoon at the Space Centre. We visited the Mission Control Centre at the Johnston Space Centre, learned about the Orion mission looking at sending people to Mars in 2035 and saw the impressive Saturn V shuttle launcher with its 5 enormous engines.

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In other exhibits we learned about living in space (including recycling pee into drinking water, reconstituting dehydrated meals and having baby wipe ‘showers’), saw some of the tiny capsules the first astronauts went up in and saw some moon rocks and moon dirt. Hugo was excited with all of this information, saying the 3 of us are just like astronauts, living in a tiny space all together and having baby wipe showers!

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In the evening we checked out a baseball game, seeing the bottom-of-the-league Houston Astros play the LA Angels. We spent much of the long, slow game googling what all the abbreviations on the scoreboard were, but did enjoy the ‘7th inning stretch’ and belting out ‘Take Me Out To The Ball Game’ followed by a rousing rendition of a song we’d never heard (but that everyone else knew) called ‘Deep in the Heart of Texas’.

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Though the Astros lost, we did get to see them get a home run which was really cool. And eat chili dogs and wave giant hands around…

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We headed out to a suburban park to camp for the night, before finishing our time in Houston with a church service at the largest congregation in America- Lakewood Church. Before this though, we did pull up at the local Walmart to have our baby wipe showers and put on our Sunday Best…

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For those of you that haven’t heard of Lakewood, this mega-church is in a $400 million converted stadium that seats 17,000 people! On the morning of our attendance there would’ve been a lazy 12,000-13,000 at a guess (certainly a bigger crowd than turned out for the baseball the previous night!). The service is televised each week and feels like a massive production. A 10-piece band and 60+ choir started the service with a bang leading the first half hour of can’t-help-but-groove worship songs, not to mention the lights, smoke machines and cameras panning around it all!

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The pastors behind the operation are Joel Olsteen and his wife Victoria, both of whom entered the stage looking very polished and bearing celebrity-worthy smiles. We got to see both of them speak, and Joel’s sermon in particular was very memorable- he is extremely charismatic, very funny and presented his message clearly with relevant anecdotes and sections of scripture woven in along the way. All in all, it was a very enjoyable morning and definitely added to the diversity of our experiences in America’s south!

Next stop was New Orleans, for yet more food and more music… To be continued…

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Burn Baby, Burn!

After an epic 3-day journey from San Jose, Costa Rica (yep, finally used that plane ticket I accidentally booked back in June!) via Mexico City for a night, then on to Santa Ana in Orange County, California, I was back in the US. There was no time to look for Seth Cohen during my brief stint in the OC however, I had to try and make my way from there to San Francisco in a day. I had looked up buses from LA to San Fran, but hadn’t thoroughly explored getting from Santa Ana to LA, thinking surely there’d be shuttles to LA from there… but no, there were not. The ‘winging it’ days of Central American public transport were over. When I went to the info desk to ask the guy what’s the best way to get to San Fran today, he looked at me like I’d grown an extra head and said, ‘You mean… you don’t have a flight?’… BUT I showed that guy (despite later wishing I did have a flight). I made it to my mates’ G and Kev’s place in San Francisco almost 12 hours later, via taxi, train, an 8-hour bus, the light rail and a bit of a walk. Phew!

G and Kev live in the Mission area in SF which is full of bars, cafes, restaurants and thrift stores. I felt like I was back in Fitzroy! Unfortunately I didn’t have too much time to explore after arriving late on Friday, but did get to hit up the thrift stores and purchase some marvellous last-minute Burning Man attire before Laura, Hugo, Kate and Alex arrived after their several day journey from Vancouver that afternoon. We went out to a packed pub, where I had a harrowing bathroom experience. Being unaware of how violently public loos in the US flush, I was startled in the tiny space and jumped back, which then put me in the line of fire of the automatic hand dryer, which then made me jump again, this time backwards into the door. But I managed to wash my hands without hitting anything, and escaped the closet of terror to a nice cold beer to calm my nerves.

Next morning we loaded up the bikes and began the drive to Black Rock City for the famous Burning Man festival via Reno. G and Kev went a little later, so it was Hugo, Laura and I in Bernadette, Laura’s newly acquired VW campervan, and Alex and Kate in their little VW Golf.

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Burning Man is not like other festivals. It is held in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, where each year for one week, the largest temporary city in the world pops up in an area called ‘the playa’. Black Rock City’s citizens live by 10 principles: Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodofication, Radical self-reliance, Radical self-expression, Communal effort, Civic responsibility, Leaving no trace, Participation and Immediacy. (See more at: http://www.burningman.com/) You can buy ice in Black Rock City, but that’s about it. Anything else you need you have to bring in yourself – radical self-reliance! The preparation required to go to Burning Man is huge. Needless to say, flying in 2 days prior, I was not really involved in this aspect to any great extent, and was very lucky to be looked after by my campmates. Emails had been flying back and forth over the past weeks/months to keep me in the loop, everything from shelter, food, water and fuel, to bikes, boots and lighting had to be thought about…

Our drive down to Reno was spent collecting many of these essentials: 2.5 gallons of water per person per day (that worked out to about 200 litres for just Hugo, Laura and I for the week!!), 2 gallons of fuel per person for the camp’s generator, communal groceries for meals and snacks for our group of 9 (menus and ingredients had been planned in the preceding weeks), a litre per person of booze and also mixers for the bar night our camp was holding, and bicycles- essential for getting around the expansive playa.

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Prior to this Laura had organised our sleeping gear, cooking equipment, cutlery  and crockery, camping chairs as well as glow sticks and L-wire lighting (so we and our bikes could be seen at night). So much to organise! This left Bernadette and the golf packed to the rafters for the last of the journey to Reno where we spent our final night in ‘the default world’ at the swanky Grand Sierra with air conditioning, double beds and a hot shower.

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We arrived in the line to Black Rock City’s singular entrance at around midday and after ‘pulsing’ our way along gradually (turning off your engine and waiting as sections of the line are moved through at intervals) we arrived at the entrance after 4.

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Hugo and I as ‘Virgin Burners’ had to undergo initiation, which involved rolling around in the dusty playa or making ‘playa angels’ then ringing a big bell while shouting ‘I’m not a virgin anymore!’ From there, people greet you with ‘Welcome home!’

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We arrived at camp around 5pm to set up and decorate our bikes, before heading out to explore the playa for the first time. It is so hard to describe what the place is like, especially seeing it all lit up at night. The sheer size of the playa is incredible.

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Black Rock City is set up like a clock, with the (soon to be burning) Man in the centre, the Temple at 12 o’clock, centre camp at 6 o’clock and the residential streets running in a circular fashion between 2 o’clock and 10 o’clock from A in the centre to L around the outside. Beyond the Temple is called the Deep Playa, a vast expanse filled with all sorts of art installations. I’m going to try and demonstrate a bit of my experience with the assistance of my photos, but everyone has a unique experience in Black Rock City- it is unbelievable how many things there are to see and do each day! The photos and my descriptions can only do so much, the only way to find out what Burning Man is really like is to go and experience it for yourself!

First up, the art… the playa is dotted with hundreds of art installations, and lots of interactive pieces like ‘The Toilet Bowl’ (a bowling alley beside a block of porta-potties), the Moustache Ride (a moustache shaped see-saw), an adult sized jungle gym and ball pit…

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The Magic Forest (a roofless ‘room’ in the deep playa where you lie on the white plush fur floor, listen to chilled tunes and watch the blue sky through white streamers waving in the wind above you)

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To the photo chapel, the stairway to heaven and my fave ‘the lady’ to name but a few…

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There are also the art cars or ‘mutant vehicles’, the only motor vehicles allowed on the playa… the cars sometimes park up beside each other, sync up the sound systems and throw a party mid-playa, or you could just hitch a ride across playa on one, partying at the same time. They are incredible and people must put so much time into creating them! Everything from Charlie the Unicorn at Candy Mountain, to a renegade can of Spam could be found cruising BRC…

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During the day, you could dance away in the sun with a cold drink at one of the many day clubs…

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Or cruise around the streets and see what you stumble across… a free photo booth with props, where they print the shot for you on the spot, a PB&J sandwich station, people giving out frozen choc dipped bananas, snowcones or freshly squeezed juices, a chill-out lounge, a giant trampoline 3 stories above the playa, a mechanical duck (instead of a mechanical bull), a hug deli, where you can choose the type of hug you want (gangster, group, awkward) as well as a range of ‘sides’ all for the bargain price of 2 compliments!

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Laura and I received our ‘playa names’ on a random ramble one day- Laura Pangea, as she brings people together, and me, Opal because I’m colourful (and native to Australia!). And on another I ‘adopted’ several mutant animals (the two-headed bear got dubbed Mandaura and became our mascot)

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If you wanted a cold drink, you just had to ride til someone with a megaphone ushered you of the road into their camp and gave you one. It could be in the exciting form of a ‘Shot-ski’, encouraging teamwork between citizens instead of just bringing in your cup to get filled… Or you could stumble across what seemed to be a mirage- a stall with an eski full of cold beers in the deep playa!

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Even going for a loo stop could result in the most random gifts- laybacks of ice-cold goon, straight from the bag (we’re all class here) or being lucky enough to catch the topless ‘Boobs and Brownies’ girls rolling past on their car doling out fresh brownies to the citizens of BRC.

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Afternoons were often spent recharging at camp…

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And at night, you can get lost in the huge neon playground, which seems a world apart from the playa by day. You might even find yourself in the THUNDERDOME (really!) where people fight each other suspended on rubber harnesses from the roof…

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The highlight of the week was the burn. The namesake of the festival, it’s the biggest event of the week and happens on the Saturday night. We managed to keep our whole group together and make our way to join the masses in the middle of the playa, a huge circle of people surrounding the man. We were entertained by several troupes of fire-twirlers before the fireworks started, and then finally they lit the man.

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Shortly after the base of the UFO upon which the man was standing was lit, and soon the whole structure went up. The blaze was enormous, and even at our distance we could feel the heat. There were even little tornadoes of playa dust spinning out of the heat of the flames! Once the fire had burned down, it’s tradition to run a lap of the man, so in we went. Thankfully we made a meeting spot first, so when we inevitably got separated in the crush, we could find each other again!

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On the Sunday night is the more low key Temple Burn. The temple is a pretty heavy place, it’s where people go to lay tributes to lost loved ones and when the temple is burned, let them go. This year it was a beautiful pyramid, of course all constructed of wood. We decided to stay for the Temple Burn so as to have the whole week’s experience, but in typical BRC style, no-one really knew what time it started! We guessed 8.30, but as we rode out onto the playa, we saw it was already burning.

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We watched it for a few minutes from across the playa, before hightailing it back to camp and jumping in the car to try and get ahead in the line to leave BRC. Unfortunately the line was already enormous, and we didn’t get out of the gates til 2.30am! By 5am, after hours of following the seemingly endless snaking line of red tail lights, we had finally reached Reno again. We pulled up in a hotel parking lot and grabbed a quick 3 hours of shut-eye before continuing along to South Lake Tahoe. We couldn’t check into our hotel til 3pm, so set to work on the mammoth task of cleaning… The playa dust is like talc and gets in EVERYWHERE!

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First up was laundry, about 4 loads of clothes and sheets. Then we had to go through our remaining food supplies, de-dusting everything we wanted to keep with baby wipes and turfing anything looking questionable after a week in the heat! Then it was Bernadette’s turn… we vacuumed her floors and upholstery, shampooed her carpets and took her through the deluxe carwash til she looked like a whole new van! Finally it was our turn… washing off a week’s worth of playa dust was no easy feat! But definitely one of the best showers of my life… We got a good night’s sleep in a real bed and next morning had a refreshing dip in the icy cold waters of Lake Tahoe.

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From there, we hit the road to begin the epic roadtripping adventure. Lock and keys reunited!

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Before and after The Man…

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The US of A(lot-of-difficulty-entering-the-country)

So just as a warning… this will mostly be a text-heavy rant (which some of you will probably have already heard first hand) but just in case you can’t be bothered reading my whinging or don’t want to hear it a second time, leave now! BUT if you are planning on travelling anywhere overland from the States, maybe read on, you may learn something from my mistakes!

Ok. So when I last left off, it was 4am (4AM!) and I was off to Bangkok Airport to catch my flight to LAX to visit my cousin Kirsty and her family in Ensenada, Mexico.  Got to the airport in 10 minutes on the handy transport service from the airport hotel, no worries. Jumped in the short queue at Malaysia Airlines to check in and when I got to the front was asked a few questions by a woman wearing an up-do, heavy black liquid eyeliner and glittery eye-shadow (I did mention it was 4am right?):

‘Do you have a visa?’ No, I don’t need one with an Australian passport.

‘So you have an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation) then?’ Yes ma’am

‘Do you have a copy of it?’ No, it said I didn’t need to print it or present it at the airport, but I have a copy of it on my computer if you need the number?

‘You can print upstairs on the 6th floor at CAT telecom, then come back and see me…’

So off I dash, and after waking the lady sleeping on the desk with a jacket over her head, asked how much it is to print… Luckily it was only 10 baht, about all I had after leaving the last of my Thai currency with Ben who had one more day in Bangkok. She said it needed to be emailed to her, but I had it on my laptop and there was no free wifi… Thankfully she had a USB I could borrow (mine were in my checked bag downstairs) and I got the document printed.

I went back downstairs with a copy of my ESTA and handed it to the lady. She looked at it and put it on her desk then handed me a piece of paper and said:

‘Could you write down the address of where you will be staying in America?’ I’m not staying in America; I’m just passing through on my way to Mexico. It said on my ESTA I could just put ‘in transit’, so maybe you could just write that…

‘Hmm, could you show me your ticket to Mexico?’ No, I don’t have one. I’m going to travel overland by car with my cousin who lives there.

‘What about your ticket home?’ I don’t have one; I don’t know when I’m going home yet!

‘Well you need a ticket out of America. We need to make sure you have all the correct documentation or we will get a fine if you don’t get let in at immigration…’ I have done this trip before… I’m sure if I explain at the other end it will all be fine!

‘Did you have a ticket home then?’ Well, yes, but…

Lady confers with other staff… Another lady chimes in, ‘It’s true, one time we had a girl sent all the way back because she didn’t have all of the right papers…’

My lady says: ‘Do you have your cousin’s address?’ Um, no, but I could get it on the internet if that is what I need to get on this flight…

‘Yes that would be good…’

So off to the 6th floor to wake the CAT telecom lady again, and ask if I could use the internet. She said ‘100 baht’ which was the price for 20 minutes and I said ‘But I only need 5 minutes! Can you give me less?’ and she said, ‘sorry, minimum 100 baht’. Damn!

So it was back down to the check-in floor to the ATM to get cash out (which I didn’t want to do because I had to use my credit card since my travel cashcard didn’t work- another long story!). Then back up to CAT telecom to again badger the sleeping lady (I guess night shift isn’t normally this eventful?) and got on the internet. Found Kirsty’s address on the YWAM (Youth With A Mission) website, and thought while I was there I’d buy a train ticket to San Diego (even though this is still in the states) just to help strengthen my case that I was actually going there to meet Kirsty after I arrived in LA.

So after all of that, I went back downstairs, and passed the lady I had been dealing with walking in the other direction. I was like ‘Hey!’ and she said ‘Just go and see one of the other staff’. Thankfully there was still no line, but time was ticking and I was anxious to get on this plane…

After I’d re-explained my story, the new, less heavily made-up lady, said ‘You need a flight out of the US, that is the rule of the ESTA’ and proceeded to give me a print out of said rules with the pertinent point of having ‘an onward or return ticket’ highlighted in yellow. I pointed out that this did not say ‘plane ticket’ and wanted to know if I could just book a bus as it was stupid for me to pay for a flight when I could get there a lot cheaper in a few hours on the road! And that it was too expensive for me to book a flight home if I wasn’t actually going to use it!

‘Why don’t you book a flight somewhere cheaper than Australia, like Japan, or Korea?’ Because I’m not going to Korea or Japan! It’s just hundreds of dollars down the drain! I can’t afford to pay that much to PASS THROUGH the US for 6 HOURS! (The lack of sleep was finally getting to me… I felt a bit bad for taking this out on the poor airline ladies, but I just wanted them to LET ME ON THE PLANE! So I could at least TRY to speak to someone in the US…)

angry bear

Except no-one seemed to know the exact rules of what kind of ticket I needed, and I was reluctant to fritter away hundreds of dollars for nothing. However, when I was finally ready to relent and said ‘Fine, I’ll just go book a flight now’, they said, ‘Sorry, you can’t now, the flight is closed’. I looked at my watch- 5.30am.

They gave me back my luggage and barely holding back the tears of frustration asked them ‘Well, what do I do now?’ They said to come back to the Malaysia airlines office at the airport after 9am, book an onward flight and then once I had that, change my flight over (and pay the flight change fee…). I said ‘But there’s no flight to LA tomorrow is there?’ as I remembered from when I was booking, but she said she didn’t know and just to check at the bookings desk later.

Right. Well lucky for me, Ben was still at the airport hotel, so struggling my way out to the taxi level (the escalators don’t make any sense in there and don’t go to all floors, so wandering around and around each level trying to get the hell out just added to my early morning frustration!) I got back there at about 6 and sheepishly said to the reception staff ‘I wasn’t allowed to board the plane…’

I told them which room I’d been in and they sent a guy with a pass up with me, which was lucky, because when we got there despite hearing the TV blasting the news through the door and knocking loudly several times, nothing happened… so then the guy used the pass, but Ben being very secure had done up the safety latch so it was more knocking loudly and shouting through the 3 inch gap ‘Ben! BEN! It’s Mandy… WAKE UP!’ before he finally stirred and opened the door looking mighty confused.

I gave the first version of this rant to Ben, and then tried to text Kirsty to let her know not to go to San Diego on the Monday to get me. In a very happy coincidence, it was Sunday afternoon in Mexico and Kirsty was on Skype, so received the second version of this rant, with the conclusion that I would keep her posted on my progress… After that, I finally went back to sleep for a few more hours.

When I woke, it was back to the airport. Malaysia Airlines confirmed that there was no flight to LA til Wednesday and that to change me to that flight would cost 3900 baht (~AU$130). The lady told me she would book me when I had the onward flight. I asked if it had to be a flight or could it be a bus (Kirsty had suggested booking a Greyhound which would at least be a ticket out, but cheaper than a plane!) but the lady didn’t know. She said I should go to the US Embassy to find out, but said it might be best to call them first as today is a public holiday in Bangkok (of course it was…) and it might not be open.

She gave me the phone number and then I went to the info desk to get a map with the location. They helped me change my notes for coins for the pay phone, and when I rang a girl answered and said yes, the embassy was closed today. I said I just need to ask a question about coming in with the ESTA, is there anyone I could ask? And she said they don’t answer questions over the phone, I would have to go to the embassy tomorrow.

Well that was a pain. I went back up to CAT telecom after that to see if there was anyone I could email, and ended up sending an enquiry to the US embassy in Canberra to see if that would get me a quicker answer than waiting to visit the embassy tomorrow. After that, Ben and I grabbed some brunch and decided to head back into the city for one more day.

We visited Jim Thompson’s house first. Jim Thompson was an American architect who later came to Bangkok as a military officer and fell in love with the place. After he left the army he came back to live in Thailand. He helped with reviving and growing the Thai craft of hand woven silk and promoting it internationally. His house combines 6 teak buildings up to 200 years old built in the traditional Thai style, which were brought from around the country to Bangkok. He filled it with traditional pieces of furniture, ceramics and art and he decided to open it to the public, donating proceeds to Thai charities and projects aimed at preserving Thailand’s cultural heritage. Unfortunately, when he was 60, Jim Thompson disappeared while visiting the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. Not a trace has ever been found to say what happened to him, it’s crazy. After that we hit the shops for a bit, had our last street pad thai and made our way back to the airport hotel.

thompson1

Next morning Ben’s flight was at 8am, so I decided I’d catch the airport transport with him at 6am. Unfortunately the hotel staff must have thought the flight was at 6am because they called a couple of times at 4am checking if we were coming down to get on the bus! Anyway, later on arrival at the airport we were greeted by a mass onslaught of people, as Thai Airways has one of those everyone-for-every-flight-line-up-here systems. We must’ve waited more than an hour, and then Ben had to go straight through security. After saying goodbye, I took the train into the city for my adventure to the US Embassy.

I found the embassy easily enough, but already before 9am there was a massive line of Thais with arm-fulls of paperwork out front. The girls checking people in eventually got to me and asked if I had an appointment and when I said no, told my story and said I need just need to clarify with someone exactly what ‘ticket’ I need to get in to the US, so they pulled me out of the line and said ‘wait here’. The girl went in and talked on the phone then came back out with the ESTA website written on a piece of paper. I said, ‘No, I already have that, but I was told I need an onward ticket and I want to know if it has to be a flight and if it has to be within the 90 days. I just need to ask someone who knows!’ she went inside again and I waited again in the sweltering heat. After a bit more to-ing and fro-ing over the next half hour, I was finally provided with the details of the US homeland security who were conveniently located across the road.

Over I went to see them and after handing in my phone and ID at reception was shown through to the waiting area. After waiting a while for the one person who was working to finish up with the guy ahead of me I went up and again told my story and the lady said, ‘oh, you need the border protection office next door. Just ask the security guard’. Sigh.

So I went back to security who let me into the correct office and then repeated myself again to the girl there, Maysa. She was not sure of the answer, and her boss was in Vientiane (Laos), but she said that she would email for me. It seemed the only option, so I went downstairs and found a coffee shop with wifi to email Maysa the problem and she said she would get back to me ASAP- I stressed that I really needed to know today to sort everything out as I wanted to be on a flight tomorrow!

Meanwhile, my email barrage with the US embassy in Canberra was proving slow and fruitless. They insisted on either not answering the actual question or only answering part of it! The first response to my spiel and questions ‘Does a bus ticket to Mexico suffice? Or if I do need a flight, does it need to be within 90 days of my initial entry to the US or can I book it for the end of the year?’ was: ‘ In regard to your query, it is a requirement that you hold a return or onward ticket for you travel under the Visa Waiver Program.’ Well thanks, but I have already been made well aware of that… However they did point out that ‘Travelers with onward tickets terminating in Mexico, Canada, Bermuda or the Caribbean Islands must be legal residents of these areas.’ Well, there’s a point I had not noticed before…

I then asked if this ticket could be for December, thinking maybe I could just book to go home for Christmas and in the meantime be in Mexico and Central America, but the response I got was: ‘In regard to your query, your onward ticket should be the ticket that you will use going back to Australia.’ WHICH WASN’T THE QUESTION!!

I wrote back asking again if it needed to be within 90 days and again specifying I will be travelling for several months and added that I may look for work in Canada after this, to which they then said the visa waiver program may not be appropriate and I might be better off with a tourist visa. However looking at the link provided, I would need to spend $160 and be somewhere for long enough that I could have an interview, to which I would have to bring ‘Current proof of income, tax payments, property or business ownership, or assets; Your travel itinerary and/or other explanation about your planned trip; Criminal/court records pertaining to any arrest or conviction anywhere, even if you completed your sentence or were later pardoned; and your current and all old passports. Original documents are always preferred over photocopies’!! Soooooo not likely from Mexico/ Guatemala/ Honduras!!

Luckily, amidst all this mess, good old Maysa from border protection delivered within the hour. A clear and concise:

‘Dear Ms. Amanda,

If you enter the US (including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands) by air, in order to use the Visa Waiver, you must have an onward ticket that takes you to some place that is not Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean. The ticket must take you out within 90 days. The 90-day clock starts ticking as soon as you clear immigration.

Rgds,

Maysa’

Phew. So I went ahead and booked a cheap Air NZ flight just at the end of my 90 days to Melbourne thinking at least I could change it later and would end up getting some use from it… Then it was back to the airport to show the lady my documentation and change my flight. With all of that sorted, I went back to the hotel exhausted, texted/emailed all concerned parties that I was to fly tomorrow and vegged in my room all afternoon eating cup noodles. I had an early night because I was up again at 3.30am for my airport transfer at 4am.

This time I went through with no issues, they didn’t ask me for an onward ticket (maybe the lady doing my booking had noted it?) and let me go through. So after a total of around 20 hours in the air and a few more hours on stopovers in Kuala Lumpur and Tokyo, I finally got to LAX. I waited nervously in the long line at immigration hoping that I wouldn’t run into any problems…

The guy who checked me through asked what I was doing in the states, I said I was going to Mexico to visit my cousin tonight. He asked, where to next? And I said central America. He then asked me how I got so much time off, what I did for work in Australia, do I work privately or in a hospital and a whole bunch of other random stuff while he took my full set of fingerprints and then my photo, and let me through without asking me for any details on my trip to Mexico or my stupid $720 onward ticket!!

Oh well… At least I was prepared had I needed it… Since this has been so text heavy I will leave you with a few pics from the Pacific Surfliner – the train from LA to San Diego.

IMG_2397 IMG_2396

I met Kirsty, Oscar and 2-year-old Sammy in San Diego and after the mandatory stops at Oscar’s favourite burger joint In and Out for dinner, and Starbucks for vanilla lattes, I finally made it to Ensenada…

So team, remember to read the fine print, and for future reference, if you are travelling overland through the States, not only Mexico and Canada but ALL of the following countries also count in your 90-day visit: Anguilla, Antigua, Aruba, Bahamas, Barbados, Barbuda, Bermuda, Bonaire, British Virgin Islands, Canada, Cayman Islands, Cuba, Curacao, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guadeloupe,  Haiti, Jamaica, Marie-Galante, Martinique, Mexico, Miquelon, Montserrat, Saba, Saint-Barthelemy, Saint Christopher, Saint Eustatius, Saint Kitts-Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Maarten, Saint Martin, Saint Pierre, Saint Vincent, Grenadines, Trinidad, Tobago, Turks and Caicos Islands, Other British, French and Netherlands territory or possessions bordering on the Caribbean Sea.

Easy! 😉 Happy travels!

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