Never heard of San Pedro Prison? You can’t be in La Paz more than a day without it coming up in conversation. It’s rare to find a gringo who’s not read Rusty Young’s famous book about it, Marching Powder. Never read Marching Powder? Do yourself a favour and pick it up. It’s one of my favourite nonfiction books. It’s the story of a British guy, Tommy, caught smuggling 4 kilograms of cocaine out of Bolivia and his experiences being thrown in San Pedro Prison in La Paz. The story is absolutely incredible and captures the imagination of everyone who reads it.
Let’s start with a short (and probably not entirely accurate) history lesson. The Incan Empire spanned present-day Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia and parts of Chile and Argentina. Cusco was the capital and Machu Picchu was a town built up in the mountains to the North. Machu Picchu functioned as a religious centre as well as an agricultural one. Important note: pronunciation is critical. Machu ‘pick – chew’ is the correct way of saying it, meaning ‘old mountain’; if you say ‘pitch-oo’ you’re saying ‘old penis’. The Spanish rolled in and ruined shit for the Incas and Machu Picchu was lost to the jungle. Up until 1911 farmers still used that land and were aware that there were Incan ruins on the mountain. Then a Yale professor named Hiram Bingham III rocked up and ‘rediscovered’ it. It’s now one of the New 7 Wonders of the World and visitors to the site are increasing in numbers every year.
Now, the Inca Trail… To relay messages across such a vast empire, the Incas built thousands of kilometres worth of trails all across the land. To this day there are still a lot of Inca trails (lower case ‘t’) but THE Inca Trail (capital ‘T’) was built as a pilgrimage route to Machu Picchu. There were other, easier ways to get to Machu Picchu but the Inca Trail climbs right up into the Andes where it’s possible to see Salcantay and other sacred mountains and then winds down into Machu Picchu.
The Inca Trail is so popular these days that the number of people allowed on the Trail per day is capped at 500, including porters, cooks and guides; and you have to book your place months in advance. Most companies tackle it the same way – three nights, four days, cooks to provide three meals per day and porters to carry the gear and set up the camp sites. We set off in earnest from KM 82, the start point of the Inca Trail (82 kilometres from Cusco), and it soon became apparent that there were those in our group that could zip up the trail like it was no big deal. And then there were those of us who just struggled. It’ll come as no surprise to anyone that I was in the latter group, it did, however, surprise me that Fish was consistently the first person to reach the camp site and rarely even broke a sweat. Who knew the kid was good at hiking?
To be completely honest, I wasn’t loving being on an organised tour. I was finding the lack of independence smothering and I frequently realised that we could’ve visited many places by ourselves and often for less money. The Inca Trail really changed that though. I am so, so glad that we chose G Adventures – the guides were amazing, the food was some of the best we had in Peru, and they treat their porters really well. There’s strict regulations as to how much porters are allowed to carry and this turned out to mean that we could pack 2.5kg of stuff, not including the sleeping bags and mattresses we rented. I felt like such a dirty gringa when I’d move to the side of the path, huffing and puffing, to let a porter steam past with all 20kg of gear he was carrying to go and set up a tent for me and put all my belongings in it. It made me feel a lot better knowing that I’d chosen the company which pays their porters the most and purposely hires more so that more local people can have jobs and so that they can carry less.
Day 1 is considered the training day – there’s a few ups and downs but nothing too hard-core. We stopped half way for a two-course lunch. Day 2 is the killer. I still don’t know how we managed. You go almost straight up a mountain, reaching 4215m above sea level at Dead Woman’s Pass, only to then ruin your knees descending the other side to the campsite. The saving grace is that the views are absolutely, indescribably spectacular. We started the day in the jungle – everything was covered in moss, even the trees. Then suddenly the trail popped out of the forest and we were in barren, scrubby, rocky mountain land. Walking up a steep hill is hard enough at sea-level, but altitude is an evil ninja and can affect you in all kinds of ways. Breathing is just so much harder – two steps and you’re out of breath with that burning back-of-the-throat feeling. You stop and you’ve got your breath back in about 30 seconds. Coca leaves are a godsend. Chewing a wad in the side of your mouth can abate the nausea and the headache that are common symptoms. Fish and I were both so lucky that we didn’t suffer the other common symptom of diarrhoea like some others did.
It’s so important to walk at your own pace on the Inca Trail and luckily for an extrovert like me there were a bunch of other lovely ladies who had the same snail pace (Lol and Kaysie can attest to the fact that I dawdle and was consistently the last to arrive anywhere on the Camino De Santiago). We kept each other going with words of encouragement and Disney sing-alongs and frequent stops to ‘look at that flower!’ (code for: I’m knackered and need a rest!). Despite it being such an epic effort, we all felt bloody proud of ourselves that evening and the endorphins were FLOWING.
The third day of the Inca Trail is renowned as the most beautiful and it lived up to all expectations. There are varying degrees of authenticity on the Trail – none of Day 1 is original Inca road; Day 2 is 50/50. Day 3 is all genuine, original, been-there-for-centuries Inca Trail. And it is just spectacular. You can truly get the sense of it being a pilgrimage. It was also a lot flatter than the previous day which made it far easier to enjoy. The other days it had felt like we were the only people on the path and I was so impressed with how the guides had worked it out so that was the case. Day 3 was a little different and there were lots of retirement-age Americans dotted along the way, “Bob! Wow! Geez! We haven’t seen this kind of vegetation before!” was a favourite overheard quote.
The views included more Incan ruins; lush green mountains; waterfalls; snow-capped mountains; the river Urabamba snaking its way through the valley far below. And in the afternoon when we started descending, Mount Machu Picchu became visible down below (you could only see the mountain, we just knew that Machu Picchu itself was just down and around the other side of it).
These three days of the Inca Trail were just unbelievable incredible and it was one of the best things I’ve done in my life. I’d heard from various sources that Machu Picchu is a very spiritual place where you can’t help but feel moved. These two factors combined made the anticipation enormous for the last day, the day where we wake up stupid-early to arrive at the Sun Gate at dawn and descend into Machu Picchu. And there’s no other way of putting this: it was a great disappointment. Some groups wake up at 2am for the last day, which is absurd as there’s a checkpoint which doesn’t open until 5:30. Luckily we had a sensible guide who only got us up at 4am purely because the porters all had to barrel down the mountain to Aguas Calientes (the town below Machu Picchu) to catch a 5am train. I was more than happy to do that for them considering all they’d done for us over the last three days. Aside from that, it would’ve been better to stay in bed til 10. We marched off in the dark to arrive as the last group at the checkpoint at 4:45am. We waited in the cold and dark with all the other gringos until we could show our passports and entry tickets and continue on. It was misty as shit and a little bit drizzly and we had to walk in a tight little line behind all the other tight little lines. The combination of early morning, misty drizzle and not being able to go your own pace made us grumpy and silent. Now, I’d read a book before doing the Trail called Turn Right At Machu Picchu by Mark Adams that is recommended by most websites for people travelling Peru. Because of this I knew that we’d never see the sunrise over Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate (the entry to Machu Picchu from the Inca Trail) – Machu Picchu is a tiny mountain surrounded by enormous mountains which block the sun. However, I expected to see something other than mist as thick as custard.
We stopped there to munch on some cheese and bread sandwiches and the best thing that happened was seeing our Swiss buddies, Tristan and Lenny, who’d been doing a different Trek, and our usual guide, Elmer, appear from the mist. We trundled down the mountain (it made me wish I was climbing Dead Woman’s Pass again – I’ll take difficulty breathing over painful knees any day), mostly catching up with Lenny and Tristan (and making fun of Tristan’s Arnold Schwarzenegger accent) and trying to hide our disappointment in the weather. The fog didn’t clear and the tourists increased in numbers the closer we got to the main site of Machu Picchu. The momentum was really lost when we had to exit the site, wait around for 20 minutes, and then re-enter through the main gates amongst the swarms of day-tripping tourists who’d not put in the hard yards we had and had showered within the last 4 days. Bastards. Not being able to see more than 10 metres in front we followed Alex (our main Inca Trail guide) around Machu Picchu learning about some temples and stuff. It was one of those historic sites where you have to follow arrows around a particular route and can’t explore yourself. I was really glad I’d read Turn Right At Machu Picchu as it gave me a really in depth historic overview and I understood a lot of the sites and their significance beyond what Alex had time to tell us about.
After this we all climbed back up (uuugggghhhhh) to the Guard House where all of the famous pictures of Machu Picchu are taken. Suddenly, the fog cleared. And it was more than I ever could have hoped for. A lot of famous landmarks look better in postcards and famous pictures (Sphinx, I’m looking at you…) but honestly, nothing can compare to looking out over Machu Picchu with Huayna Picchu in the background, surrounded by the Andes, with the valley far, far below. Unfortunately, I am my father’s daughter and the hoards and hoards of tourists really detracted. They apparently cap the number of visitors to 2500 per day, but it felt like they were all swarming the view point exactly at the same time I was there. I had to get out of there before I ended up in a Peruvian prison for murder.
All in all, the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. But it’s definitely true that it’s about the journey, not the destination.
Title Time: This blog’s title was inspired by The Small Faces’ “Itchycoo Park”
We’re in a guesthouse in Lima right now. There’s not been any toilet paper in the bathroom for the last day; the shower takes ten minutes to be warm enough to even dip a toe in; and we got three single beds instead of double in our room. We’re also just sorting out our ‘social media’ (what a fucking stupid term, it irritates me every time I hear it; it’s so obvious some middle-aged man in an ill-fitting suit made it up and ordered a raft of internet-savvy employees to ‘make it happen’) which is really rosy and happy and totally a travel brag. I did say to check our blog for the behind the scenes, but even our blogs are pretty positive. So now let me give you the true behind the scenes. Let me tell you all the ugly bits…
I’m no lady
This seems like an obvious statement that could be used to describe me at any point in my life. Anyone who knows me knows I’d be a Finishing School Drop-Out. But this shit is next level. It’s been over a month since I waxed my legs (and even then it was with packaged wax strips from Target as we drove along a highway, much to Mary and Kosta’s amusement).
I’m covered in bruises and scrapes because I’m as clumsy as a drunk with an inner ear infection. We’ve been quite active being adventurous and shit but combine that with my lack of balance and I’m surprised Fish hasn’t been taken in for questioning.
While we’re talking about our extreme activities and me being the furthest from Miss World, let me fill you in on something Fish nicely neglected to mention in his post: I cried like a little baby when we were canyoning. We had to abseil down a 25m cliff and this did not mesh well with my fear of heights. I cried and cried and swore and cried and I felt no sense of accomplishment when I arrived alive at the bottom. It was the furthest thing from graceful you could imagine.
I haven’t worn make-up in ages; I more often than not wear deodorant but my perfume rolls around in the bottom of my bag neglected; I’ve worn flip flops every day and I’m not sure whether that’s a tan or caked-in dirt; and I can’t remember when I last washed my hair. Basically I look like The Crack Fox from The Mighty Boosh.
I’m on my way to becoming the Michelin Woman
Long term travel means adhering to a strict budget (something I’ve never been good at and for which I’ve entirely relinquished responsibility to Fish) and one of the best ways to save money is to not eat out. What a paradox: the best part about travel is experiencing the food, but to be able to keep travelling we have to cook our own budget meals. Pasta is a staple. It’s carbs upon carbs upon Nutella. I feel like I’m a uni student again, but I’m not seeing my parents once a week for a decent meal.
We’re also on holidays and, according to The Accountant, beers don’t count in the budget and we can have as many as necessary. This doesn’t help with The Spread.
My fitness is slowly but surely decreasing, too. It was quite obvious when we went canyoning that all my radiographer’s upper body strength has disappeared in two months of unemployment. A few days ago we climbed 740 steps to the top of a big rock- I nearly died and was one email away from cancelling our Inca Trail hike. Fuck a 4 day hike, I’ll take the train thanks.
Those beers aren’t Coopers
Those unlimited beers? They’re the local version of VB. I’m going to murder a pale ale when I get home. Also, the coffee is really fucking bad. How can a region that produces coffee have such a penchant for Nescafe?!
Travelling with a Boyfriend is a whole different ballgame to travelling with your Girlfriends
Don’t get me wrong, Fish is great, I really like the kid.
But, faaark, it’s a lot harder work hanging out with a partner compared to your two best girl mates.
With the girls I could truly just enjoy the moment. With Fish, I question the rest of my life frequently: can I be with a guy who doesn’t know what pesto is? What will the rest of my life be like if we never have cheese in the fridge? There’s a lot of Radiohead in his music collection, should I just run away now?!
Yesterday our taxi driver was as useless as a chocolate teapot and we were going to be late. I cried. I’d never have done that with the girls, I’d have been laughed at mercilessly, which is obviously the appropriate reaction. A partner can’t laugh at you though, they have to reassure you and pat you gently on the back, thus travelling in a relationship makes you a weakling.
With the girls I made an effort to be fun to be around and easy to get along with. With a partner you can be yourself. This is obviously a terrible idea and the beast has been unleashed. It’s completely valid that every time my mum checks in with me she asks if Fish is still around and is always surprised when the answer is ‘yes’.
But really life isn’t that tough
It’s Sunday night and I don’t have to work tomorrow. That’s a wonderful consolation. And until my hormones calm down and my mood improves, there’s always $5 bottles of Chilean red wine.
(Title is from Ben Folds Five “Rockin’ The Suburbs”)
Medellin. Wow. We’ve been here for five days and there’s just so much to say about it. Never have I been to a place where people’s perceptions are so divorced from reality. The end of last century was hell for Medellin but the progress that’s been made in the last 20 years and the city that it has become and the people that populate it are truly remarkable.
The free walking tour is a must for everyone who visits Medellin (pronounced Med-eh-jzin, where the ‘jz’ sound is like when that guy from Queer Eye For The Straight Guy wants to ‘jush’ someone’s hair). They take you to the downtown area where most people would tell you not to go. Best of all they explain “why your parents are freaking out that you’re here, but why there is no need to worry”.
Colombia has a very complex political history which led to ole Pablo Escobar and his cartel buddies running rampant all over Medellin which I can’t even begin to explain. The over-simplification is that there was a civil war raging between conservative and liberal guerrilla armies for the last half of the 20th century; therefore there were lots of people with guns kicking around that were more than happy to do Pablo’s dirty work in exchange for a few pesos. By the end of the 80s he pretty much had control over the whole country.
In the early 1990s Medellin was the most dangerous place in the world with nearly 7000 murders in 1991. Hernán, our tour guide, remembers catching a bus to school and seeing entire buildings which had been bombed the night before. Children would be sent off to school and the parents wouldn’t even be sure if they’d see them again. Kidnapping was par for the course – tourists were prime targets because their countries’ governments could be bribed for more money. With that kind of shit going on Colombia, and Medellin in particular, deserved the international reputation it got.
But that was in the 1990s. In the early 1990s you couldn’t go to New York without getting mugged and yet no one freaked out when Fish and I said we were going to the Big Apple. 20 years ago Brixton was less than salubrious and now it’s a trendy place for young people to party if not move to. So why does everyone still assume we’re going to get kidnapped/robbed/stabbed in Medellin? I don’t have the answer to this, but I suspect it’s got something to do with the War On Drugs – poor Colombia is blamed because they’ve got the supply, yet basic economics would tell you that it’s the demand which is the driving force. The other element is that tourism is only just starting to take off so there hasn’t been enough people going back to their home countries to tell people how beautiful, safe and friendly Colombia is.
The city began transforming in the late 1990s with the help of an iron-fisted president and a brave mayor with a very civic approach. This mayor claimed back public spaces that had become over-run with criminals, where regular residents would never dare go, and overhauled them. The central square for prostitutes, drug-dealers, and hit men was cleaned up and now hundreds of pillars are planted around which are beacons of light at night. Around the square the historic buildings have been converted into a library and cultural centre. Escalators were installed in the poorest neighbourhoods where people would normally have to walk up 300 steps to their house. A metro system was constructed – the first in all of Colombia – which includes a cable car (exactly like the ones on ski mountains) up the hill of those poor suburbs – the first commuter cable car in the world. The striking thing about all of this infrastructure is the way the residents interact with it. It is so apparent that they’ve very recently lived through hell and they take nothing for granted. The metro train is unlike any I’ve ever seen in the world because it’s 20 years old and has not even so much as a scratch on it. The people are so grateful to have that metro system they practically worship it. Every ‘park’ Fish and I visited (they use the words ‘park’ and ‘square’ interchangeably, quite often there won’t be a single green thing in a ‘park’) was filled with people enjoying it. El Poblado- the touristy area and centre of nightlife – is gorgeous and surprisingly cosmopolitan. The streets are lined with enormous leafy trees and there are bars, boutiques, restaurants and cafes for about ten blocks around the main park, Park Lleras. It’s a really hip area, like, sushi bars and succulents-in-cute-pots level of hip.
As a crowd of 30 gringos on a walking tour through the heart of the city we stuck out like dogs balls. Locals would gather around as well despite not speaking a lick of English. They were just so interested as to why we were there. And appreciative of the fact that we had bothered to come. Once an older local man who may or may not have showered in the last week stood right next to Hernán the whole time he was talking, nodding along to everything he was saying. When Hernán had finished and we were about to walk on to the next place, this local grabbed at his arm and rattled off something in Spanish. Hernan stopped and announced to us, whilst Old Mate stood grinning widely next to him, “this guy just wants me to tell you that you’re all very welcome here”.
I found it very interesting that Hernán would make us stand in very close so no locals could weasel in whenever he was about to reference something bad which had happened during Escobar’s reign. People from Medellin are very ashamed of that part of their history. Even Hernán wouldn’t say Pablo Escobar’s name and wouldn’t talk about him directly unless he was asked. There are plenty of tours you can do that are solely about the guy, but we felt uncomfortable supporting them. We heard that they weren’t very good, that they glorified him – made him out to be a Robin Hood type figure. When you’re making $50 million per day I’d imagine that you would have some spare change to give to the people in the slums. The most interesting thing I learned from people who’d done the tour was that he didn’t use banks and spent $1000 every week on rubber bands to tie up bundles of cash. And 10% of his income was written off due to being nibbled by rats.
Of course, Medellin still has its troubles and it’s not all a Utopia. The unemployment rate is about 17% and there were a lot of drunk old men passed out on the steps in the town centre. Down the left side of every church (not sure why it’s always the left side, but it is) you can find a lady (or lady-boy) to take to a nearby hotel room which you can rent by the hour, or if there are none that take your fancy you can pick up any number of hard-core porn dvds from the stalls that line the street. But as a tourist I never, ever felt unsafe. The guerrilla armies are all but dissipated and the few that are still active are in select rural areas near the Venezuelan borders.
I had such a fantastic time in Medellin and was so impressed with what it’s like now compared to how it was. I feel like it’s a personal mission to do some international PR for Colombia and tell the world how beautiful, safe and welcoming it is. It’s becoming an essential leg of the Gringo Trail – the backpackers have discovered its glory. I’m sure it won’t be too long before the rest of the travel and tourism world joins in. And Dad, stop sneering about how it’s the Drug Capital – I’ve seen more lines racked up at house parties in south west London.
Let’s discuss the title straight up – New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down is a bloody brilliant song by LCD Soundsystem, an iconic NYC band. Also, it’s the best way to describe my time in New York due to the fact that it was impossible not to compare New York to London, and it just made me wish even more that I was living back there.
We Couchsurfed at a sharehouse in Brooklyn in an area that looked so much like Manor House (where I lived in London) – the plain brick buildings; ethnic convenience stores; middle eastern fast food. The subway system was a sub-par version of the London underground – it was hard not complain that the Underground was cleaner, more comfortable, more frequent, and far more user-friendly. Some places looked a lot like London, we would often be saying “this is like Shoreditch”, or “this is like Shepherds Bush Empire”.
We went to see The Wombats on Monday night for $18 (they were amazing, by the way) and we could’ve seen Ben Folds on Thursday for $30 but got lazy and didn’t (we had to be up at 4am for our flight to Colombia). That was what London was like.
Ok! I’ll stop whinging! Honestly, I did love it, it just made me sad that I live in a country with beautiful weather and personal space where it’s easy to drive a car.
We did a walking tour of the Financial District straight up which was a great way to learn about the history of New York. The only thing I really knew was that “old New York was once New Amsterdam” because of that really old song that They Might Be Giants covered that one time, “Istanbul was Constantinople”. Probably my favourite fact was that the word Manhattan comes from the language of the indigenous people who lived on the island when the Dutch East India Company turned up and settled it and 25% of the buildings were pubs. Manhattan comes from their word which I can’t spell which means ‘place of general inebriation’. That’s pretty funny.
We visited Grand Central Station, which of course I was likening to Victoria station, until we actually got there and it was actually really beautiful and I totally see why people go and look at it. The Chrysler building is just next to it; as well as The Rockefeller Center and The Empire State building. We went up neither of these buildings to enjoy the views of the city because we’re tight-arses.
We walked to Times Square and were overwhelmed by the amount of people and wasted electricity. I got sad about not being able to see any musical I wished whenever I pleased. God I miss London. We laughed at the ridiculous people dressed up in costumes that are supposed to look similar enough to a famous character (aka Hello Kitty or Iron Man) to get tips from tourists wanting a picture; but not so similar as to attract a lawsuit.
We visited Chelsea Market and bought a picnic which we ate as we walked the Highline (a disused railway line that’s been converted into a paved-and-gardened walkway above Chelsea and the Meat-packing district). We rode around Central Park and then returned on foot to see the bits we missed (Strawberry Fields; Belvedere Castle). Fish preferred Hyde Park but I have to admit that I was quite taken with Central Park, especially the beautiful magnolia trees.
We weren’t organised enough (a recurring theme) to have bought tickets to any theatre shows but I’d heard about getting last minute lottery tickets. I really wanted to take Fish to see The Book Of Mormon, a musical written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the writers of South Park. I saw it when it opened in London and I can’t stress how much I loved it and it is also boy-appropriate (not that musicals should be for women only, but when you date a guy from Jamestown you have to be sensitive to some old-fashioned ideas). It’s so popular that it sells out way in advance and tickets are sooooooo expensive. So we lined up at 4pm for the lottery and standing room seats. There were already about ten people in front of us. The line grew and grew and at 4:30 a chap from the box office came out with little cards to write your name on and enter the lottery. 6 lucky people would have their names drawn out and from there could buy two tickets for $32. The seats are 12 special seats reserved in the front row just for lottery winners. Other people in the front row pay $300 to be there.
There was a crowd of about 100 people by the time the lottery was drawn at 5pm. There was so much anticipation, it was like a reverse Reaping from the Hunger Games. The guy who pulled the names out created a bit of theatre about it so it was fun in itself seeing how it worked (because they never do this lottery business in London!). We were no Charlie Buckets, we didn’t win the Golden Tickets. But we had our place in the standing room line. So when the lucky bastards who won the lottery had bought their tickets, they opened up the ticket office for the first 25ish people to buy standing room tickets. We got them for $27.
By this time it was 6pm, we’d been on our feet all day and were about to stand for another three hours to watch this show. We scarpered to the nearest pub for a pint and a burger (bless the Irish heritage of North-East America, we’d been hard pressed to find a pub up til now) before getting back to the theatre for the start of the show at 7. I was nervous that I’d built it up too much for Fish (and the other people whom we’d befriended in the ticket line). Thankfully, he was impressed and there were some legit LOLs coming from him. If you thought Team America World Police was funny, Book Of Mormon is next level. And more inappropriate. What made it even better was that the standing places were actually up against the railing at the back of the stalls (the stage-level seats, for those not in the know of theatre lingo). We were resting just behind the people who’d paid over $200 for their tickets.
When the show was over we were having a chat to the people who’d been next to us in line earlier – a bunch of Aussie doctors from Melbourne and a gay couple from Clapham, one of whom played in the house band at Venn Street Records in Clapham Common (a great bar in south-west London). When they’d been walking back to their hotel to get changed before the show, the Aussies had bumped into a ticket seller on the streets who’d sold them cheap ($30) tickets to a late-night comedy show at Jerry Seinfeld’s comedy club where Tina Fey was appearing that night. I do love Tina Fey. If anyone is a fan of 30 Rock I urge you to watch The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt – Tina Fey’s new show which is freakin’ hilarious and I got addicted to it on Mary and Kosta’s Netflix. We were so tired and the show wasn’t on til 11pm but it was TINA FEY. Fish The Accountant even said that the budget could allow it. So we walked to the venue to see if we could get tickets. The dude on the door said that it wasn’t sold out so if we just came back at 10:30 we’d be fine. Awesome! We got a pint, came back at 10:30, managed to get tickets for $20, and then realised that the venue was tiiiiiiiiiny and immediately we became suspicious (would’ve been great if we’d become suspicious an hour earlier). How naïve we were. There were 4 stand-ups of varying quality (they would’ve been great if it was an amateur comedy night at Rhino Room; not when you’re expecting Tina Fey) and about 90 disgruntled punters which dwindled rapidly once they all dawned that no famous comedian was coming out. Turns out the ticket sellers on the street say any comedian’s name and it’s up to the purchaser to be savvy enough to know that that’s bollocks. And our Melbournian Doctors weren’t and we didn’t twig until too late. To add insult to injury there was a two drink MINIMUM and the cheapest drink was about $9. It was funny reading the TripAdvisor reviews of Broadway Comedy Club after that.
We spent a day in Brooklyn as well, following recommendations from Danny and Alisha who used to live there. Prospect Park was pretty cool – apparently if Central Park is New York’s front yard then Prospect Park is its’ backyard. There were more pretty flowering magnolias. We had awesome banh mi for lunch from a legit Vietnamese café (if there’s one thing we’ve been missing more than a chicken parmi it’s a dog roll). We walked over the Brooklyn Bridge, saw the Statue of Liberty in the distance, then cruised on to Williamsburg (much like Shoreditch – commercially hipster. If you want your cutting-edge Dalston-level hipster you have to go all the way east to Bushwick). I couldn’t resist flicking through some vintage shops so I released Fish for half an hour so I could browse and dream of more luggage space without feeling guilty watching him play on his phone while sitting on The Boyfriend Chair. When we reunited the little sweetheart led me to a park and produced a bottle of wine and plastic cups for us to enjoy in the late afternoon sunshine. Just to make it really feel like London. Sometimes there’s a little flicker of romance that gives me hope that my choice of partner isn’t totally Freudian. In the evening we hit up a couple of bars in Williamsburg that’d been recommended. Best of all was Anaconda Lounge which gave you a free pizza with every drink you purchased. That’s a travellers dream if ever I’ve heard one! We ate 6 pizzas and their matching pints while watching the Brooklyn Nets NBA playoff game (cos we’re hard out basketball fans now, haven’t you heard?).
Another day was spent vaguely following Stacy’s Perfect Day In New York suggestion (we had to split it because it involved the Highline and Chelsea Markets which we did a different day) through SoHo; Nolita and Greenwich. New York has this funny but logical way of naming areas by abbreviating a description of their location. Nolita is North Of Little Italy. SoHo is South Of Houston. Tribeca is Triangle Below Canal. Dumbo is District Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. We had to miss out on Balthazar’s restaurant which was recommended by Stacy, Katy and Misha, because, you guessed it, we’re tight-arses. We got take-out (because we’re in American so it’s not take-away) thai for dinner and had an early night before our 8am flight to Colombia.
All-in-all I liked New York. It was hard to scratch the surface in just 4 days, but I liked what I saw. Considering I’m not welcome to live in the UK anymore I’d definitely consider moving to New York for a stint. I feel like it’d be one of those cities that the more you know of it the more you love it. Just like London.
Right, here’s my Coachella blog. The festival was amazing but it was so long ago it almost feels irrelevant! I’ve just broken it down into some main paragraphs to cover the most important areas. Thankfully Fish covered the behind-the-scenes parts because that was definitely the highlight for me. We’ve since done an amazing road trip through the South, and we’re in our last day of 4 in New York now. We fly to Colombia tomorrow to start our South America travels! So let’s start catching up on what the States showed us…
Here’s my Coachella summary:
Night one was ACDC. We all got far too excited and went too hard during the evening so after enjoying Interpol and Tame Impala it was all too hard for us to stay upright for a 2 hour ACDC set. We hung around long enough to hear Thunderstruck which was all we really needed anyway. The boys still managed to watch and commentate an entire Crows match back at the tent whilst Mary and I called everyone’s number we could think of. I’m sure everyone enjoyed that.
Night two was Jack White who I had no time for. I will gladly swallow my pride and admit that I was wrong on this one and I was glad that Fish had him down as a must-see. He did a really rad old-school-country version of Hotel Yorba which was one of my favourite songs for the whole festival.
Night three was Jimmy From Degrassi, or, as he likes to be called now, Drake. What a load of rubbish. You’ve probably all read about and seen pictures of Madonna’s guest appearance in his set where she randomly pashed him and he quite obviously was horrified? Yeah, well that was the most interesting thing about the whole freakin’ set. Yawn factor 10.
The guest appearances:
So, Coachella is known for guest appearances. Whether it’s a hologram of Tu-Pac or Kanye West performing a mini-set, you’re guaranteed a guest appearance during a headline act and can almost expect artists who’ve featured on a song to appear for that part of the set. Case in point – I dragged Fish along to see just a little bit of SBTRKT’s set before we hit the hay on night two. Lo and behold, Ezra Koenig from Vampire Weekend wandered out and delivered New Dorp, New York then trotted off again. It was amazing. I think even Fish was impressed despite hating that song (DIGRESSION: I love that song but Fish hates it because he thinks the lyrics are dumb. We’re in New York right now and we saw a sign today that listed New Dorp as a location! I was so excited that that wasn’t just a dumb lyric! I now just have to find a statue or something of gargoyles gargling oil…)
Zach De La Rocha from Rage Against The Machine featured in Run The Jewels set which we tragically missed due to unfortunate clashes. After complaining so much about how sparse the line-up was of good acts I managed to miss bands I would’ve liked to see and Day 2 was a corker for clashes of bands. I think you realistically can only watch up to 5 bands in one day of a festival by the time you factor in food, beverage, shade, and rest needs.
Jack White had a full band behind him which included the lead singer from the Dixie Chicks on fiddle and back-up vocals which was kinda cool.
Now, Madonna… Kiss, shmiss, whatever, that was the least of what was wrong with that appearance. The whole thing was confusing – why was she even there? When people make a guest appearance, especially during the headline set, they should have some connection to the people performing or at least be relevant. Honestly, when she appeared Fish and Mary where sitting down having a chat (because that’s how compelling Drake’s set was) and Kosta and I were standing there going:
“here we go…. Someone is going to appear…”
*opening strains of Hung Up start*
“ohhhhhh, is it Lady Gaga?!”
“Nah….. it’s…. ummmmm…….”
*Madonna comes out on stage*
“Who is that?!”
“Oh yeah it is! What’s she doing here?”
The whole thing just smacked of a publicity grab for Madonna.
Right! Enough whinging! Good stuffs!
Royal Blood. Woah. They were incredible. They’re a very unorthodox set up of one bass guitarist/vocalist and a drummer and they will blow your face off. I can’t believe the sounds those guys could produce just between the pair of them. The crowd loved it too.
My personal highlight was a recommendation from Jacob, Mary’s brother. It was a band I’d never heard of from Alabama called St Paul and The Broken Bones and they were on so early that they didn’t clash with anyone so we went to check them out. They were a suited and booted big band – brass; drums; keys; guitarists – fronted by a man who was as plain as an arrowroot biscuit but had amazing stage presence and had an incredible voice. The best thing I can compare them to is Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, but remove Sharon Jones and replace her with the body of Drew Carey and the voice of the chick from Alabama Shakes. Kaysie, you would love them and I think you need to get Tennis onto trying to get them out for Blenheim fest!
Interpol were great, as per usual; Milky Chance were excellent despite the lead singer being really sick and nearly losing his voice; St Lucia were fun; Parquet Courts; Kasabian, and Florence and The Machine. Florence was just wonderful and we later found out that she actually broke her foot during the set from running all over the stage!
Guys, so many celebs! I got well excited. My favourite was Donna and Hyde from That 70s Show being right in front of us during Bad Religion (I was more excited about them than the band). We also saw the curly haired dude from Workaholics; a few Victoria’s Secret models; John and Yoko’s son; and some famous bloggers. Mary and Kosta knew all the actual names of these people, but whatever. We thought we saw Kahleesi from Game Of Thrones but it turned out to be another short chick with bleached hair and dark eyebrows; and there were about 8 incorrect Dave Grohl sightings within one hour. There were unconfirmed sightings of Justin Bieber and Iggy Azaelia. Oh and we saw Fitzy from Aussie radio/ Big Brother hahaha.
The best one, however, was when Fish and Kosta were standing right in front of Aaron Paul during The War On Drugs set. He’s Jesse from Breaking Bad. Mary and I were off watching Ghostface Killah and Raekwon and when we came back the boys had drunk all of the waterbottles of vodka we’d packed so were on another level. Kosta was preeeeeetty excited about seeing Aaron Paul and that name became his answer to anything, the best time being after Mary asked if he was ok: “Mary… A) Aaron Paul… B) Aaron Paul)”. That became the quote of the festival. Now if we list anything we have to start at C because we all know what A and B are.
At the end of the day:
So, we had a brilliant time. The line-up was definitely solid enough to keep me interested and there was the added bonus of not being torn between two bands due to clashes. Even that wouldn’t have been that much of a problem because of the Golden Ticket that is a Safari Pass – just jump back stage, get on a golf cart and get whisked to the next stage. It was freaking hot during the day so I don’t know how it must be if you camp and then have to walk a million miles into the festival grounds. I’d do it all over again but only with the Safari Pass. In summary:
A) Aaron Paul
B) Aaron Paul
C) Safari Pass
Guys, we’ve been so busy doing so much we haven’t had time to write about it. I’ll get around to doing my Coachella blog at some point (maybe) and at least one of us will write about this roadtrip that we’re currently on. But I’m writing this post as a bit of a public service announcement – Jackson, Mississippi, is a shit-hole.
Yesterday we drove from New Orleans, Louisiana, and drove north to Memphis, Nashville. This involves driving all the way through Mississippi and we were pretty excited to have a stop in Jackson. We were singing ‘We’re going to Jackson’ by Johnny Cash and June Carter for most of the morning, sometimes interspersed with a little “Hollywood, Harlem, Jackson Mississippi” from Mark Ronson’s Uptown Funk. We got into town and shut up immediately. Why, Mark Ronson?! Why?!
We did not even get out of the car. I think the only person we saw was one guy on a park bench who started walking towards us when we paused too long at an intersection. I just asked Fish how he would describe the place and he just said ‘Caltowie’. Perfect.
Mary googled some facts about the town as we quickly retreated – Jackson has a population of 175,000 people (the largest city in Mississippi) and the state ranks as the worst in the entire USA in education attainment; mean household income; and health. It’s also the most racist and most religious.
We just have no idea why the city gets sung about.
Title is from The Animals ‘We Gotta Get Out Of This Place’. Kosta thinks the song is about the Vietnam War but I’m sure it’s another Jackson song.
After our excessive weekend in Vegas Mary and Kosta went back to work and Fish and I flew up to San Francisco.
This was the first time we weren’t being shepherded around by friends or family and we were being total tourists. One of the draw cards to San Fran was that my friends, Danny and Alisha, were living in Berkeley. Let me digress for a moment and explain something critical about San Francisco that you probably don’t know until you get there: San Francisco itself is quite small but it’s situated on an enormous bay. Across the bay are the ‘cities’ of Berkeley and Oakland but in essence all three of these cities blend into one and form The Bay Area. We stayed in Oakland and it was only 15 minutes to downtown SF – the train system connects them all.
We couldn’t stay with Danny and Alisha because they’ve got a 2 month old baby, Ollie, so it wasn’t a good time for visitors for them. We still spent a glorious amount of time with them, but I’ll get to that later… Hostels in America are expensive. Like, $40 for a dorm bed per night. That does not work with our budget. So we Couchsurfed. (It’s probably necessary at this point to explain that couchsurfing.org is a website where travellers and hosts can put profiles up and people can request to stay with them. You leave reviews, it’s very legitimate, I’ve never heard of a bad experience such as robbery, only personality clashes. I’ve been on CS for about 5 years and have met amazing people through it. I’m a strong advocate of it.)
Our host, Danny (very confusing that 66% of the people we know in SF are called Danny), was actually the most accommodating man in the world. He picked us up from the airport and was all about us just having the best possible time in SF. We hardly saw him for the first two days and he was totally fine with that. The best thing was (and we didn’t plan this, it just worked out perfectly) that his place was in downtown Oakland, three blocks from the metro station, and it was one 15 minute train to Danny and Alisha’s stop; and one 15 minute train to downtown San Fran – we were so perfectly connected for our stay. We got in late at night from Vegas so after a short chat with Danny we hit the hay hard.
The first day we were in San Francisco we knocked over a LOT of the major touristy stuff. It was a brilliant day! We walked down to Fisherman’s Wharf via Lombard Street- the windiest (as in curved, not windy. Same word… weird…) street in the world. We then hired bikes and rode what ended up being 30kms – along the water (beautiful parks, beach, views of the Golden Gate Bridge, tourists, sunshine), over the Golden Gate Bridge (very windy, longer than you expect), back over the Bridge and along the water front, through town to Golden Gate Park, back through the Presidio (an area that was an old naval and army base but is now all museums and some houses) and back to Fisherman’s Wharf. It was the most exercise I’ve done in a long time but it was so much fun.
That evening we had dinner with Danny and Alisha. Danny and Alisha were some of the great friends that Lol, Kaysie and I made when we walked the Camino De Santiago in Spain in May of 2012. We have very fond memories of our time camining (definitely not a word, it’s a verb we made up) together and sharing stories. Danny and Alisha gave us a short course in appreciating wine from the Rioja region, and we taught them Peter Combe songs. When we met them they’d just quit their jobs in New York and were travelling around the world. Very inspiring. It was fun then to see them in their home with their 2 month old son. I think it’s a sign of a good friendship when a lot of time can pass but when you see each other again you can pick up where you left off and we definitely had that with Danny and Alisha. (Fish had also met them once before when they were staying with Kays in London).
The next day we had an easy morning and then met Alisha and Ollie in the afternoon. They took us on a fabulous little tour that we never would’ve been able to do without a local guide and a car. We drove up to the Sonoma Valley (just next to the more well-known Napa Valley) and we’re amazed at how quickly the city suburbs turn into beautiful countryside. At one point we drove past a little hill that was covered entirely with white crosses. When we asked about it Alisha said it was a memorial for all the people in the local area that had been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. That blew our minds. Anyway! We went to a winery called Artesa which Alisha is a member of. We got tastings of lots of their wines- a chardonnay, pinot noir, cab sav, a sparkling, and some other grape varieties I didn’t know. They were all amazing and we sipped them while enjoying views all over the Valley and down to San Francisco.
We then cruised down to Muir Wood – a national park with a lot of coastal redwoods- some of the tallest trees in the world. There’s beautiful walks through there and we managed to wander about for an hour before it got dark. It was so beautiful and it reminded me of Tasmania. And once again it was amazing that it was so close to the city.
We went back to Danny and Alisha’s for a quick dinner to hang out with Danny one last time, then we bailed cos it’d been a big day for everyone and we needed some rest (especially little Ollie who had been a champ all day).
Our last day in SF we walked a million miles up and down hills (I swear our three days in the bay area made up for our sloth-like behaviour over the last week). We did a walking tour in the morning in the Castro which is the gay area of SF (well, everywhere is a gay area now, but it was where the LGBT rights movement started in the 70s). It was pretty interesting and it was cool to see the rainbow zebra crossings and other flamboyant things; but I spent a lot of time in Soho in London so it wasn’t that unusual to me. Also, we’d both seen the movie Milk so we knew a lot of the LGBT rights movement stuff too!
We then walked on to Haight Ashbury which was the area where the Summer of Love movement happened in 1967. My expectations were too high (mind the pun) I think, because it was just a bunch of homeless and/or high teenagers amidst a bunch of shitty shops selling tie-dye monstrosities. That’s a bit rough- it was actually quite pleasant to walk around (tangent: San Fran is absolutely stunning in terms of architecture. It’s probably my favourite city I’ve been to in terms of architecture. Poor Fish got pretty sick of me going “ohhhh! Look at that one!” to every second house we walked past. Better that than the usual which is pointing out every dog we walk past…) Anyway, we had a nice pub lunch (pubs are rare in the States, we were pretty stoked) while listening to a bum jam out some beats on a post box.
We then walked up to The Painted Ladies- a famous row of ornate Victorian houses- made most famous (in my 90s-child-eyes) by Full House. In the same way Fish was judging Vegas on Cops, everything I knew about San Fran was from the opening credits of Full House. There’s a really pretty view of the city from Alamo Square opposite the painted ladies which we enjoyed a bit longer before marching back down to The Mission District.
The Mission District is a hip neighborhood. It’s roots are as the Latin American immigrant neighborhood; it hosted a large punk scene in the 80s (I had Rancid songs in my head the whole time we were in SF, taking me back to my angsty teen years. It was cool being in the places that are referenced in songs that I was listening to as a 14 year old kid in the Mid North of SA) and started becoming gentrified in the 90s with the dotcom boom. Now its kinda a mix between the old and new. We almost felt unsafe of Mission St but one block over on Valencia it was hipster central. We didn’t spend much time in Mission, we walked through and sat in Dolores Park (great views of the city. That’s the pay off for trudging up these hills we’d call mountains at home) and then walked back to the metro via Clarion Alley. Clarion Alley is wall to wall street art. Amazing.
Our last night in SF we spent actually hanging out with our wonderful host, Danny. He was such a great dude. His couchsurfing profile didn’t list his age and we nearly fell over when he told us he was 53. I wouldn’t put him a day over 40; I guess that’s just a testament to remaining child-free. Danny drove us all over San Fran – dinner at a great Japanese place, then along the coast to some beautiful view points that overlooked the city and the Bridge, including Twin Peaks and over the Bridge itself.
We had dessert at a place in Castro where we each ordered a piece of cake but should’ve shared one between the three of us. They were enormous. We took the left overs home for Danny to give to the homeless guys who live on his block. He’s an humanitarian.
Then we had a short sleep before getting up for a 6 am flight. I swear that if I ever become super rich the first policy I’d put in place would be that I never take a flight earlier than 10am. I’m angry just thinking about it… But Mary and Kosta picked us up from John Wayne airport and we cruised on to the next adventure, which I’ll hand over to Fish to tell you about.
Sorry about the length of this post, but we done so much!
Legs by ZZ Top. Because my god did we use them.
Holy shitballs, Las Vegas is RIDICULOUS!
Despite having so many people describe it to me, my expectations were waaaay off.
We got here this arvo after a 5 hour journey from Newport which should’ve taken 3 and a half. Traffic. In the middle of the fuckin’ dessert. It was like driving to Wirrabara on a long weekend and getting stuck at Port Wakefield, but on steroids.
Anywho, we’ve checked into the SLS which is a new hotel/casino (those words are interchangeable… weird…) on The Strip where Mary’s friend Rick (who I consider a friend too after getting along with him like a house on fire at The Wedding) is the entertainment manager. What a sweet connection. He’s sorted us out with the room and that’s just the beginning of his abilities in this town. We are hooked UP (say that in an American accent when you read that, please)!
This is the best way to experience Vegas and I think Fish is enjoying it (he’s always hard to read) despite thinking he was gonna hate it (lucky, cos it’s his birthday tomorrow). This conversation actually happened on the plane on the way over:
Fish: I don’t think I’m gonna enjoy The Strip. It’s not really my scene.
Me: Why? Don’t judge it too soon..
Fish: To be fair, I am judging everything based on Cops…
I don’t think he could be disappointed if that’s what he was expecting…
We’re just in the room relaxing with a vodka before we head out for the night (we’re starting at one of Rick’s other clubs, Hyde, at the Bellagio). I’m pretty excited… can’t wait to update again!
Ridiculously Nice American Update:
The woman washing her hands next to me at a servo restroom said a very cheery hello. So unnecessary.
And every bouncer who’s carded Fish today has said ‘Happy Birthday!’ even though it’s tomorrow.
So sorry about terrible spelling (autocorrect, I swear. Changes shit that doesn’t need to be changed. Case in point: it just changed shit to shut.) and probably some terrible grammar. I’m writing this on my phone and often am too knackered to proof read. I’m sorry, Karen, if you’re disappointed in me!
A Whole New World from Aladdin, duh.
We’re here in California now and I feel it’s imperative to write a blog about our first few days in Venice Beach right now as our next chapter is about to kick off. I need to channel the chilled vibe of hanging out with my uncle Mark and his wonderful partner Stacy in Venice before we get swept up in the amazing madness of Newport and Adventures With Kosta and Mary.
Mark and Stacy picked us up from LAX where we’d queued for over an hour to get through Immigration only to have the loveliest immigration officer on the planet process us through. No joke, this guy was so friendly and welcoming to America. This was a theme that we continually laughed at over the next few days- Americans are ridiculously nice.
Anywho, Mark and Stacy’s was the best introduction to long term travel; the perfect decompression. We chilled. Their house is so beautiful and welcoming, we were so at home. We had three days there which all started the way that I know Days With Uncle Mark to start- with a surf. When I say ‘surf’ I mean he surfs and we walk along the beach. Then we go for breakfast. That’s how it goes. And I can’t think of a better way to start the day. We ate delicious dinners; Stacy took us out to Topanga Canyon (part of LA which is still not very built up. Filled with hippies and artists and pretty much every big artist in the 60s and 70s from Jim Hendrix to Janis Joplin to The Eagles hung out there); we walked along Venice Boardwalk (why the fuck that place exists baffles me- it’s Nimbin meets Camden, California style. And that’s not good); we researched our future travels through South America (Stacy works for National Geographic in artisan development with a particular focus in Ecuador and Peru so she’s been absolutely invaluable in planning); worshipped at the hipster altar of Abbot Kinney Blvd (a street in Venice which was voted The Most Hipster Street in America and is full of shops and bars and cafes and is pretty rad); and generally just enjoyed spending time with Mark and Stacy.
I won’t ramble much longer but I really feel the need to paint a picture of how hilariously friendly the yanks have been. In Aus or the UK you can share a footpath with someone without acknowledging them, in fact it’s encouraged. Here you say ‘Hello!’ at the very least. The surfers in Santa Monica have a bit of a community where they all know each other and park at the same spot each morning. Yesterday someone asked Mark how the surf was and he said it was ok but not great. This American who reminded me of Guy Smiley from Sesame Street answered with ‘but the sun is out and everything else is GREAT so what more could we want?!’. How optimistic?! And Stacy was out the front of the house and a couple driving past wound down the window to tell her the house was beautiful! You wouldn’t get that in Australia…
We’ve been so well looked after by Mark and Stacy we couldnt have asked for a better start the trip. They were lovely enough today to drive us down to Newport to Mary and Kosta’s to start the nect chapter… We’ve had a fab evening catching up with them and the whole Newport Crew I met at Mary and
Kosta’s wedding last year. We’re off to Vegas tomorrow and I’m so knackered, I have to get to sleep. Probably a good thing or I could’ve gone on a lot longer!
It’s the opening line from LA Woman by The Doors- one of the LA based songs I’ve had in my head.