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30 June 2011

Glacier Day

Day 31: Monday, 20 June 2011
It was not easy to wake up. I was massively jet lagged and needed many more hours of sleep when my alarm went off around 7:15. However, we had to be out and at the visitor center by 9am for our glacier hiking tour. So I quickly got ready and scarfed down some leftover pasta for a carb-heavy breakfast. We drove in a chilly mist through a moon-like landscape of barren black volcanic soil, sometimes accented by pockets of moss and lichens. We arrived at the glacier tour center at 8:55 and were quickly outfitted with harnesses, helmets, ice axes, and crampons for our shoes.

An old American school bus drove us to the base of the glacier. Along the way, the four of us were trying to drink a cup of coffee each and spilling it everywhere thanks to the bumpy ride; we were laughing most of the way. The bus dropped us off at the end of the dirt road, a 10-minute hike from the base of the glacier itself. We had two glacier guides, Sivollina (from France) and Danni from Iceland. They led us to the glacier, where we strapped on our crampons and walked (either cowboy-style or Charlie Chaplin-style) onto the glacier itself.

The glacier was actually nearly black, covered with volcanic ash from the recent eruption of the Grimsvotn volcano nearly a month earlier. We walked past many moulins, holes in the glacier through which meltwater flows like a river. We then climbed halfway up the glacier, until we couldn't climb up much further, and here we had a small lunch of sandwiches. It was amazing, despite the weather being misty and drizzly.

29 June 2011

First Day in Iceland: Full of Things to See!

Day 30: Sunday, 19 June 2011
ICELAND. I cannot believe I'm here. It's a surreal country, and a surreal time of the year to visit - the sky is light 24 hours a day!

I awoke around 8am to the sound of my alarm. I felt instantly disoriented. The 10-bed hostel room had really warmed up overnight, and the empty beds had filled up with late night reveling travelers. I looked around for Ueli and then realized that, for the first time in a month, he wasn't there anymore. I went downstairs and checked my email to see when/how to meet Jurate and Nerijus, my travel partners, and as I was coming up the stairs, there they were! So I quickly showered and got ready, and as I checked out downstairs, there was Jared, our 4th travelmate. I panicked a bit, as I couldn't find my cell phone, but after running up and downstairs, it turned out to be wrapped up inside my sleeping bag! Doh!

Fueled by a small breakfast of a  chicken curry wrap and an orange soda, I was ready to go. We loaded our bags into the silver Suzuki Grand Vitara and hit the road. For this road trip, Jurate is navigating us with the GPS on her phone, but there's no ipod jack in the car. We headed out of Reykjavik toward ├×ingvellir, the first stop on the well-worn Golden Circle tourist route. Along the way, we stopped at a really nice looking stream with a field of small horses across the road. We took pictures. Then, we stopped at a big field near the lake where plenty of other people had stopped to look at hundreds of small stone structures of rocks stacked atop each other. They were like mini-pyramids, ranging in size from 6 inches to 5 feet tall. I presumed that they're related to the fact that over half of Icelanders believe in magical elf-like spirits that dwell in the hills.

23 June 2011

Leaving the USA: Thoughts and Reflections on Travel.

Day 29: Saturday, 18 June 2011
Well, the day has finally come - I've finally reached the end of my trip across the USA, and today I flew from Boston to Reykjavik for the next leg of my journey, a round trip tour around Iceland.

What can I say about my trip? It's been 4 weeks since I left LA that gloomy May morning, and those 4 weeks have undoubtedly been the best of my life. Each day has been a new adventure, a new discovery, and I have met new people and made new friends. I hope that I've become more confident too, although traveling around the US is not much of a culture shock for me. Ueli has definitely seen so much during this trip, more than any European traveling could have hoped to see. (And he'll have such a great experience traveling back to California - he's hitchhiking with Ellen from New York to San Francisco!) I feel lucky to have found such a great travel partner. We were able to see so much, largely because our personalities matched up so well and we were so open to whatever came our way.

What I've gained most during this big cross-country trip is a real understanding of how the USA is all connected. There is always so much talk about the social, cultural, and political divisions amongst Americans, but I must say that all in all, we're much more similar than different. Of course there are differences; each city has it's own unique vibe, and this was most evident in cities like Austin, New Orleans, New York, and Boston. There are also amazing natural wonders, of course, and really great local food specialties everywhere. But I must conclude that Americans are truly helpful and good-hearted people from coast to coast. I was truly amazed at how nice everyone was to me and Ueli once I started talking to them. So learn this lesson, folks: TALK TO THE PEOPLE AROUND YOU. Talk, and share without expecting anything in return. You will learn something, and you will likely brighten their day (and brighten your day too).

So my last day in the USA: I woke up on Jonathan's couch around 8:10 to the sound of my alarm. Ueli was snoozing in the corner of the room, so I checked my email and then took a shower. The shower, again, wouldn't drain properly. I then spent some time trying to pack all my things tightly into my two bags. It took a while, but I managed to cram everything in, including my sleeping bag. I really hope that I can survive with these bags for the rest of my trip; this is why I was almost about to buy a bigger, backpacker-style backpack. Soon Ueli was awake, showered, and packed much more quickly than I was, and Jonathan rose as well. It was around 10 when we left and had breakfast together at a nearby cafe on Harvard Ave called @Union. Along the way, I ducked quickly into a Staples to buy an electricity plug converter (good decision). I had a plate of eggs and potatoes, Jonathan chose cajun hash browns, and Ueli got fruit and oatmeal (ever since San Antonio, where Jeff served us the best oatmeal we've ever tried, Ueli's been interested in eating oatmeal). I scarfed my food down quickly, since I was a little nervous that I'd be late for my flight, but we ended up having plenty of time.

One of the hardest parts of traveling is saying goodbye, whether bye to people you've met along the way, or goodbye to the wonderful places you've seen. I have wanted to stay longer in every single place that I've been, for a few more hours at least. But, you just got to keep on moving. I guess that's why you really need to enjoy your time in each place, because you know you won't be there forever. None of us will be anywhere forever.

Today was a big celebration parade for the Boston Bruins' Stanley Cup victory, so downtown Boston was packed full of people. The three of us all got on the T together, but Jonathan rushed off at the next stop. The doors weren't opening so he had to run to the front of the train; we later said our good-bye over the phone. The T continued inbound, and several of the stations were closed. The parade must have been wrapping up, as the trains in the opposite direction were crammed full of people. We arrived at the Government Center station, and it was time to say good-bye, as Ueli was walking to the bus station and I took another train to the airport. This train was a little crowded with Bruins fans, so I had to push my way through to get off at the Airport station. There is a FREE bus shuttle that runs from the T station directly to the terminals at Logan Airport, which is a great help for travelers. I arrived at my terminal, checked in quickly, got through security, and settled in to await boarding. I called home, and Ueli texted me about the chaos of going through the packed streets of central Boston post-parade (but he made it on his bus). I waited at the airport for my flight, and soon I'd be off to Iceland.

22 June 2011

Ends With a Whimper - A Slow Second Day in Boston

Day 28: Friday, 17 June 2011
The weather was gloomy and overcast, so it was a good day to be lazy. We stayed in for the morning, transferring photos and organizing our files from this road trip, and then grabbed lunch at Eagle's Deli, a nearby casual diner place that is famous for its "challenge" burger. We then walked around the reservoir, along the way Jonathan showed us where he lived, sort of. Ueli collected a bunch of bird feathers and now has succumbed to the bird flu. Luckily, I'm leaving him behind (ok, just kidding!). We then walked onto BC's campus, seeing the stadium, in which Ueli wanted to climb to the top to take in the view, then around to the library, and back along Comm Ave to Jonathan's apartment. It's about a 25 minute walk, so not too close.

We rested for a bit, then we went out for dinner. The original plan was to go to the Barking Crab, a seafood place right on the water, but when I looked up the menu and saw the prices, I balked and immediately wanted to eat somewhere else. I found a pizza place in the North End called Ernesto's, where we ended up going. It's a small pizza place, with only a few tables to sit at, but it wasn't very crowded when we got there. Jonathan and I split a (very large) slice of sausage pizza and a spinach/ricotta calzone. The pizza was thin and full of cheese, not bready at all - this was EXACTLY the kind of pizza I describe as perfect. It was easily the best pizza I have ever had. The calzone was very filling as well.

We returned to the apartment, and Ueli and I continued to transfer photos, music, and organize other things. We also did our laundry. It was good to have a quiet day, to get myself collected and ready to fly away in the morning.

Exploring Cambridge and Boston

Day 27: Thursday, 16 June 2011
Ueli and I slept in a little bit before heading out to explore the city. Jonathan had schoolwork to prepare so he stayed at the apartment. We took the T into the city - we got pretty lucky because the train seemed to wait at the stop for 5 minutes until we boarded. In the city, we decided to keep on going with the train all the way to Cambridge, so that we would get the most of our 1-way ticket. So after navigating the somewhat confusing corridors of the Park St station, we got on the red line, which is more of a subway yet still goes above ground over the Charles River, and soon were in Cambridge. At the station, Harvard Square, there were people soliciting tours and others giving out samples of energy bars. I took a free map from one of the tour people, and we walked into Harvard Yard.

We explored Harvard for a bit, and I was very hungry as we entered the Science Building, so I instantly beelined for the cafeteria and got myself a calzone (which was packed with meat). After eating, we continued walking around and eventually wound our way back to the Harvard COOP, where we browsed books for a while and Ueli ended up buying an American English phrasebook. There was a girl performing on her acoustic guitar outside in the alleyway. We walked all the way along Massachusetts Avenue to MIT, where we rested for a few minutes with some cold drinks from Dunkin' Donuts. It was a warm and sunny day, as pleasant a day as you could wish for. We walked through MIT for a bit, then headed to the Charles River, which we crossed back into Boston. We walked up Beacon Hill then emerged near the Massachusetts State House and Boston Common. There I found the Freedom Trail, a well-marked path that links the major historical sites of interest in central Boston. With tourists and 18th-century dressed tour guides all around, I decided to follow the Freedom Trail and see the major sights.

New York to Boston

Day 26: Wednesday, 15 June 2011
I set my alarm for 8:18am, and we were up and ready by 10:30. Tita M was waiting for a delivery - their new ping pong table was getting installed. She was gracious enough to offer to drive us into Manhattan to catch our bus, which I at first refused, but she persisted and it really was hard to refuse her offer. Ueli and I alternated showering and eating some fried egg and spam for breakfast, then I tried really hard to pack all my stuff into my two bag. It was a challenge, especially because of my sleeping bag! I really need either a smaller sleeping bag or a larger travel backpack - maybe I'll buy one in Boston. But at least all my stuff fits into the bags, for now. I just can't buy any more clothes (and I realized that I have only 1 pair of jeans for this whole summer! Yipes!).

So we said bye to Darren, Nate, and Brian, and then Tita M drove us to Manhattan, dropping us off at the Washington Bridge station, where we got the subway. Ueli's ticket didn't work so he had to ask the attendant to let him in. The subway was quick and easy (though we did have to wait like 4 minutes for it to arrive), taking us straight to Penn Station. Ueli was worried that we couldn't exit the subway with our big bags, but I made it work. We walked over to the MegaBus stop, and I gave some confused tourists directions. There was a small line of about 15 people already waiting for our bus to Boston, so I queued up behind them. The bus was scheduled to leave at 12:10 but didn't until around 12:35. Ueli and I sat in separate rows by ourselves, giving me enough space to splay out my towel and snacks, and the free wifi allowed me to browse on my laptop for the entire ride. The double-decker bus was smooth and quiet; it passed under several underpasses which seemed dangerously close to swiping off the top of the bus. I was in the third row of the top level. In front of me sat a hyper hipster with a pink pigtail and thick glasses. Across from me sat two older ladies who must be colleagues at some music institution because they just chatted about for most of the ride. Behind me sat Ueli, and behind him was a woman who chatted away really loudly on her phone. She spoke with a measured and professional voice, making sure to fully enunciate each word as she proclaimed her self-importance to the rest of the bus: "Thank you so much for sending that package, I really appreciate it."

I used the wifi on the bus to track our route - the bus went north, instead of taking the 95, taking the 287 to the 84 and going through Hartford, Connecticut. We bypassed Rhode Island altogether. There was some traffic as we headed into Boston, near Worcester. The air conditioning was colder than I liked, so I wrapped my torso and arms up in my towel. It was around 5:30 when we arrived in Boston - I feel like the bus could have taken a better route, because I don't think that New York to Boston is usually a nearly 5-hour drive.

15 June 2011

The Obligatory Second Day in New York

Day 25: Tuesday, 14 June 2011

New York City. I have a hard time making sense of the place. What you hear about the city is, to a large extent, true: it's a monstrosity of a city, and it has way too many people crammed into too small a place. The only way that traffic (and people) can even get by is if others get out of the way. So you have to be constantly aware of everything around you. And everyone's rushing to get from here to there. You could easily just stand on any sidewalk and watch people all day and find no lack of entertainment. Everyone here is driven and has a purpose. No one (except the tourists, myself included) seems to be in New York just to enjoy the city itself. Yet I was most struck by how helpful and approachable people were. No one seemed to be annoyed that I was asking them for help; everyone seemed to have the attitude that camaraderie, that we're all in this insane city together, so we should help each other out if we can.

Anyway, our second day in New York city got off to a late start. After our exhausting itinerary on Monday, and staying up late with beers in the jacuzzi, Ueli and I slept in until about 11:30am. Which was weird because on this whole trip, I'd always wake up at 8 or 9 regardless of how late I was up.  So Ueli and I quickly got ready and scarfed down some breakfast. We had planned to meet up with Christian for lunch, but it didn't look like we'd be able to make it. But we were lucky to be dropped off at (what we thought was) the bus stop. Turns out it was wrong, and we waited for about 20 minutes with no bus. And then, I saw the bus coming the other direction, so I got the driver's attention and started waving furiously. He saw me and pointed down the street to where we should have been waiting. He then looped around the mall, and 5 minutes later he picked us up, somewhat between stops. As we boarded, he was very friendly, giving us round trip tickets and giving us change.

a day in the new york life, part 2

Day 23: Monday, 13 June 2011 [Part 2]

The buildings got taller as we entered Midtown. The more intimate feel of the Village was replaced by more grit. I had to be more alert, because people were rushing around in all directions doing all kinds of things. It felt, frankly, overwhelming. Just walking around can be stressful. If I lived here, I would totally get a heart attack or pick up smoking (either way, living in Manhattan is not good for your health!). We made it to Times Square, where the tourist hawks came swooping down on us, offering us tickets to all the shows. I played into one of their games, keeping the guy engaged in conversation for like 10 minutes. He just keep talking non stop! It was amazing. He asked me how long he thought he could keep me standing there, and I was wondering just the same. He was going to give us $40 comedy central tickets for $7.50, but I had already decided not to spend any more money that day, so I wouldn't budge for anything that wasn't free.

We sat in Times Square for a couple minutes; a woman was filming some sort of tacky promo for an online dating agency, and some dorky teenage boys were discussing why they can't get any girls and which train they should take. Oh, New York. Ueli and I then walked to Rockefeller Center; I tried to call the NJ Transit hotline to figure where exactly we'd get our bus, but no luck. We passed though Rockefeller, I considered waking up early to be on the Today Show the next morning, and we walked up 5th Avenue, passing St. Patrick's Cathedral. Ueli wanted a frappuccino, so I spontaneously asked the first person to walk by with a Starbucks cup where she got it from. "Trump Towah", she barked back in a noticeably Bostonian accent. I grunted back a thanks and we walked quickly onward. (Man it's so easy to interact with people in New York!)

A Late Start to an Overwhelming Day in the City

Day 23: Monday, 13 June 2011 [Part 1]
We had to return the rental car at 9am at Newark Airport. The drive from where were staying to the airport included several toll roads, which I of course avoided, and thus it took about an hour to get there. We drove through several different New Jersey suburbs, and each seemed nicer than I had expected. The city of Newark was the most urban of these cities, with all the amenities (and presumably the problems) of a large city. It ended up being around 10:30 when we arrived at the car rental drop-off at the airport (Dollar Rent-A-Car was the last of the rental companies, and you have to drive a complete loop around the airport just to get there!). I pulled up and the greeter checked out the car. No problems, until I got my receipt - $320. This was more than the $280 I was charged in Miami. Apparently they charged me for an extra day because I was 1.5 hours late. This sucked. In my experience there has always been a 2-hour buffer for car rentals. Needless to say I was feeling negative about it.

Ueli and I took the peoplemover shuttle to the airport terminals, where we walked through to the local bus stop. There was a pretty nice woman also unsure of where the bus stopped, but it soon came within 1 minute and there was no problem. We took a New Jersey Transit bus to Newark's Penn Station, and then we transferred to the PATH train. There was an Asian couple in front of us at the ticket machine, and they took the longest time to buy their tickets! The other ticket machines kept moving, and we were held up maybe 15 minutes just because they didn't know how to swipe a credit card! They finished, Ueli and I got our tickets very quickly, and we hopped on the train about 10 seconds before it left. Good timing prevailed!

Philly Pride, Lehigh, and White Castle

Day 23: Sunday, 12 June 2011
This day we drove from Philadelphia to New Jersey. It's not a long drive, if you look at the map, but our journey today took all day, thanks largely to an unexpected traffic jam in Philadelphia. We left around 11am, after another wonderful breakfast prepared by Miss Laura :) After saying our byes, Ueli and I drove into the city so that he could see Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell.

As I drove into Center City, Market Street east of City Hall was blocked by a police car. Hmm, so I'd just head to the next street over and take that across. Good in theory, but that street turned out to be only one lane and was so jammed with cars that it took 20+ minutes just to move a couple blocks. Insanity, what was this? I moved over to another street, hoping to avoid whatever was going on, but then, BAM!, more traffic! The drivers were honking everywhere and people were yelling out of their car windows to get out of the way. (Man, Philly drivers are really rude!)

Boring Amish Country and a Chocolate Sugar Rush in Philly

Day 22: Saturday, 11 June 2011
We slept in a bit, and Laura prepared a large breakfast for us - eggs and chicken sausage with Aepfelskiver filled with nutella. It was already around noon when Ueli and I left, and we decided, largely heeding Alisa's advice, to check out Amish country. The drive was scenic. We first passed briefly by Villanova University and then took the 476 to the 76 to the 202, and I somehow missed the exit (the exits seems to appear so suddenly here) and ended up in West Chester. No worries, I took a quick rural road back to the 30, which lead us straight into Lancaster County, the heart of Amish country. There were plenty of small rural stores and houses, and we finally got to see an Amish buggy crossing the street in front of us! Few buildings had street numbers, though, so I easily drove past the Amish House and Farm, our intended destination. I drove us into the town of Lancaster when I realized that we had gone too far. So I turned around and we looked intently for the place - it was right next to a Target, where we stopped for a bathroom and a frappuccino and saw several Amish people shopping right there!

From DC to Philly (Through Crabby Maryland and Orwellian Delaware)

Day 21: Friday, 10 June 2011

"In Maryland we don't say cheese, we say crabs"

Aaron nudged me awake around 7am to say goodbye. It was around 10 that Ueli and I were up and ready to go. We left Annandale and drove into DC, heading straight for the monuments. I was lucky enough to find a parking lot just south of the Washington Monument. So Ueli and I walked all the way through the WWII Memorial to the Lincoln Memorial. There were throngs of tourists walking around the National Mall, and it was hot - on its way close to 100 degrees yet again. The reflecting pool was drained and turned into one big construction area. We also visited the Vietnam Memorial and walked back to the car; I took my shirt off so it wouldn't be covered in sweat (yuck).

It was the early afternoon as we drove out of DC into Maryland through moderately heavy traffic. There was a rest area/Maryland welcome center; I asked the woman for any "Welcome to Maryland" sign that we could photograph, and she immediately snapped back at me, angrily lecturing me that we were 35 miles from the border and why would there be a sign there. She was definitely more confrontational and curt than the people I had encountered in the South; yet she was able to be a little helpful and gave us directions to avoid paying tolls.

12 June 2011

Ueli Writes! [Guest Entry] Virginia to DC

Day 20: Thursday, 9 June 2011 [Guest entry - Ueli]

Richmond, VA

Abigail left before we woke up. We showered and got ready to leave the house. Chelsea was still sleeping and Jason played "A Thousand Miles" on the piano, which didn't sound too bad. After that we headed out to the Belle Isle, which is a small island in the river. We had to park the car on the side of the river and walk over a special pedestrian bridge that bent up and down and took us to the island, where we strolled around for about half an hour. The island was pretty - it was forested, and there were some people rock climbing next to a former quarry lake, where other people were fishing. Formations of rock extended into the river, where some people were swimming or just enjoying the sun. We saw some old Civil War buildings, including a former Confederate war prison.

We walked back to the car (covered in sweat as usual) and drove to a place called Buz and Ned's for lunch. We each had a pulled pork BBQ Burger, which was really good. We were lucky to find a parking space in front of the restaurant, which is not usual in the US. :)

A few minutes later we headed out to Washington DC. As we came there, we first went to the Pentagon and had a short look on this huge building from the parking lot. After this we drove to Arlington National Cemetery, where we went out to visit the Women of the Army Memorial, the President Taft grave, President Kennedy's grave, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers of the Civil War and the Shrine of the Unknown Soldiers, where one soldier was patrolling in front of it. I was really impressed by what I saw: So many graves for fallen soldiers who gave their live for the war of others…

11 June 2011

From South Carolina to Duke to Eat at Joe's

Day 19: Wednesday, 8 June 2011
Danielle had left for work and Andy was still hanging around the house when we left in the morning around 10:30. We stopped for a small breakfast at Venus, a nearby diner with a very un-Southern decor but very Southern employees. Before leaving South Carolina, we made sure to gas up the car (the gas here is the cheapest along our route).

Driving along the 95 in South Carolina, you are bombarded with signs for South of the Border, a kitschy roadside collection of tacky restaurants, gift shops, and attractions. Our hosts recommended that we definitely stop by there, and so we did. It was pretty empty, and a weird sight to see in the middle of the Carolinas. We drove on and missed the "welcome to North Carolina sign", so we drove back and stopped for a picture. Ueli drove us to the NC welcome center, where we picked up a map and got another photograph. Then onward to Durham, which took only about 2 hours. The freeway traffic was less consistent and slightly more frustrating to cruise along.

I had planned to visit Duke University in Durham, because I will be studying there this next spring as part of my LSE degree. When we arrived in the city, Ueli and I had a few minutes to kill so we briefly stopped by the East Campus of Duke University, which is the emptier side of campus, reserved mainly for freshmen. Then I drove us to the West Campus and looked for a parking space, which I found at the botanical gardens. We rushed to the admissions office to make our tour, walking furiously through nearly 100-degree humid heat. My camera battery was nearly dead so I plugged it into an outlet at the office. We then joined a tour group as it left. We had two guides, one of whom was a rising senior and was pre-law. I felt that I should have been giving him a tour/advice!

09 June 2011

Driving through the South - Jacksonville to South Carolina

Day 18: Tuesday, 7 June 2011
We woke up in Jacksonville, at Jennie's apartment. I slept on the couch, and Ueli on the air mattress, which had a small hole and slowly leaked out all night (this is the 2nd time we've ad a leaky air mattress). Unfortunately we had no glue, sealant, or even duct tape to fix the hole. Jennie looked noticeably different then she had in the evening, since she was dressed and ready to go to work (at Deutsche Bank) just as Ueli and I were waking up. She left, and Ueli and I soon got ready and picked up Pat at a nearby Dunkin' Donuts. (Jennie's apartment was very close to the house of Pat's friend Joel - we could not have stayed closer if we had tried.)

Jacksonville, Florida, is the largest city in the US (by land area). In any other city, there would be dozens of suburbs all around, but Jacksonville incorporates all those suburbs and beyond into the city limits. We drove back to the 95 and headed north into Georgia, passing by a a nuclear power plant. We stopped by the Georgia welcome center, taking a picture by the sign saying "Glad Georgia's on Your Mind." Ueli took over the driving, and we stopped for gas, searching for the cheapest gas station, but Ueli really did not know where he was driving, making 3 wrong turns just from the off-ramp to the gas station! A short while later, we were entering Savannah. The outer neighborhoods of Savannah looked rough, and you could tell that these areas had been ravaged by neglect, crime, and drugs. But central Savannah is a totally different story. It's charming and quaint, with lots of historic buildings and squares. Pat guided us first to Forsythe park, right in the heart of the city, where we walked around, saw a couple cool cafes, and asked some girls where we could find the bench from the movie Forrest Gump. They directed us to a square up the street, and so we drove there, where a bystander told us that there is no actual bench from the movie, that the bench was put in just for the movie. So we took pictures on a conveniently located bench. ("Good choice of bench," remarked the bystander).

Our main stop in Savannah was Paula Deen's restaurant, the Lady and Sons, located right in the central business district. Pat knew the way to get in without waiting: Go straight up to the 2nd floor bar and order food there. Unfortunately we got intercepted by a hostess at the top of the elevator who wanted to have our reservation card, but Pat was able to talk us into snagging an open table near the bar. We had had a wonderful host, Sidney, who exemplified the polite Southern hospitality we've encountered here and there, saying "y'all" and "sir." Ueli and I each got the buffet, which was $14 (such a good deal!), while Pat left us to find food elsewhere. The bread they gave us, a freshly-baked garlic biscuit and a buttery cornbread pancake, was a major highlight for me. But so were the candied yams, the fried chicken, and collard greens; and not to forget the peach cobbler and banana cream pie for dessert!

08 June 2011

Starting the Drive North: Along Florida's East Coast

Day 17: Monday, 6 June 2011
Another sultry night in Miami with no air conditioning meant that I woke up in a sweat by 8am (even though I used no blanket and as had almost no clothes on). Ben had his run and we got our things together before he drove us to the Fort Lauderdale Airport. We walked through the overly air-conditioned airport to get to the car rental center (too many places in Florida leave the air conditioning on too high, so the temperature contrast when you go outside is really bad (which can make you sick).

We picked up the car (a pretty new Hyundai Sonata, with only 40000 miles on it), and I drove to Miami Beach. Noa didn't pick up her phone so we just went there hoping she'd be awake in half an hour. And she was - her friend Oscar was able to come down and get our stuff out of the car. We said bye and were on our way. We drove north for an hour or so until we got to Palm Beach, where we picked up our ridesharer, Pat. Pat is in his 60s and is a trained pilot but currently between jobs. He is quite the expert on everything all along the east coast, having moved from city to city in this part of the country for most of his life. He helped guide us to the most scenic drives to take and the cities in which to stop. He also told us about what the cities used to be like. I feel very lucky to have found him - he was able to guide us around everywhere and provide such a great insight into our trip. He also has such an interesting life story - he went to military school, served in Vietnam, and went to the Woodstock (yes, the original 1969 Woodstock) - and was one of 300 people there to see the closing performance of Jimi Hendrix. He had something to say about everything, and he's truly one of the most interesting people you could ever meet.

We drove north from Palm Beach, sticking to the 95 until Cape Canaveral, where I exited to try to see some of the Space Center. Unfortunately you can't see anything without paying $43 for a one-day ticket, which was way beyond my price range, especially for a 1-hour visit. So we sufficed with taking a glimpse inside the Astronaut Hall of Fame visitor center.

Yachts, Beach, and the NBA Finals in Fort Lauderdale

Day 16: Sunday, 5 June 2011
Ben was up early and ready for his routine 10K run. Our plan for the day was to go to a CS jazz brunch event in Fort Lauderdale, so we awoke, quickly got ready and headed out. Fort Lauderdale is about 30 miles north of Miami and is a cool mid-size city. It's the yachting capital of the world, or something - and understandably: There are huge yachts sailing up and down the river going through the city's center.

The jazz was part of a concert series put on every month (or week?) by the city. It was nice, but the music was merely a background, as we got to meet 10 really interesting couchsurfers, who were all very friendly and happy to learn about our journey.

I finished off a few mimosas.

Sampling South Florida

Day 15: Saturday, 4 June 2011
After all the chaos of the past few days, it felt good to be settled in to a place. Benjamin could host us through the weekend until Monday morning, so at least for a few days, Ueli and I didn't have to worry about where we'd stay. Ben's an active guy, and he goes for a run every morning (5K on weekdays, 10K on weekends). If I had my shoes with me, I might have joined him (but my shoes were left in the other car in Miami Beach.

Ben drove us around in his dark green Mini Cooper. It was barely big enough to fit the three of us and our bags. We went to downtown Miami and walked around, seeing the area around the bayfront and art and history museums. We stopped by the gift shot at the AA Arena, definitely not buying any Heat gear, and the we walked south and took a ride on the Metromover, which is a short loop around downtown that is just like a people mover at the airport. Downtown Miami is nice but empty on a Saturday. It was also too hot and humid for many people to be walking around.

07 June 2011

I Left My Car in Miami Beach

Day 14: Friday, 3 June 2011
We had to wake up early, yet again. Our host Audrey had to be at work before 8am, and we didn't get to bed until past 1:30am, so (including yesterday night) we were definitely sleep-deprived. Audrey left me the key to deliver to her office. The sun was up and feeling beautifully warm. I drove us into downtown, looking for a Starbucks or something. No luck, but at least we got to see central Miami. We drove to Audrey's office to drop off her key; it was located in a warehousey-artistic district with lots of street art everywhere! I definitely liked it.

We then drove north along Biscayne Highway (US 1) to look for a Starbucks for some coffee and wifi. Yet again, we were without a host for the night, so we had to get some wireless internet in order to send some last-minute couchrequests.

I had stopped by a different cafe and asked them for directions to the nearest Starbucks. Only when I was walking out did it feel awkward.

So we stayed in Starbucks for a while; I sent out some requests, and we pondered whether to go to Pompano Beach (north of Fort Lauderdale) or whether to risk staying in Miami and finding a host here. We continued pondering as I drove the car to a nearby hand car wash to get all the road trip dirt washed off. They did a good job, and it was only $17! The car washers didn't speak much English though; which made me feel like I was back in LA - except that they were black, not Mexican.

My impression of Miami so far is that it is a vibrant and cosmopolitan city. Yes, it's hot and tropical, but it's also at the intersection of so many cultures. Geographically, it may be at the southern tip of the southern US, but it's definitely not in The South. In fact, I'm struck by the fact that there have been hardly any redneck Southern types here. There are plenty of black people, all types of latinos, plenty of visiting Europeans (I overheard Swedish; and Ueli noticed that we sat next to some Swiss people!), and many good looking, spoiled rich girls sitting around getting a tan in their bikini in the middle of the day.

A Full Day: Tampa - Everglades - the Keys - and Arrival in Miami!

Day 13: Thursday, 2 June 2011

We had to wake up at 6am, and leave Annie's apartment at 6:30. And, we were now an hour ahead in the Eastern Time Zone. We were up before the sun, which rose as we were driving through downtown Tampa. The air was comfortable, so I left the windows down for the first couple hours (and of course Ueli slept) until I stopped for coffee and donuts at Dunkin' Donuts in North Fort Meyers. Then, it was not much longer until we were in the Everglades. The surburban developments gradually tapered off into small rural houses and trailer parks and then into nothing but swampland. I saw an information center and stopped there for... information. The woman at the booth referred us to nearby Wooten's, which offered the cheapest airboat ride for 30 minutes (about $25 I think).

Located in the Big Cypress National Preserve (which is thousands of acres originally bought by Mr. Wooten for hunting), Wooten's Swamp Tours also includes a mini-preserve of live alligators and other animals. Right after we bought our tickets, the mosquitoes and bugs descended on us viciously - there were 8 of them on my leg, and they wouldn't fly off when I swatted them! It was unbelievable. I darted into the bathroom and there was still one on my arm, which I killed, and there was a squirt of blood. Ewww.

We had to buy bug spray, which was $8 at the gift shop. I found the spray with the most DEET and covered myself from head to toe, drenching my hair and all my clothes in the spray. The rest of the day was pleasant and bug-free :)

The airboat ride was an amazing experience! We were cruising and spinning atop the 1-foot-deep water. During the ride, we saw a big, 10-foot-long alligator, and our guide explained to us the ecology of the area (brackish [salt + fresh] water, red mangroves, cypress only growing in fresh water, the water being controlled by winds, not tides, etc.). It was a great and worthwhile way to experience the everglades on our drive through.

06 June 2011

Through Florida

Day 12: Wednesday, June 1st, 2011
It's a new month! I taught Ashley to say "rabbit rabbit" to bring her good luck for the month. In the morning, she had to leave for work, and Ueli and I left shortly thereafter. I left her our hand grenade from New Orleans. W forgot our fruit snacks at her house. I drove the car, after applying my daily dose of sunscreen (Ueli's already got a wicked tan line on his arms). We drove to Tallahassee, sticking to small country highways. The rural communities kind of blended together and became more frequent as we headed into Tallahassee. As we entered the city, we drove by Florida State University and then headed straight for the Florida State Capitol.

Florida actually has 2 state capitol buildings: The old capitol is a now a museum and looks like a nice 19th-century colonial courthouse. We walked around inside this building for a while, taking in facts about Floridian history and about the state legislative process (we had already heard all this before at the Texas state capitol). In contrast, the new state capitol building is a stark, 22-story concrete block of a building that towers behind the old capitol. It's also currently in use as the functioning state capitol, so there's a security check to enter the building. The view from the top floor, the 22nd, is amazing; however, trying to get the elevator to the 22nd floor is a frustrating exercise (the trick is, you have to take an elevator to the 21st floor and then transfer to the elevator to the 22nd). At the top, you can see out in all directions, looking out until the landscape disappears into a thick, hot summer haze.

Staying Healthy on the Road

Maintaining a healthy and well-balanced diet while traveling is always a challenge. As intent as you may be on staying healthy, it's hard to resist the urge to simply eat what is most convenient. And just as importantly, you want to sample local foods as much as possible. On this trip, I've fared pretty well: In each city, I've eaten some sort of local specialty (or at least tried something famously featured on Travel Channel or Food Network), and when a big, greasy plate of fried Southern food presented itself, I split it with Ueli. So no major food incidents, so far, but it's still hard to maintain proper nutrition.

Snacking on fruits is a good habit to maintain while driving long distances. And a lot of times when you think you feel hungry, you may just be dehydrated, so make sure to drink water regularly, even if it means making more bathroom breaks along the way!

Passing Through Mississippi and Alabama

Day 11: Tuesday, 31 May 2011
We left New Orleans around 10:30am, saying bye to Allen and stepping into our already hot car. One last pass through the Crescent City, and then headed east along highway 90 (Chef Menteur Highway). The route took us first through New Orleans East. where we stopped at Winn-Dixie for snacks and supplies. We drove through the bayous, which were just lots of swamp plants and a few houses raised on stilts; nothing extremely interesting. Into Mississippi, we passed through some small, rural towns before stopping at the beach (near Pass Christian). The Gulf of Mexico was a brownish-greenish color; the "waves" lapped every 2-3 seconds, way too quickly. It felt like the water was hyperventilating and did not feel relaxing. The sand was fine, but not as powdery as the other Gulf beach we went to in Louisiana.

It's incredible to think that this is already day 11 of the trip. It's intimidating that so much of the rest of this trip is yet unplanned, but mostly it has just been exciting. Every place we've been to so far has been amazing, and I wish I could stay at each place much longer. But the road beckons...

05 June 2011

New Orleans, I Love You

Day 10: Monday, May 30
I was sleeping soundly on the couch, and Ueli was still snoozing on the air mattress when Allen and his dog came down the stairs. It was already 8:40 and we needed to leave for breakfast by 9. We rushed ready and Allen drove us across town to Elizabeth's, which unfortunately was closed. We then headed back across New Orleans, Allen giving us a really detailed and local tour along the way. We learned about bounce music, the experience of LSU playing the Sugar Bowl, and passed by a Banksy piece.

The neighbor Isaac met us at the restaurant, Shelley's (or something starting with an "s") on Magazine. which had some great breakfast selections (I had a boudin biscuit and eggs, while Allen opted for some amazing shrimp and grits). Soon Allen had to go to work, and it was Ueli and I left to explore the city.

New Orleans is an incredible city. It is by far the most interesting and unique place that I have visited in the US. Every street corner oozes with history and culture. People here are very genuine, which can often mean that they're excessively upfront and rude, but they're also friendly, just like many Southerners. People here will approach you or comment on something you do without thinking twice about it, but they do so without the slightest hint of judgment. New Orleans is truly one of the most unique places in the world. It's a city of music, jazz, the historic South, cajun culture, swamps, river barges, and (most unfortunately) neglect and natural disaster. And all of these aspects of the city blend together until they become indistinguishable.

Ueli and I began our exploration with a walk through Audobon Park in the "upriver" part of New Orleans. It was a very pleasant place to stroll (it's too hot and humid to run, even in the morning). We then walked through a portion of Tulane University's campus, which was gorgeous. Interestingly, right next to serious academic buildings and historic 19th-century plantation-style houses were trees covered with beads thrown during the mardi gras parades.

03 June 2011

Houston to New Orleans: A Last-Minute Save

Sunday, 29 May 2011
A series of fortunate coincidences has largely shaped this trip for me so far. I'm very fortunate to have been put it touch with Noa, whose car I'm driving to Miami. (Well, firstly, I'm fortunate to have been accepted to LSE.) I'm fortunate to have found a $1/day car rental to Newark. And I'm fortunate to have found Ueli to travel with. And one of the most fortunate parts of this journey has been meeting some awesome people whom we've been couchsurfing with. It's amazing what people will do for others, and what has happened today is a testament to the power of people's kindness.

I had forgotten my laptop in Houston. We had been driving through Louisiana for a couple hours already when we stopped for wifi and I noticed that it wasn't in my bag. So immediately, after double-checking the car, my heart sank. Could I have lost it? I knew I had last used it in Houston, at our host's house. So I called up our host Josue and asked him if he saw my laptop in his house, and alas, there it was. I sighed some relief, but then thought: Would I have to drive back so many hours to Houston to get it? We didn't have a host in New Orleans, so we could've just essentially spent another night in Houston. But I decided to give Josue my destination address in Miami and have him ship it ahead, so it'd be in Miami by the time of my arrival. I felt embarrassed, but so thankful to Josue for going through the trouble of shipping it to me.

I was still feeling down from having forgotten my laptop as I drove on through Louisiana. The landscape was swampy but verdant. We began driving over a long bridge/causeway that swooped for 20 miles or so above water. It was Atchafalaya River, but must've also been the spillway that was open to divert all the floodwater away from the Mississippi river.

Ueli was asleep when I received a phone call. It was from Allen, a guy from couchsurfing who had seen my last-minute posting and who offered us a place to stay! Immediately my mood flipped, from downtrodden to absolutely ecstatic.

It wasn't much longer until we were in Baton Rouge. I drove us over the Mississippi River and straight to the Louisiana State Capitol, which is actually the tallest state capitol building in the US (taller than Texas). It was closed so we just took pictures outside. We then drove to the river and I dipped my hands in (the slope into the river was covered in slimy sludge and did not seem like something I'd want to swim in).

We then drove onward into New Orleans, filling up gas along the way. The sun set behind us, and a horde of motorcycle rides swooped along the freeway at breakneck speed. Lupe Fiasco's "The Show Goes On" played as we drove into the city, and I could feel the electric energy of the city. It was going to be a good night - and was I right!

Fitting Houston All into One Day

Saturday, 28 May 2011
Our time in Houston was limited but productive. We left around 10:30am from Austin, picking up our ridesharers Crystal and Dustin (I had misunderstood their address), and they were rushed because they had to be at a wedding in Houston at 2pm. I drove relatively quickly, getting us into Houston at 1:20. Along the way, they had written down in my notebook a list of places to eat and things to do in the city. We dropped off Crystal, then Dustin, and headed straight for our host Josue's house. He lives just south of central Houston in a big house that he has been thoroughly renovating for the last couple years. He was extremely welcoming. We had our introductions, dropped off our stuff, and then headed straight for the NASA Space Center, about 45 minutes south of the city center. Along the way, we ate at a Popeye's Chicken, in a noticeably more... ghetto part of town. There were high school girls washing cars in the Popeye's lot to raise money for their school. A homeless man approached me (at close range!) for some food.

There was a traffic jam on the 45 south headed toward NASA, so we detoured around to get there. We parked, and as I walked in to the space center, I had to do a double take and make sure that I was in the right place. The space center looks like a big Chuck E Cheese's, full of games and rides for kids. It had the atmosphere more of a laser tag course than of the site where they guided The US's historic space missions.

I really expected more of a quiet museum. Whatever.

Our time was limited, so we went straight for the tram tour that would take us to visit the actual mission control room. I expected a shabby tour, staying on the tram (which was just like the ones on the backlot tour at Universal Studios), but it actually was better than I expected - we actually got to go outside and into the mission control building to see the room, and then we were driven to a hangar housing a historic Saturn V rocket. We powered through the other exhibits at the space center and then headed back into Houston, driving through downtown. We drove by Minute Maid Park, where the Astros were playing a game. Then back to Josue's, and Josue took us out to a wonderful dinner with his 2 kids at Niko Niko's, a great Greek restaurant that was featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. He then drove us around in his truck, showing us a few nearby bars, and then took us to a small meet-up of local couchsurfers. It was late and the kids had to sleep, so we were at the meetup for only a little bit. But I got to meet a husband and wife (from California) who were traveling around screening the film they made; I also met Natalie and Charlee, whom she had dragged over from the comic book convention that was going on that weekend (he's also known as the "St. Louis Superman" - google him!).

Sunday, 29 May 2011
Ueli and I slept in for a bit, not getting up until around 11. It was about time to hit the road so we said our byes and left. I drove us around, passing by the Astrodome and Reliant Stadium, then by some of Houston's renowned medical centers, a part of Rice University, and through the Montrose neighborhood (where we were the previous night) to try some kolaches. Kolaches are apparently a Houston specialty, but it's not that great - just a small sausage in a piece of bread. My mind was not blown.

As we left Texas, driving east on the 10, we spontaneously decided to detour south to the Gulf Coast, which added an hour or so to our 5-hour drive. We crossed over Sabine Bay and into Louisiana, where we drove for a few minutes before stopping at Gulf Breeze Beach to dip our feet into the Gulf. The water in the Gulf of Mexico is murky and yucky! It was brown and the waves were choppy. There were beach flies and gnats swarming around piles of decomposing seaweed. The water was warm, though, and at least there was no oil washing ashore from last year's spill. Ueli then drove us onward, passing through bayous with locals going fishing at small outposts along the way. We still had no host lined up for us in New Orleans; Ueli kept saying that we should just ask random people to host us when we get there, and I frankly wouldn't mind sleeping in the car for a night. I had posted on the couchsurfing last-minute group asking for someone to call if they could host, but no responses to this point.

But the road went on, and we (literally!) were halfway there, (whoa) living on a prayer!


I am now in Miami, have just given the car back to the girl form whom I was driving, and (possibly most importantly) I have just received my laptop again! No more sharing Ueli's little notebook; I can finally update everything regularly.

Now time to start typing up all the travel entries I've been writing in my notebook. I've filled up 15 pages of the notebook with things we've done in the last 4 days (!), so stay tuned for the updates!