Monday, 21 November 2011

Post-Camp Travel Stories- NY, Toronto, DC, MD and PA

Well I've been a busy bee since my last post, but my 5 months in the US of A are officially over (for this year- more on that later!) and I thought I should share some of the stories and pearls of wisdom I gleaned from my time travelling the states after working summer camp.

From camp I got the train (not the right one- I missed that!) to Buffalo in north-west New York state. The vibe I got from Buffalo was kind of strange- it was like a ghost-town during the day, all high-rise office blocks but only homeless people on the streets. By night things got a little more fun, at least they did in my eyes (I had my first cocktail with some sushi at the lovely SeaBar around 1pm. A couple of Oktoberfest pints and some vanilla vodka later, my time in Buffalo was perking up!) Moral of the story- only go to Buffalo if you're going to Niagara Falls, or you're old enough to buy alcohol in America!
SeaBar's lunch special- sushi, noodles, miso soup and tea, plus a cocktail!

I meant to go to Niagara Falls from there but had so much fun with my first hostel friend that I didn't get round to it until I got to Toronto- a bustling cosmopolitan-feeling city in Canada with a central square that seemed to look to Times Square for inspiration (though it didn't have quite the same brash austerity as the NYC photo-op favourite). In Toronto I found good shopping, helpful people, a busy bar/club scene (though it was quite expensive) and some lovely European girls who I am still in touch with.

I ventured to Niagara Falls all on my lonesome, choosing to travel by bus and get a local shuttle down to the tourist mecca that is Clifton Hill. Considering the falls are a beautiful natural phenomenon, the gaudy facades of the ubiquitous Tussaud's and Ripley's seem to jar, but fair play to the tourist board who are laughing all the way to the bank as tourists decide to 'make a day of it' at all the amusement arcades and could-be-anywhere entertainment venues. As you can see it wasn't my favourite place but I'm glad I did the Maid of the Mist tour, even if I got soaked, got water in my camera and almost froze to death, because the high-winds/rain/waterfall spray combo caused quite a ruckus amongst the excitable Japanese tourists, which amused me no end.

Back to Toronto in time to catch my 11 AND A HALF HOUR BUS RIDE to Washington DC. No, I didn't get a wink of sleep, and yes I did have to sit next to a snoring man, but I arrived to glorious weather in a beautiful historic city that I'd been excited to see. Also, I was on Megabus (cheap as chips and free wifi) so I amused myself on the Internet for most of the journey!

Washington DC turned out to be AMAZING- after my hostel had no record of my reservation and so postponed my check-in for 7 hours, I went exploring to the White house and the fabulous FREE museum mile, before I came across hundreds of people making some sort of pilgrimage down by the monuments. I befriended 3 awesome girls, who explained that Obama was about to make a speech to open the Martin Luther king memorial, and there was to be a free open-air concert afterwards. The next few hours were amazing- Obama's speech was powerful and moving, and I got to sing along to Stevie Wonder (who forgot even his own song lyrics but blew us all away), Sheryl Crow, James Taylor and others, whilst getting one shoulder sun burnt and dancing with my new found friends. They even loaned me some trainers and brought me along to one of their awesome Zumba classes the next day! That's what travelling is all about, just exploring and going with the flow, making the best of it and making friends, plus having incredible opportunities just because you were in the right place at the right time :D
The Whitehouse
After a good night out in the gay district at DuPoint Circle with my hostel friends, I made my way to Baltimore to meet my first CouchSurfing Host, Michelle. for those of you unfamiliar with CouchSurfing, here's the lo-down. You sign up to an international website, make a profile like on Facebook, and can either request couches to surf on, arrange to meet other surfers for coffee or a drink, or just hit them up for insider tips on where they live. You can host fellow surfers if you have a spare sofa or bed, but I just wanted to meet someone cool who would show me around and let me stay, and I'm so glad I did it!

You may think CouchSurfing is like advertising yourself to rapists and murderers, which to some extent it is, but there are safety measures in place via the site and you must be a bit careful. You can research and contact your host first, there's no obligation to stay once you meet them if you get a bad vibe, and you can get in touch with other people who have stayed with them too, to see what their experience was like. On the whole the site is full of interesting and worldly people who just want to treat others how they'd like to be treated. It's rather philanthropic actually, and my experiences were wonderful :D I didn't even have a couch, I had my own bedroom, bathroom and key!

In Baltimore I walked along the beautiful harbour at sunset with my surfing host, we cooked together and planned my first full day there. I did the touristy things and went shopping, to markets and art galleries and up the observation deck, generally embraced the rainy day and then chilled with Michelle over some rum punch that evening. A friend I'd met in Thailand and Vietnam came and met me for dinner and drinks with his friends, and he ended up staying with my next couch surfing hosts in Philly a couple of days later- making the world smaller one step at a time!

Baltimore harbor
In Philly I couch surfed in a huge house full of multicultural people with interesting stories to tell, and enjoyed a house party that night before I saw Philly's sights and got my art gallery fix. From there I headed to New York City, where I stayed until my flight home on Halloween.

Time for a few pearls of wisdom-
1) Couch Surfing is an amazing idea and I'd recommend anyone to try it, but you have to trust your instincts and do your research before you stay with a stranger. Don't be naive, but do be open to people from other cultures and let them into your life too, many a life-changing conversation can be had over a cup of tea on a stranger's sofa!
2) Hostels are very communal, so if you like to strut around naked for a while after you shower, it probably isn't for you! Remember that other people have different sleep patterns to you, have different levels of messiness and are not there to ensure you have a nice stay. Usually you'll befriend many people in your dorm. Occasionally, you will hate them. It's hit or miss! Here's some more tips from TravMonkey...
3) I've learnt to pack light, and pack cleverly, but include things you really value. Use multi-tasking products like scented lotion (no need for perfume), face wipes (for face and body), and thick scarves (cardigan, pillow, blanket, bag, you name it!). If like me you like accessories, then include your lightest, smallest ones, rather than none at all. If you have to match, then take mix'n'match clothing so whatever you wear will go together. Take black shoes and a black handbag, they go with everything! Earplugs and an eye mask are essentials. Take more than one! Consider sleeping tablets, lip balm and painkillers, plus a torch and a padlock for in the hostel. Something you don't wear at home, you won't wear travelling! And allow for fluctuating weight- I put on over a stone at camp, but lost half a stone travelling after. Stretchy pants are KEY!
4) Alcohol is a great way to make friends. Always buy enough to share!
5) Don't plan every day, let yourself just go with the flow, join in others' plans and stumble across things that you enjoy. So what if you spend 2 hours in a book shop and only half an hour looking at some monuments. Don't worry about being selfish, you don't have to change what you want to do to fit in with someone else. It's your trip, make it matter to you!
Picture I took from the Empire State Building- HOW Awesome!

New York City is amazing and I think everyone should try and experience it at least once. The atmosphere is just fabulous- one day I will live, work and play there, wearing black and feeling cool just because of my address. At the beginning I was helped up and down stairs with my luggage, was given directions by NYPD and looked up in awe at the skyscrapers looming overhead. I followed my map like it would lead me to treasure and I got paranoid about pick-pockets every time someone brushed past me. I sat in awe in front of pieces of art that I'd read about as an art student, and gleefully took pictures of Times Square in all weathers. I sang along to Broadway stars in Ellen's Stardust Diner, gave a standing ovation at Mary Poppins, and queued for 2 hours for panoramic views form the Empire State Building.

By the end I carried my Starbucks coffee cup and steamed up my sunglasses with it whilst walking purposefully like all the locals. I sat and read outside the Central Library (SJP's wedding venue in SATC), I gave homeless people my left-over food and toiletries, and I strode out of subway stops as though I knew which way was East and which was West. I hunted down the best vintage warehouses in Brooklyn, spent a night in Queens, went to a weekend thrift market and even haggled in Chinatown. I avoided eye contact on the subway, didn't sit next to the guy with his pants down, shared a giggle with a guy dressed as an Angry Bird. I EMBRACED life as a faux-local, and enjoyed every minute of it!

I will be returning to America next year after a second summer back at camp. This time, I'll hit New York with my 'cwo-fey' cup and eke out all the places that tourists miss, no doubt blogging along the way. Watch this space for more travelling adventures!


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