I had been to the USA before back in 2010 from the UK, and as a kid in 1983, and this blog will jump a little in time from those memories to this recent trip. All the times before I had flown from the UK, but this time I was flying from Bali, Indonesia and it would prove to be the longest flight of my life. As I arrived in New York they were in the mitts of a crazy snowstorm, I had left Bali with a temperature of +30 Celsius and about 90% humidity to arrive at -5 with a freezing wind chill. In total, the travel time was about 40 hours and I really struggled to sleep at that time, so I went straight from the airport to the hotel and slept for about 16 hours straight. I did have lots of ambition to see places and find some great vegan food, but my body was not going anywhere. The next day I had to catch another flight to go to the Dominican Republic for just over a week (read that blog here), and then it was back to New York where we would take a trip across the States.
Flying back just over a week later from the Dominican Republic my wife and I got into JFK international and from there we had to make our way to Queens Bridge where we had a hotel. The place was nice and just outside was a big mural of one of my favourite rappers Nas, so this required a picture. We had arrived early and could not check in for some time, so we stored our luggage and went into the city. We made our way to Time Square and just hung around the area. I remember my first time in the city back in 2010, I went to the M&M store in Time Square, where you could buy just single colour M&M’s which came out of massive tubes which you put into bags. I took a bag and opened the gage on the blue M&M tube and so many came out and filled my bag, I did not know what to do and was too embarrassed to just take it back, so I just took the bag to the counter. It was $30, WTF, damn, I just spent $30 on blue M&M’s, ok screw this place, we then went to Central Park where I walked around for a couple of hours eating blue M&M’s and I think this bag lasted me all week.
On this trip, I did not go to Central Park, but on my first time I did and it was really nice. The thing with New York is that we all know it, we have seen all the sights over the years with all the movies and TV shows, so all my references as I walked around were from films and movies, and it is funny what references come to mind. Of all the films that have been shot in Central Park, the one I kept remembering was Home Alone 2, I’m such a loser. From the park we decided to go to the Guggenheim museum as it was recommended to me by a friend, my friend is a German guy living in the UK, but spent about 5-6 years living in the US and told me if I gave his name I would get free entrance. I walked into the museum and went to the reception and realised I could not remember my friends Family name; I knew it was something German and sounded like Hamster, so I said: “I have reserved tickets from Dr Hamster”. The receptionist thought this was hilarious and said he had no reservations from a Dr Hamster, but please come in any way, the humour of it was enough to get me a free ticket. A good tip for the future.
A video I made of my 2010 trip to the USA
In comparison to our first stay in New York, we did very little this time around. The first time I was so excited to come and see New York but left feeling that it is very overrated. New York does have a sense of culture about it, but I remember thinking that it was far less modern than I thought it would be. When you think of the USA, you think it is the richest and most successful country in the world, well they certainly give you this impression. But the thing is, Americans work very hard and get little time off, on average about 10-days a year, so they have little comparison other than what they are told on TV, and their TV seems to rarely show stuff about the outside world unless it’s bad news. Many parts of Europe, the Middle East and Asia are far more modern and have better infrastructure than the US, and for me, if New York was their premium city, damn!, I’ve been suckered.
Anyway, I digress. After walking around the Time Square area for a while we got onto Happy Cow and saw that there was a place doing Vegan Philly Cheese baguettes on 9th called Blossom du Jour, all right, so that was happening. After polishing one of these off we headed to the High Line and old overhead rail line that had now been made into a park and walkway. It was a really pleasant stroll, but as it was such a cold time of year we were freezing, so needed to get in the warm, we thought screw it and went back to the hotel. The next day we had a bus to catch to Toronto.
The next morning we were at the central bus terminal to catch a bus to Toronto, which became a 12-hour ride, but it was great to see some of the countryside in New York State. Along the way we passed some of the smaller towns like Ithaca and Syracuse which also looked very pleasant, Buffalo and Rochester looked fine too.
By the time we crossed the border and got into Niagara, it was very late and very cold. We spent a couple of days in Niagara and then made our way to Toronto (Read that blog here). After a lovely 10-days in Toronto catching up with family we had another bus ride, this time to Chicago. Again about 12 hours, in hindsight this was a really cool idea and adventure, in reality, it was just long and was not nice arriving at night. It was around midnight by the time we got into Chicago, I always feel that bus and train stations can be some of the dodgiest places, so I did not want to mess about and just jumped in a cab and made our way to our Airbnb.
At first, the taxi driver started going in the wrong direction as he did not assume that our Airbnb was where it was, as he pulled up he said ‘are you staying here”, then recommended that we did not walk any further down the street we were on. Chicago is expensive and it was hard to find a reasonably priced place, so inadvertently we ended up staying in the ghetto. Additional to the crappy location was the crappy place, It seemed like a fairly large house where each room had a lock to make it into a kind of hostel. There was a bit of a living room space where some guy seemed to be sleeping on the floor with his girlfriend, I was not sure if he was working their or what was going on. We went to our room in the basement where there was a toilet on the same floor which was shared by 3 other rooms. The bathroom was also really dirty as was the shared kitchen. In the morning I went to the kitchen/living area to take some breakfast, there was still the guy sleeping on the floor with his girlfriend and the kitchen was also dirty and looked like shit. We had planned to stay there for 3 nights, for some reason we decided to stay a second night, but I swore through the night I could hear gunshots, so the next morning I said to my wife ‘fuck this place, and lets get a hotel in the city”, some things are just not worth saving the money on. So we got a cab and stayed central, this was much nicer and gave me a far better feel for the city. I think when you are younger you don’t give a damn where you sleep and stay as long as it is cheap. Now sadly I want things to a certain standard, it does not have to be luxurious, I just don’t want to stay in a place that feels like some squat crack house.
Chicago is far smaller than I imagined it, the centre is pleasant enough and I really liked the walk down by the river. Again like New York you get all the film and TV references, for me it was mainly the show ER and the movie While You Were Sleeping, and of course Bat Man. While in the city we were also able to catch up with an old friend (Brian) who use to live in Bali, he was initially training to teach English as a foreign language and after a few years abroad was now living in Chicago and about to take a PhD in linguistics. It was great to catch up and drink a bunch of coffee’s (tea for me) and to walk down to the Millennium Park after we went across the city to catch a bit to eat. Brian took us to this nice place in the west of the city where we spent another good few hours chatting and catching up.
We only had 3 nights in the city, but to be honest, it felt enough, Chicago was much smaller than I imagined, the downtown was great, but I think it has some rough suburbs. The last thing I wanted to do before leaving the city was to take the iconic overhead rail around the city which we managed to do on the way to the airport. Great, all my imagined things to see and experience were ticked off.
From Chicago, it was down to Tampa and this would be the last port of call on our itinerary. Like New York we were here in 2010, Aini (my wife) has a friend she worked with back in the ’90s in Jakarta, just before the revolution. She somehow met a guy from the US, got married and has spent 20 odd years in Florida. Just like the first time we stayed in their place, which is a beautiful house just out of the city in a nice quiet neighbourhood. Like New York, we were far more excited and did far more things than we did on this trip, but this time we just wanted to chill and spend time with our friends. The first time around additional to going around the city we took a trip to the Epcot centre, which was fun. I do have some very vague pictures in my head going here in 1983, but I was 5. I think also I like the way of life and culture in the south. In New York people were quite direct and fulfilled all my stereotype saying things like, forget about it. I remember going down into the subway and asking someone in New York a question, it was a woman in a uniform and I asked in a very British way, “Excuse me, do you work here”, she replied, “what! You think I wear this for fun!”, were as in Tampa people had that nice Southern tone and I remember my friend’s mother saying in that very Southern US accent, “Sebastian, would you like a piece of pie”. Loving this Southern Hospitality.
This time one of the main things we did was go to see an Ice Hockey game. The Tampa Bay Lightning were doing well in the league and our friends are mad for the team, so it was quite an experience. As we arrived my friend realised that they had only bought 3 tickets instead of 4 so we were not sure if we could all get in, or if we could should we be able to sit together. By luck, we were able to get an extra seat, but standing in the observation area only. We decided to go up to where they had booked the seats and sit together until someone came and asked us to move, but no one did, bonus.
I do love watching ice hockey, it’s so fast and this was a chance to see some of the best players there are. Sadly the Lighting lost, but it was a great game and both teams played really well. On the last trip, I manage to catch a Basketball game at Madison Square Garden, which was a childhood dream for me. Not sure why I have always preferred the American sports, but I do and it is a real treat to catch a game.
The other thing we went to do while here was go down to Siesta Key in South Sarasota. We were here the last time and I have to say it is a really wonderful beach, so clean and pristine, white sand, I could see it being a very nice life down here.
On our trip in 2010 we also went and spent a few days in Miami, I just remember it being super hot, but was great to see all them iconic art deco buildings like I had seen in so many movies. From Miami, it was back to New York where we caught the thanksgiving day parade and saw Kanye West. About a year later I saw the movie Tower Heist with Eddie Murphy and this was filmed during this time, so always reminds me of that trip.
I find myself really pulled about the US, on one side I love it, I like the music, TV shows films etc. I love the abundance of everything and how easy it is to buy anything you might need. I also like how most people are spread out, so there is a good feeling of space, and that overall people are friendly. Vegan options are also great and lots of innovation in vegan food is coming out of the country, but when you are travelling across the country the options seem to be very poor, so plan in advance.
On the other side, I find it a crazy paranoid place with what is for me extreme levels of nationalism. I hate how abundant guns are and how prevalent and violent the crime is. I do like how people have great belief in themselves and as a nation, but it borders and narcissism with this idea that they are the greatest country lalalala, because for me when you arrive and believe all that hype, you just become disappointed. My perspective was far different on this trip than my first, but I am also different and since then I have seen a lot more places, so have a much wider perspective, especially on what makes a country great. The reality is that like people we are good and bad at different things and no one likes someone who is overconfident and believes themselves to be better than others. I don’t think the everyday American believes this, but it is hard to have a different opinion when you don’t see the world and are bombarded with sounds and images telling you something. But saying all this I would love to visit again and see some other sights, but there are a lot of other countries to see too.