When I think of the fun I had during the first part of my American road trip, I couldn’t imagine how it could be topped, but somehow the second half was even more of an enjoyable adventure, full of culture, history and cuisine. The Alamo in San Antonio was a prime example of this. Known as the ‘shrine of Texas liberty’, the Alamo is an amazing structure steeped in history. The city also boasts a beautiful river walk, which takes pedestrians wanting to while away an hour, past boutique shops, bars and restaurants.
The only bad thing about southern America is the fact that they love their meat. Eating at a barbecue house or a steakhouse is not ideal for a vegetarian, but one thing I’ve learned about travelling is that sometimes you have to be flexible. There were also some food heaven moments in New Orleans, which more than made up for it. If you ever find yourself in ‘The Big Easy’, you need to make a trip to Cafe du Monde. There’s something to be said for sitting outside a cafe in the French Quarter eating beignets in the sunshine, followed by an afternoon listening to jazz.
For me, New Orleans was a contradiction. When we arrived in the city, we were warned about the high crimes rates and areas to avoid, but by the time we’d left, I’d discovered that although that may be one side of the city, New Orleans, in particular the French Quarter, is a vibrant hub of live music, extraordinary people and good food. It’s so devastating that the bad side of the city is what appears to be a prominent legacy of Hurricane Katrina. I only hope, like Christchurch, New Orleans can undergo some sort of rejuvenation.
On our free day, we decided to have dinner at a restaurant called Mother’s. Having never tried any ‘soul’ food, I decided to sample crawfish étouffée, a traditional stew, served with eggy mashed potato. (It’s sounds vile, but it was surprisingly nice!) I’m so glad we were able to experience a slice of Southern comfort food.
Another big plus in the food department was the number of Wholefoods supermarkets that we found ourselves in. It’s amazing how inviting a deli counter and a salad bar can be when you’ve spent the previous weeks eating endless cereal bars and your body weight in tortilla wraps. (Following the amount of time and money I’ve recently spent there, I’m now considering buying shares in the company!)
Life on the road can get tiresome, so like any seasoned travellers, we looked for ways to while away journey time and down time. We started by playing the usual car games- ‘The Alphabet Game’, ‘The Celebrity Game’, ‘The Film Game’ and several variations on these topics. Like a group of travel weary children, we soon grew bored of these and looked for other ways to entertain ourselves. Our leader came up trumps when he introduced us to the fun that is Farkle. Never have six dice and a pad of paper caused so much excitement, or unleashed such competitiveness! (It was almost on a par with the rounders game- but the less said about that, the better!)
The highlight of the Deep South, for me, was Louisiana and the swamp tour that we took. I’ll admit that at first I was a little dubious about being so close to the alligators, but the swamp tour leader clearly had a rapport with them, so my mind was put at ease, and the visions I had had of us being eaten alive proved unfounded. I was intrigued, however, by the foods that the leader used to lure the ‘gators towards the boat so that we could take pictures. (I would never have imagined that alligators would be interested in marshmallows and wieners – I still keep having visions of there being several obese alligators with tooth decay in the that swamp!) For me, it was a bonus to also see wild pigs (incredibly smelly and large), turtles in the trees, a couple of snakes (thankfully from afar!), a bullfrog, and some herons.
It’s widely known that America has a long, and at times torrid, history, so it was with interest that I went to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama. It was poignant standing in a location that was at the centre of milestone accomplishments in black history, knowing that several of these occurred less than one hundred years ago. It’s scary and saddening to think that practises such as segregation were going on so recently, but I felt proud that a group of people in the city of Birmingham had built the museum to mark the end of an oppression, and I suppose, to signify changes that have occurred.
Moving north again, we then arrived in Washington DC, and I’ll admit it, I was hoping to spot Barak Obama wandering around the city, or going about his daily routine in The White House. I knew that coming to the capital would be an experience, but I honestly wasn’t expecting a place steeped in so much history. The nighttime illumination tour that we took certainly highlighted the different memorials to us; I truly had no idea that there were so many in one place. From the Abraham Lincoln memorial, where Martin Luther King Jr. also delivered his ‘I have a dream speech’, to the Korean War memorial; the Vietnam War memorial to the World War 2 memorial and the Washington Monument; it was useful to take a moment to consider just some of the events that America has been through, or been a part of. It was definitely a goosebump moment when our tour leader played a recording of the ‘I have a dream’ speech as we sat on the steps at the base of the Abraham Lincoln memorial (although I’m not sure some of the other tourists who were out and about quite knew what to make of the fourteen adults sitting on the steps listening to a loudspeaker.
Travelling has truly done a lot for me. Not only do I feel more cultured, but it’s also had an effect on my vocabulary. Now I’m mixing my capsicum with my peppers, my eggplant with my aubergine, my tramping with my hiking and learning about being ‘hangry’ (hungry angry- ingenious!) I have become more aware of my accent though, after being teased by my campmates for sounding ‘posh’, and being told by a friendly security guard in the Museum of African Art that I sounded like I should be on the BBC! I’ll certainly never be able to look at an aubergine, or hear the word again, without being haunted by cries of ‘AUBERGINE!!’ (I’m now considering changing my accent for something a little less ‘Surrey’. If you happen to meet or call me in the next few weeks and I’ve adopted a faux accent, please don’t ask what’s happened, just go with it!)
Spending three weeks with the same thirteen people, and experiencing so much together, will undeniably bond you together (whether you like it or not!). On our last official night of the tour, our leader arranged for us to go to a baseball game together, so we decided to get into the spirit of things and decorate ourselves. It was certainly a first to be standing in a carpark having my face painted to co-ordinate with the Washington Nationals team colours. Sitting in the huge stadium, even though we didn’t, for the most part, have a clue what was going on, you could see that there were some diehard fans at the game. You can safely say that we got into the true spirit of baseball when we had ‘stadium food’ for dinner. I certainly will miss pretzels, and I’m sure the others enjoyed their one dollar hotdogs.
For all the mockery of netball, at least you can be sure that after an hour the match is over, leaving everyone to go off and carry on with their lives. I certainly never expected the baseball game to still be going on after four and a half hours! That being said though, it was great fun, and we even got to sit in the pitch-side seats for a while, after our tour leader told a stadium usher that we were lifelong fans!
Most people wouldn’t consider it normal to travel through three cities in a day. Having averaged approximately 300 miles of road every day, waking up in Washington, driving to Philadelphia to see the Rocky statue and steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Liberty Bell, and ending the day in Newark seemed perfectly normal to us.
As if we hadn’t done enough driving over the three week period, we accidentally sent our tour leader on a wild goose chase while looking for our hotel. After nearly an hour on the same highway stretch, and driving through the same toll booths four times, we eventually reached our destination, which was, according to sat nav, ten minutes from our start point!
It wasn’t until the following day that I reached my final destination: New York. After the relative quiet of the campsites, I found the city to be bustling, busy and loud; it certainly took a little getting used to! For most of the time, as I went sightseeing around Grand Central Station, the Public Library, the Empire State Building, Times Square, The Plaza Hotel and several other iconic New York buildings, I felt as though I were walking in one big movie set. There’s something to be said for ‘doing the tourist thing’ and taking tours, such as of The Statue of Liberty and on an open top bus. I’d definitely consider doing it in London and revisiting all the sights, a lot of which I’ve never seen, or haven’t seen since I was a child.
New York, like Washington, has a lot to offer the tourist. Seeing Federal Hall was a highlight, if not just for the National Parks Service stamp! Having visited New York as a child and seen The Twin Towers, I wanted to visit the new 9/11 memorial which had just been completed on the site. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the memorial fountain is a beautiful tribute to those who lost their lives. It was such a shame the interior of Freedom Tower is not yet complete, but the exterior looms large over the New York skyline, seemingly in defiance to the events of 9/11. It truly is an amazing building.
We were lucky enough to get tickets to see The Lion King on the final night of my trip. The show was amazing, but the icing on the cake was being invited backstage for a behind-the-scenes tour. A phenomenal end to a phenomenal trip!