A Travellerspoint blog

SXSW'14, Keeping Austin Weird

You make my kitty kat purr....

all seasons in one day 10 °C
View 2014 Adventure on dzabell's travel map.

Hi there everyone,

I'll explain the subheading in a bit, I promise.

Austin was the next stop on my American adventure, and I was looking forward to the warmer weather the Texan capital was sure to offer. I initially chose to visit Austin following New Orleans rather than flying directly back to San Francisco to complete the west coast; I'd heard a lot about the thumping music scene (think Austin City Limits) and the burgeoning arts scene. While I'd never heard of SXSW, the festival coincided with my plans to visit the city, so I was excited to check it all out. Not a week prior to arriving, my Airbnb accommodation had been cancelled, the company explaining via email that "unfortunately, at this time we have received quality assurance information regarding your host and we are no longer able to support them as a member of our Airbnb community. As a result we have moved forward with canceling your request to begin the rebooking process for your stay." It turns out that I had hired a car space rather than a bed, granted, an unusual bedding option. Sister to the rescue! With some quick facebook liaising, Christie and TG's friend Amir (a recent Aussie transplant to the US) was able to secure accommodation over the weekend for me with a wonderful couple, Drew and Jen (Amir's girlfriend's sister and boyfriend). I can't be grateful enough to Drew and Jen for accommodating someone of such tenuous affiliation, and it sure saved my caboose! It was the first time since leaving Australia, and the last time for a few months, that I would enjoy my own bedroom, as well of the joy of some cute furry friends.

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Drew and Jen live in a two bed apartment in the leafy and semi-exclusive suburb of Barton Springs. While the area was accessible by bus, it did have that feeling of exclusion, as if anyone not living there wasn't exactly welcome. However, while the area felt a little uncomfortable (read: suburban), Jen and Drew were very accommodating. That night, the über fit long distance track runners took me to one of their favourite dinner options, Wholefoods. Believe it or not, this nation-wide fresh food supermarket chain started in Texas (the land of the fat arses); in addition to taking your groceries home, the supermarket offers the most delicious tex-mex, pasta, BBQ and buffet options for dining on site. Somehow I managed to order the pulled pork sandwich, dripping in fat, with absolutely nothing else on the sandwich... oh I forgot the BBQ sauce, and washed down with a Dos Equis.

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We took a stroll up 6th Street west, lined with bars and restaurants. Jen constantly being stopped by passersby eager to pet her cute puppy (who's name escapes me right now). Eventually, Drew and Jen left me to explore 6th Street east, known as Dirty 6th, and the host of the South by Southwest music festival. SXSW began years ago as a music festival to showcase local upcoming talent and has since ballooned into an international technology, film and music conference. The conference extends over two weeks, and completely transforms the city, flooding tens of thousands of participants and spectators into the city. Now you understand my difficulty in securing accommodation!

With every intention of merely inspecting the city scene and turning in for an early night, I happened upon two clubs of a particular persuasion, Rain and Oilcan Harrys. Honestly, I merely stumbled upon them while doing a particular search while standing out the front of Starbucks using their free wifi. Anyway, there I met Brandon (New Orleans), Leo (local) and Sal (California), three men also in Austin for SXSW. Leo had amazing connections and over the next couple of days took all of us to the coolest bars with the most free shit available. I made my very own detox smoothie in the Samsung tent, picked up a Facebook bottle opener, and snuck into a private IT function and stuffed my face full of sandwiches and beer. A photo below shows an afternoon spent with an A&E model (yes, A&E are evil bastards, but I wasn't about to be all high and mighty that afternoon). It was fantastic! Well, except for the dirty DA lawyer who got wasted and became a sleazebag. Leo, Brandon and I managed to push him into a cab and ditching him...

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While Austin has been attracting swathes of new residents and businesses taking advantage of new industries, the fantastic weather and outdoor lifestyle opportunities, I made the terrible mistake of passing up a taxi ride home with Brandon, and rely on the city's buses to take me back to Jen and Drew's. The weather turned absolutely miserable, the weather hovering around 10˚C and bucketing down rain. Even with one of the country's biggest festivals in full swing, and a new transport strategy recently rolled out to cope with the exploding population (the fastest in the USA), I had to wait nearly an hour for a bus back to Barton Springs (a few kilometres from downtown). It was absolutely miserable and of course gave a battering to my shoddy immune system.

While I should have stayed in that night, again I jumped on board that little app of good decisions and enjoyed an evening with two very friendly gentlemen who happened to live in the same complex as Drew and Jen. I hope their immune systems were in better shape than mine! Anyway, the next morning I treated myself to two breakfast burritos from Tacodeli. Honest to god, these little beauties are so delicious and satisfying. While you can find TexMex throughout America, it does not compare to the authentic experience. It certainly lifted my spirits, and once again endeared me to the fantastic food culture in the US. Sadly, I bid Jen and Drew and the delicious Tacodeli farewell and set off for a couch I had found the night before on Craigslist. If you haven't heard of Craigslist, it is essentially an online classifieds that markets everything from accommodation to hitchhiking to sex and tupperware parties (either held together or separately). I arrived on 45th street (i.e. 39 blocks from SXSW) to a share house full of dog hair, sweat, pot smoke and mould. For two nights I slept on a musty couch filled with God know's what. While the woman who advertised the couch was lovely, she was completely manic, somehow managing to balance volunteering as a security guard for SXSW whilst undertaking mid semester exams and taking care of rabid dogs. The highlight of the stay was helping move a couch into her housemate's bedroom, to discover a cat and over-filled cat box and the rancid olfactory assault.

My final night partying with Leo and Brandon was, well, interesting to say the least. I can't exactly remember how events transpired, but something led to Leo dry humping me on the dance floor to the chagrin of Brandon. Once I came out of my drunken stupor, I attempted to move us all onto another club, only to be accosted by a former beau of Leos who invited me into a coke threesome. Seeing the night deteriorate quickly, I again moved us out of the club onto the swelled streets. Leo, playing the pied piper began collecting other men to keep himself entertained, and whisked us all off to a party on the edge of downtown. After several free beers, and a random stop in a karaoke bar, I decided to venture home. Again I was foiled by the pathetic transport options of Austin and unable to hail a cab, began the 39 block walk home. By now most of you have seen the photos I posted along the way, stopping at the available Starbucks for wifi. These photos are the end product:

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After two hours of walking, and donating my last three dollars to a homeless women, I crawled into onto the flea and STI ridden couch and died. I awoke the next morning on deaths door and to a MMS from Leo that I won't publish here but was essentially a big gaping invitation to explore the deep recesses of his dignity. I made a conscious albeit hungover, decision not to write to see Leo again. Unfortunately, that meant not seeing Brandon again who was much more friendly and gentile (a southern gentleman) but I needed to leave that disaster in behind.

Luckily my two night stay at the Hole du'Hell came to an end, and I once again packed up to bunk with a couple of Aussies I had met in Seattle who happened to be in SXSW as well. I had moved from squalor to relative luxury, staying in the AT&T Hotel and Conference Centre. I nearly cried, once again sleeping in a bed (shared with a hottie) and a clean shower with hot water. But I didn't have much time to enjoy it. I had been chatting to a sweet guy on that friendly little app named Jean since arriving 5 days prior, and finally had to opportunity to meet up. He invited me to Wholefoods for some lunch, then to go paddle boarding on the Colorado River which runs south of downtown Austin.

This was probably the best day I had in Austin. I was to learn that day that Jean is one of the sweetest guys I have ever met (aided by a sexy southern accent too). When it transpired that we were to go paddle boarding with one of his uni friends, I definitely felt like I was intruding, being a little out of place. I felt particularly awkward when on our walk back to his place to get changed for paddle boarding, his uni friend Jen pulled up and offered to take me back while Jean rode his pushbike back. I started to feel more comfortable when I realised how equally sweet Jen was, but again, I felt like I was intruding on their reunion. We each got ready and saddled up on bikes (not before Jen had a little indulgence in some good old green. My god that girl can huff lol) and headed on down to the river (an excellent way to explore this beautiful city, much more enjoyable and catered for than public transport). We got set up, and I tentatively boarded by paddle board. Only then did I learn that Jean (who will deny this) is a paddle boarding pro who was preparing for a 21km paddle board for charity in the months ahead. With trepidation and pride on the line, I eventually stood up, and we began to paddle down the river. The sun was out, there was a light breeze, the water was clear and cool, the day could not have been more perfect. I quickly and so easily opened up to Jean and Jen, their friendliness, their banter, their experiences. Jean and I seemed to have such different stories but so much in common, travel being the most obvious. He is so passionate about Austin, his adopted home town, and knows it inside out being in real estate. Jen was equally effusive, being a Texan girl originally.

After an hour or two on the water (navigating between rowers, canoes, paddle boarders and others) we saddled back up and went for a ride out for some dinner and drinks, stopping in at Baby Acapulcos. Now at the end of this entry I am going to strongly encourage everyone thinking of coming to the US to stop by Austin, and you must make a trip to Baby Acapulcos for one of their trademark purple margaritas. Those drinks are like a slow motion punch to the senses, subtly setting you up for a messy evening. On Jean's sensible advise seeing as we had yet to ride back to his, I indulged in only one while the others had two. This made for an interesting ride home, including some cheeky comments from Jean when he decided to ride behind me. On our way home Jean took us to a lookout on the river to sample the Austin skyline at night, the result of which is shown below:

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Once we got back to Jeans, Jen and I decided to head out to sample the opening night of SXSW's music scene. Jean decided to stay back rather than battle the crowds which was a shame, but while Jen was getting ready I was able to have a really deep (read: drunken) political discussion. He was really insightful and even though we don't see eye to eye on some matters, Jean once again showed me how sweet, intelligent and thoughtful he is. Jean kindly dropped Jen and I off downtown, where we made our way to Jen's friend's gig. Here's where I can introduce the relevance of the subheading. Jen had volunteered to help man the band's merch table, and I naturally volunteered to help Jen. The band was from Portland (throwback!) called Acoustic Minds --> https://soundcloud.com/acousticmindsmusic. Please check them out as I really love their stuff! To help peddle their merch, I donned one of the singlets as seen below. I also cracked a shitload of glow sticks and handed out stickers and wristbands. We managed to sell a few CDs for the group, but mostly I was there to enjoy the amazing atmosphere of the festival. It was an incredible experience helping this (hopefully) up and coming band out, as well as spending more time with Jen (who I had crazily only met that afternoon).

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The following day was unfortunately a right-off, my body once again succumbing to exhaustion and general stubbornness. I managed to make it out again at night with Jen to once again help on the merch tent, but called it quits early on to try and get some sleep. Unfortunately, the aussie boys I was bunking with had managed to score 10 pills during the week, and were raucous every night they returned. We didn't see each other at all during the day as they had bought official passes to the festival ($700 each. Idiots). So again my poor self induced sickness was not getting much recovery time, and was made even worse when I woke up at 6.00am to go see some bands with Jean at the W hotel, hosted by the local radio station. Take note of these people who I hope to hear in the next couple of years, as their music is brilliant: Emilie Wolfe, Spanish Gold, Noah Gundersen and the Mowglis. I also was stoked to see London Grammar perform, beginning their first American tour, a market they have until very recently yet to crack. I then spent the rest of the day with Jen, dragging her to a free concert where an aussie act I was dying to see, the Kite String Tangle, was performing. While the crowd was very intimate, he seemed to blow everyone away with his haunting lyrics and synthesised sounds. Again, please check him out as his music is beautiful. Randomly, I also saw Les Claypool perform. Who is that you ask? Well he is none other than the writer of the South Park theme song. Seriously though he was a phenomenal bass guitarist who blew everyone in the audience away.

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Now I will admit that while I was quite taken by Jean, I was slightly deviant the last few days in Austin. The day after I had met Jean and Jen, I met a guy named Shane at a gig held at Mozart's Coffee Roasters, a coffee shop with stunning views over the Colorado River. I was there to see to see the Judith Miller band (check her out too) who unfortunately had to cancel their gig because the stupid pianist forgot his amp. So I started talking to another guy there, Shane, and went out for dinner and a drink. One thing led to another, and the following morning he dropped me home on his way to work. When I thought that I wasn't going to see Jean again, and after spending the day with Jen, I once again caught up with Shane, had some amazing Kim Chi fries with pulled pork (absolutely amazing) and again spent the night with him. Looking back on the whole week, Shane was really taking Jean's place considering nothing was going to sadly happening between us. Shane was a lovely guy but nothing more than a fling that in hindsight I do regret; it took away from the good times I did spend with Jean and Jen.

I had a very eventful final day in Austin. I had decided that Monkey was going to make his most controversial contribution to the trip yet, and enlisted Jen to help. We made our way to the Texas State Capital Building and prepared for what could have been an incredibly tense moment. Jen all of a sudden realised that security may have had a small issue with her green and pipe in the Texas legislature and panicked as to how to get around it. We managed to hide her stash in the mortar of the building, before passing seamlessly into the building. We made our way to the centre of the Rotunda, and I prepared Monkey for his moment. Not event the children's choir, parents ex-military servicemen could dissuade me from taking this photo (the sign we had found at the concert the previous day):

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After that little bit of excitement (and temporarily misplacing Jen's car) I fortunately spent my last hours in Austin with Jen and Jean at one of Jean's favourite restaurants next to Mozarts called Hula Hut. The food was once again delicious (although everything was so bloody spicy!). I was really sad to say good bye to Jean as I had so quickly grown to like him. But just like everyone else I had met, the trip was going to tear me away for a new adventure. Jen was absolutely beautiful and drove me to the airport and gave me some beautiful words of advise to make sure I made the most of the rest of my trip (you were so right Jen!).

Austin had made it into the itinerary on a whim, originally a distraction between the extravagance of travelling down to New Orleans and the high expectations of San Francisco. I felt unprepared for the behemoth of SXSW and was anxious given my accommodation had at the last minute been pulled out from under me. I can't stress how grateful I am to Jen and Drew for their hospitality at such short notice and for a complete stranger. Austin is a city undergoing rapid change, and was fascinating to see (and begrudgingly experience) the many difficulties it is encountering in coping with its popularity. The Texan brash spirit is very much alive in its capital, but not as you would anticipate: it celebrates its diversity and progressive ideals, with passion and pride. It has some hidden beautiful features in Lake Austin/Colorado River, and Springs area. It encourages free thinking, entrepreneurship and a good party too. Meeting Jean and Jen, as well as Brandon and to a limited extent Leo, made my week unforgettable (for various reasons) and I can't ever forget them for that. I know one day I will catch up with Jean and Jen who after knowing each other for only a few days I can consider good friends.

Next stop: San Francisco!

Ciao ciao xx

Posted by dzabell 12:31 Archived in USA Tagged music texas austin craigslist sxsw Comments (0)

HOLA NOLA, CITY OF SQUALOR!

One week in Nawlins, and a big fat Tuesday was enough for me...

rain 6 °C
View 2014 Adventure on dzabell's travel map.

Hi there everyone,

My next stop took me on a slight hook turn from the north west to the deep south, all the way to New Orleans, Louisiana. When I was planning my trip all those months back, I could not resist heading on down for one of the world's greatest Mardi Gras festivals. This even after Mum had relayed the dangerous reputation of New Orleans from a man she'd met on a tour in Europe, his son having been randomly gunned down in the street. So I bid an ambivalent farewell to Portland, a city of exceptional planning and avant-garde culture that shivers through the wet and the wind, in search of southern hospitality, warmth and raucous chaos. I flew in via the Houston "George H Bush Intercontinental" Airport (no joke, he's not even dead yet and they named the frigging airport after him. He wasn't even born in Texas!) replete with a charming and forward looking statue of the President. While the statue was proudly upright, Bush strutting with jacket over shoulder into a industrial fan, I was shocked to see so many people getting around by buggy; apparently the walk from security screening to the gate was too far for their corpulent mass. They were however able to make a stop off at one of the deep friend fast food chains along the way.

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Mardi Gras. Outside of the gay world, the holiday in Australia conjures up images of pancakes, church and, well, pancakes. My image of Mardi Gras in New Orleans however was of ostentation, frivolity, boobs and beads, marching proudly through the city streets with everyone drunkenly partying along. My feelings were guided by a disposition of mild curiosity and study... lolkatz. Before I get to the real story, I have to mention Paul, a former school teacher in New Orleans who decided to supplement his retirement by shuttling passengers to and from the airport. He had that twangy accent and over-the-top enthusiasm that reminded me of Wallace Shawn (think Princess Bride). He was so helpful and informative, giving me all the best tips to sample the finest food, see the best parades, and encouraged me to do as many tours as possible, like the wicca and vampire tours. Paul is one of the first people I genuinely felt deserved a tip; he wasn't just making the effort to extract that extra money from me either. I know some of my American friends hate me for constantly bringing it up (April Millage in particular) but the tipping 'culture' is so ingrained, with 'suggested' amounts stated on receipts, that people don't actually excel to deliver the best service; it's not needed when you're customarily going to receive the tip anyway! I completely understand that bartenders and waiters rely heavily on tips to get by, but tips should be more a service above expectations. Furthermore, while hospitality staff are obligated to declare tips for tax purposes, most people just lie and therefore are essentially paid "cash in hand". Some restaurants will actually use tips to cover wages, so a waiter can be earning $2.50 per hour and the remaining to make minimum wage is taken from the tip jar. What the???? An American at the New Orleans hostel explained to the ungrateful Australians and Europeans that tips "stands for To Insure Proper Service"

:S

I definitely wanted to give him a tip on his acronym construction (however I feel like I have just invited some spelling and grammatical criticism from my mum). I'd like to suggest that prices, and correspondingly wages, are upped 20% and bibbidy bobbidy boop! no more tipping unless it is well earned, people are appropriately taxed, you pay the advertised price (when they include taxes too!) and everyone is happy.

Anywho. Booking accommodation for Mardi Gras, even several months in advance, is difficult, with price gauging and very limited options. The cheapest and most central accommodation is booked up a year in advance, which left me little choice either paying an exorbitant amount or settling for something a little less desirable. I settled with the Marquette House, a hostel in the Garden District about three miles out from the French Quarter. The house itself is a quintessential New Orleans post-colonial gem one block back from the street cars on St Charles. That's where the appeal stopped. The building was rundown; the flooring was warped and the walls cracked from the humidity, the toilets (located at the entrance to each dorm building) were blocked and the doors didn't lock. The kitchen had no plates, cutlery, stove top, microwave or clean sponges (although it did have tupperware without lids). No lockers were provided, and the sheets had been used as drop sheets (I told myself those stains were paint). Making these security issues worse was that I was sleeping not in a six person dorm as I had booked, but in a 24 person dorm. It has been the only hostel I have stayed in during this trip where I thought my laptop and passport were ripe for the picking, so they often came with me into town. This would have been fine with the convenience of the streetcar on St Charles, however the St Charles streetcar DOESN'T RUN DURING MARDI GRAS. The staff were so ignorant that not even they were aware that the streetcars didn't run. This photo below is basically what St Charles (an historic parade route) looked like each morning after the parades and why the streetcars were unable to run -

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My big gripe with New Orleans in general was the lack of public transport during Mardi Gras. Nawlins has been hosting Mardi Gras parades since the 1830s, so you would think they would be prepared to transport people to and from the French Quarter with buses and street cars and directions and marshalling and

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It is a free for all. Most seasoned partyers got around on bikes, smugly skirting the crowds and traffic. I became so desperate one night I was about ready to accept a lift from the man who stopped to solicit some... services, just in the hope that he would drop me back at my shitty hostel. He was definitely a creeper and don't worry Mum and Dad I resisted. The taxi drivers (like much of the city) are less than law abiding, rarely using the meter and instead charging flat 'negotiated' rates. One driver thought it best to drive through the French Quarter just after the end of the parade, against my no brainer request, and was astonished at the traffic. Oh would you look at that, the meter (only time it was ever used) is running up. How about that? Another drove through a police road block while talking on his phone, only to be waved through by the police. The best solution - if the street cars are offline during the parades, how about some replacement buses? Or at least some dedicated taxi ranks?

Now the positive stuff. As soon as I dropped my things off at the hostel, I changed into a shirt and shorts to enjoy the warm night air and partake in the revelry of the city. A friend from Seattle had put me onto another friend who was down for the week and after exchanging a hundred texts and establishing a means of transporting myself downtown (taxi driver on his phone) I dived head first into the Mardi Gras chaos. I'd agreed to meet Aaron and his friend Evan at a pub around St Anne Street, to which my taxi driver assertively drove. He pointed me to the bar and I walked in expecting to find the two guys. What I had actually walked into was a dimly lit cavern, full of leather bound patrons, semi naked bar tenders, unidentifiable sticky substances on the counter tops and floors (and a glob that fell from the ceiling onto my shoe), two men partaking in felatio at the bar and a huddle of men in a dark corner doing what I was barely game enough to imagine. A few more text messages revealed that I had actually stepped into Rawhide, a gay leather and sex club. I quickly ran out of the club still with the beer in my hand I had bought while waiting for Aaron and Evan (honestly, as soon as I knew I was in the wrong place I got the hell out of there!). In my disorientation I managed to get a wrist band to "come back any time" and made my way down to the real bar to meet the guys. It was only when I entered I realised that I had walked down the street with an open beer. Evan and Aaron reassured me that, while open glass alcohol bottles are not permitted, consuming alcohol from a plastic container is permitted anywhere in public areas. Score! After a couple of bevies and shots at the bar (no perverse acts undertaken, to the chagrin of Aaron) we moved onto a few different places. The streets were overrun by a party of parties that dominated all the senses and sensibilities. I had my first of so far two Michael Jackson dance offs during this trip, with a beautiful women that awarded me her feather boa. Evan and I were harassed and close to molested by a small woman from Georgia who was obsessed with tall men, bending over for us and trying to lure us back to her hotel (not gonna happen lady!). The end of the night is well summed up by this photo:

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A bitter cold morning awoke me the next day, with the Arctic winds having snaked their way south over night. The cold and wet weather settled in for the week, forcing me back into dressing in jeans, jumpers and my delicious but cumbersome winter coat. Once again I was foiled by the lack of public transport, waiting half an hour for a bus a few blocks from my hostel. I got talking to an Australian girl who informed me she had been waiting 45 minutes, so I took some initiative and set off on foot down the street. Its approximately an hour from the Garden District to the middle of the French Quarter, which gave me an opportunity to explore Magazine Street. This is one of the main boutique shopping strips in the city, with an eclectic array of good including Mardi Gras costumes. The streetscape is mesmerising with mid-19th to early 20th century shop fronts and dwellings defining this neighbourhood. New Orleans is proud of its history and has taken great pains to preserve the historic districts, even in the face of natural, financial, racial and political adversity. Between the Garden District and French Quarter, the Warehouse District is becoming a trendy gentrified neighbourhood, dominated on by the monolithic World War Two museum and city efforts to move out the junkies and hookers. Finally I made it to the French Quarter and met up with Aaron and Evan. We watched the all important transfer of the City keys from the Mayor to the King of Rex Krewe, an important Mardi Gras custom. Traditionally, the King of Rex (arguably one of the most important societies and floats in Mardi Gras) was a descendant of the original European immigrants to the City (including Creoles); however a City ordinance introduced in the 1990s required all Krewes to comply with anti-discrimination legislation and the City's Human Relations Commission. Some of the major krewes decided to remove themselves from the Mardi Gras parades rather than reveal their membership to the City; however the ordinance has been overturned as it was considered unconstitutional (first amendment apparently). So below are some photos of the Rex Krewe King.

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During the event, I was lucky enough to indulge in the famous Muffuletta from the Grocery Co, a must have while in New Orleans.

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Food is symbolic and sacred in New Orleans, representative of the diverse cultures that have made this city into what it is today. The Creoles (a mix of European and Caribbean/black heritage born in the then French and Spanish colony) and Cajun (Acadian descendants from Canada) are the most influential, the result being delicious seafood and chicken dishes like Gumbo and Jumbalaya. I treated myself to a delicious lunch at the famous Gumbo Shop, the outcome being these delicious dishes (and my fat tum-tum).

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As you've guessed from previous posts (yes I know this one has been a long time coming) this trip is taking a very gastronomical theme. The quality of the food in the states, the meat, the fruit and vegetables and the drinks (free pour!) have been exceptional. And each state is distinct from the next, a reflection of the people and the diversity within the country. To keep this tangent short, this trip has made me realise that saying "urgh that's so American" is so inappropriate, akin to saying "urghh you're so European/Russian" to a Ukrainian (its funny and relevant). This country is just as diverse as Europe and somehow manages to celebrate and promote it's diversity whilst maintaining and defending its unity.

That night Evan, Aaron and I battled the bitter cold to view the Lundi Gras parades. I've posted all of my parade photos up on Facebook, but the ones below are some of my favourites, and the end result after catching ALL OF THE BEADS. There is a statue adjacent to Louis Armstrong Park dedicated to throwing the beads, with the catch-cry "Hey Mister, throw me something". I was especially proud of my pink dice, for which some poor kid was desperately trying to trade me. I was such a tease, I got him up to $20 at one stage. Afterwards we went over to Frenchmen Street to a jazz bar and listened to a fantastic local group at the Spotted Cat. The drummer sang a couple of songs and, even though he was a middle aged white guy, sounded as grizzly and soulful as Louis Armstrong himself. I feel so lucky to have experienced such fantastic Jazz music in New Orleans.

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Mardi Gras morning, or Shrove Tuesday, is the climax of the parade calendar, with the biggest and most renowned floats parading down St Charles Avenue and onto Bourbon Street. Even though my hostel was a turd of place, it was perfectly located to enjoy the frivolity and wonders of these incredibly creative and spectacular displays. However, 2014 was the second wettest Mardi Gras on record and also one of the coldest. I feel guilty saying this, but instead of partaking in the revelry of the New Orleans Mardi Gras, I stayed in bed, huddling for warmth with my blankets and coats. Technically, I sorta kinda missed the official Mardi Gras parades. My bad! Even worse, I spent that afternoon in the Starbucks cafe on Magazine Street with a cup of hot chocolate and free wifi access. I had bid farewell to Aaron and Evan, my fantastically patient and fun babysitters who flew back to Seattle Tuesday afternoon, and decided for the rest of the week to make the most of the city's hangover to explore this historical place.

I downloaded a self-guided tour for the French Quarter from Frommers, which provides suggested itineraries, food and hotel suggestions for a multitude of cities around the world. For history boffins on a budget, this is a fantastic website! Again, I've uploaded all my photos to facebook so you can have a look at them for yourself, and I've copied the introduction to the French Quarter from their website below:

"If you only spend a few hours in New Orleans, do it in the exquisitely picturesque French Quarter. In these 80 city blocks, the colonial empires of France, Spain, and, to a lesser extent, Britain, intersected with the emerging American nation. It's called the Vieux Carré or "old square," but somehow it's timeless -- recognizably old while vibrantly alive. Today's residents and merchants are stewards of a rich tradition of individuality, creativity, and disregard for many of the concerns of the world beyond. This tour will introduce you to its style, history, and landmarks."

On my last day, I paid for a walking tour of the Garden District, the super enthusiastic tour guide beginning with an impassioned history of the city and why she, as an import from California, loved the city so much. She has been part of the Muses Krewe for a couple of years, famous for being all-female, throwing shoes and light-up purses. The City has had a complicated history, changing between French, Spanish and American hands, as well as dumping ground for weary travellers from all over the world due to its importance at the confluence of the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico. Notably, proud Creoles will have the Fleur de Lis tattoed on their necks or wrists as was customary for immigrants during the French ownership. In actuality, it was the incarcerated and the institutionalised that were forcibly branded with this mark, as a property of the state. This diversity helps explain why there are so many accents, rather than the distinct southern accent, present in the city as compared to the rest of Louisiana. Notably, the city was excluded from Abraham Lincoln's declaration of war on the south; the city is a bastion of quasi-liberal lifestyles that distinguish it from the rest of the state and the south. The tour guide went on to discuss the City's recent chequered past, with New Orlean's former mayor Ray Nagin convicted of corruption and collusion in the clean-up and rebuilding following Katrina. Unfortunately many of the areas devastated were the poorest neighbourhoods in the city and are still yet to fully recover, nearly 10 years later. A public bus route that goes through these areas inadvertently became a defacto tourist route, rightfully causing a lot of grievance in the community and pulling into question the city's desire to use tourism to rebuild the city.

The tour started in the Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. This cemetery is a national monument, constructed by the Creole population in the 1830s for all peoples; it is non denominational and non-racial, and characterised the area prior to the mansions built by the Americas in the following decades. Burying the dead was not an option due to the rising water table and the ensuing results. As a compromise, bodies are placed to rest in mausoleums, traditionally of white marble or granite. Families can buy a plot on the proviso that they maintain the plot to preserve the history of the cemetery; any derelict plots are resumed by the City and resold. Bodies are bound and placed on the top shelf of the mausoleum, and decompose relatively quickly due to the intense heat and humidity of New Orleans. When another family carks it, the remains of the previous body are pushed to the back of the tomb down a cute to the lower shelf with the previous family members. Most tombs have around 10 names inscribed; some are reserved for the City's fire fighting departments, and some are allocated to the Krewes of the Mardi Gras floats. Attending a traditional funeral service in New Orleans (I assume Christian) is quite a sight to see. The procession is led by the casket and the mourners with a brass band playing sombre jazz. People will dance with so much emotion and physicality that they seemingly throw themselves to the ground, only to pick themselves up and continue with the procession, wailing and calling out. Once the ceremony is done however, the band and the mourners will celebrate the life of the deceased, with upbeat music and lively dancing, proceeding out of the cemetery and down the street. The crowds for well-known people in the city can be in the hundreds. The cemetery has been used in a few movies, most memorably for me in Double Jeopardy with Ashly Judd. New Kids on the Block also shot a film clip there.

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After the Lafayette Cemetery, our enthusiastic guide led the group through some of the tree-lined streets of the Garden District, home to exquisite mansions from the plantation era during the 1800s. The mansions vary between Greek and Roman Revival and Italianate styles, with some incorporating all three. The Garden District is recognised as a site of historic significance in America for its well preserved architecture and urban design; while many of the properties have been subdivided and more modern additions constructed, the wide frontages, well appointed gardens and ornate fencing still dominate the streetscape. The area was developed with the influx of Americans to New Orleans, keen to avoid the Creole population east of Bourbon Street. There is a clear separation between the opposing sides of Bourbon Street, illustrated by wider streets, a greater number of trees and a clear distinction between residential and commercial areas. The Garden District feels more orderly but also much more passive; private security companies were employed to protect these properties for months after Katrina in 2005 until residents began to return. Today, property prices are back to sky high levels, with many celebrities either living in the area or at least owning properties, such as Sandra Bullock and John Goodman. Nicholas Cage at one time owned several properties in the French Quarter and Garden District, until he was forced to declare bankruptcy. The city was happy to see Mr Cage leave, having made several controversial imprints on the city, including in the Layette No. 1 Cemetery by building a pyramid shaped mausoleum that took up three plots and was to preserve only his remains.

That same day I took the opportunity to explore the Irish Channel district to the south of the Garden District. It is appropriately named after the Irish immigrants who took up residence in the area; it's less salubrious than the Garden District but again is very clearly distinct from the French Quarter. This area also felt a little unsafe for me, with a number of menacing looking people hanging out on stoops and in the gutter drinking in the middle of the day. I did have a purpose there which was to meet up with someone I had been chatting to on that wonderful of social networking apps we Darlinghurst frequenting men have come to know and love... I've forgotten his name now but he was grizzly and wore a snapback. I had one other Grindr meet up that was much more innocent, a young musician originally from Shreveport in north-west Louisiana with a strong Texan accent. He invited me out for a drink and then to watch a movie back at his place in the trendy warehouse district. We (legitimately) watched a movie called Bernie, starring Shirley MacLain, Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey which I highly recommend for everyone to watch, and that's coming from someone who doesn't like Jack Black movies. Its based on a man in a small town in east Texas who gets caught up in a dysfunctional relationship with a wealthy but bitter, jaded widow. Jack Black was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance. It was a good introduction to Texas which is my next stop after New Orleans. Sadly nothing more came of that night but it was good to spend a night with a local.

My last touristy endeavour was one of the most moving experiences I have had on this trip. Housed on the ground floor of the Louisiana State Museum, beside the beautiful Andrew Jackson Square, is the Katrina and Beyond exhibit, dedicated to the tragic hurricanes in 2005 that devastated this city and many others along the Gulf coast. Hurricane Katrina killed 1800 people and caused an estimated $81 billion damage. The category 5 storm, the most powerful of hurricanes, levelled the city and destroyed the antiquated and completely inadequate levy system that protects the city from the Mississippi and the Gulf. While the millions of residents were forced to evacuate prior to the storm, approximately 100,000 residents (generally those without cars, house bound, eldery or homeless and disproportionately black) were left behind. Many of the resultant deaths were from heat exhaustion, dehydration, electrocution and drowning in the aftermath of the storm. Thousands upon thousands were left to fend for themselves with inadequate food and water, surrounded by water-born diseases. The exhibit was pointedly silent on the intense criticism felt by the Bush administration in its response to the disaster, instead educating the public on the inadequate levy system and response protocols of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The exhibit used multiple media to convey the abjection people felt while waiting for rescue, and the time it took to rehouse those that had lost their homes and businesses. There were whole walls from houses, with diary inscriptions detailing the physical and mental trauma people experienced; clothes and pictures of pets, testimonials, flags. But the exhibit also celebrated the resilience and community spirit of the city, and the belated realisation of the infrastructure and processes required to survive the brutal environment.

I feel a little unlucky with the weather during my time in New Orleans, as it definitely marred my experience of one of the biggest parties in the world, as well as one of the most diverse and historically significant cities in America. By Thursday, I was one of two people left in the 24 bed dormitory at the hostel, and shared a couple of bevies with some other Australians and Brits who were left over as well, bitching and whingeing about life as we tend to do. At this point I feel like I can tick Mardi Gras New Orleans off my list; however, if I were return I hope I could explore and enjoy the city for its full potential. Next stop: Austin Texas, for the South by Southwest Festival.

Ciao ciao xx

Posted by dzabell 10:27 Archived in USA Tagged party new_orleans drunk mardi_gras misadventures Comments (0)

Portlandia: Planning, Penis and more...

With some of the most liberal free speech laws in the country, a lot goes down in this city

all seasons in one day 5 °C
View 2014 Adventure on dzabell's travel map.

Hi there everyone,

For those who have seen the show Portlandia, you'll know that its a hipster's paradise, with cycling, short-leg chinos, cock and balls donuts, bacon and maple syrup donuts, coffee, pub cinemas and all things weird and wacky. Portland is also a mecca for town planners, a stand-out in American cities for public transport, place making, entrepreneurship and preservation, so it was only natural for a massive nerd like me to put this on my list of places to visit. I took the Amtrak Cascades from Seattle, winding along Puget Sound and the Columbia River. Two words: absolutely stunning. While train travel in America is slow (the trains travel up to 120km/hr but more like 80km/hr) this train ride is breathtaking; I can't begin to describe and do justice to the beautiful scenery that flashed past for this four hour train trip.

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The first thing I noticed arriving in Portland was the number of new condos being built downtown; the City has bucked the trend of most American cities and restricted urban sprawl, instead encouraging the renewal (read gentrification) of inner city areas. And these buildings are all mixed use, encouraging work, shopping and living all within the same building or at least on the same block. The city skyline is quite low to preserve sunshine and avoid wind tunnels on the streets, and there is little obstruction on footpaths such as signage and bus stops to maintain vistas along the streets. Public buildings are required to designate a certain percentage of land to public art, and most of this is in the form of fountains or statues, the most famous being the statue of Portlandia. Residing on one of the most famous Post-Modernist buildings, the Portland Building (bleghh), Portlandia is a reworking of the city's emblem, the female figure representing the water and bountiful environment. Apparently the artist is so protective of this statue (reserving all rights to the statue), that every year the city is required to wax the copper statue to avoid it rusting, and no commercial images are allowed of the statue. A scene from the movie Body of Evidence starring Madonna had to be reshot as the artist did not want the statue to be included in the background.

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Portland developed from the Willamette (rhymes with dammit) and Columbia Rivers, connecting west coast America to Asia. Through the 1800s, the city was rough and dangerous, with saloons, boarding houses, saloons, bordellos, saloons and a whole host of other unsavoury type establishments (think saloons). The city was dominated with men looking for work in the timber industry, as well as on ships. People familiar with Portland will have heard of the Shanghai Tunnels, a series of interconnected basements in the old town leading to the Willamette. Legend has it that the scurrilous boarding house owners would establish a tab for these men, charge them for accommodation, food and whatever else they couldn't afford, get them drunk then sell them on to the ships heading up and down the west coast and across to Asia. The poor guys would get so drunk that they'd pass out, only to fall through a trap door under their seat, to the awaiting buckaneers who would abduct them, covering the exorbitant tab rung up to the boarding house owner (known as crimps). While men were regularly sold to ship owners under the influence, the mystery of the Shanghai tunnels isn't true. The basements were more likely connected to help exchange goods (and bads) between neighbours rather than smuggling them off to the Shanghai-bound ships. Up until the introduction of steam ships, this was a very profitable business for boarding house owners. One famous man even sold off his son!

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The photos above show some of the classic architecture of the time. Portland has one of the largest collection of cast-iron buildings after New York, built in response to, yep, a fire that tore through the city. Unfortunately, cast iron wasn't so great in the event of a fire as the building tended to melt. However, cast iron allows for ornate detailing in the columns and parapets, creating a Europeanesque streetscape. While the old town has remained largely intact (until recently, this area was very undesirable, until herald! the gays entered the area) many of the examples downtown have been replaced with modern high rise. Up until the 1960s, development was under-regulated and was on the verge of destroying extensive tracks of Portland's historic areas. It was also a city on the decline with the dismantling of the manufacturing economy. Much of the city has been preserved thanks to a grassroots movement of preservation similar to what happened during the greenbans in Potts Point and the Rocks.

The reason that Portland is as it is today, a seething hipster's paradise, stems from a movement in the 60s and 70s to remove the motorway from the banks of the Willamette, the deep river running through the city and into the Columbia River. It also stems from the Downtown Plan which arose in response to a plan for an 11 storey car park in the heart of downtown. Thankfully, the resultant Pioneer Square is instead a multifaceted event and gathering space for the city, including a strange art installation that creates an echo that only the person making the sound in a particular spot can hear. It's so strange and works really well, but serves no real purpose; just a bit of Portland whimsy! The highway was just moved to the other side of the river, but it left room for a park, now known as Tom McCall park. Tom McCall was a popular Republican Governor who spearheaded much of the change in the city, although the consequences of his actions are probably antipathetic to the current Republican movement. For example, in 1970 Richard Nixon was to deliver a speech to the American Legion during the Vietnam War, drawing the ire of the city's liberal residents. With the threat of a counter demonstration twice the size of the American Legion, Tom McCall organised to this day the only state sponsored rock concert in American history, Vortex 1. Rumours spread that the biggest bands of the day were to play at the week long event, and McCall advised the police and DA to overlook the licentious behaviour that was sure to occur (think LSD, marijuana, nudity, sex tents etc). In the end, Nixon ended up cancelling his visit, and the Jamboree and the American Legion demonstration went on without trouble. Three months later, McCall was re-elected.

Another noteworthy Portland figure is shown below. I was so excited to see this picture, as those of you who have been to my parents' house in Wollongong will have seen this image. The man "flashing" the statue, known as the Kvinneakt, is Bud Clark, Mayor of Portland between 1984 and 1992 (he did in fact have clothes on underneath). Apparently he was quite an eccentric fellow, who also enjoyed bike riding to work, alerting pedestrians with a 'whoop whoop' as he passed. He was also instrumental in the development of the light rail system, redevelopment and reconfiguration of downtown, the diverse arts programs and developing policies to help the city's homeless. However, even though Portland has strong foundations for public transport, cycling and walking, the city is incredibly reliant on cars. While the city's bridges are iconic, they funnel traffic into the motorway that surrounds the city (think the Eastern Distributor encircling the CBD). And while there is a ban on new parking lots downtown and in the old town, there remain quite a lot which is a blight on the streetscape. The issue of downtown parking and homelessness have been brought to a head much to the chagrin of city officials.

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Gentrification of the old town has displaced the city's poor (damn gays), with the exception of a soup kitchen and injection centre that have been in the area for decades. On a walking tour of downtown, we passed what is known as Right to Dream Too, a collective of homeless people on a disused plot of very valuable real estate. The developers have been stymied by planning restrictions, so have allowed the erection of a tent city on the block. Accommodating up to 80 people a night, the space provides shelter and support for the homeless, and a prominent space to get the attention of the city. A few plans have been thrown around, including the city buying the plot and permitting people to continue occupying the space; building temporary accommodation for the homeless with services and facilities; however the city's preferred option is to relocate these people to an underpass. Out of sight out of mind I imagine. I tried talking to some of the men manning the entrance to the compound however they weren't too receptive. I left a donation and let them know that I hope they can find a solution. As in Seattle, the homelessness in Portland was incredibly confronting. People avoid certain areas of the old town where drug dealers and uses, prostitutes and whomever else congregate.

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Right-2-Dream-Too/291307830880922?id=291307830880922&sk=photos_stream

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I want to point out the statue of the man with the umbrella, in Pioneer Square (the square was originally bought for $24 and a pair of shoes back in 1849 to build the public courts which still exist). He is probably the only person in Portland with an umbrella, as most people deal with the drizzle wearing a hoodie. Well, they're nuts. It was so bitterly cold the day I toured downtown, the "drizzle" so constant, that you need an umbrella, a hoodie, a jacket, scarf, beanie, gloves, thermals, two pairs of socks and a partridge in a pear tree just to avoid going numb. In the photo below you can see I was a complete idiot and totally under-dressed for this horrible horrible weather. The bitter cold put a dampner on my experience of Portland, as did the fact that my hostel (while within beautifully restored and listed building) was just too far out of the way, in what is known as the Alphabet District (the cross streets are named in alphabetical order). The old saying of location, location, location is so important in travelling, and I hope that the accommodation I have booked for the rest of the trip satisfies those three important criteria!

So I've covered the boring town planning stuff, now for the reason penis features in the headline. Portland has some of the most liberal free speech laws in America. What does that mean? Well, the Oregon constitution strong free speech provisions that are far beyond that of the federal constitution, which has allowed peep shows and strip clubs to flourish, considered "free speech". The largest nude cycling event is also held in Portland, which began by people purchasing bikes from chain department stores, then returning them the next day after being pulled over by the police. The courts have dismissed appeals against these lurid acts in several court cases. The state constitution also prohibited slavery but also, up until 1927, excluded free black people from residing in the state. Portland was also incredibly enthusiastic in rounding up Japanese residents during internment and, up until the 1960s, was hostile towards ethnic minorities. This has left Portland the least ethnically diverse city in America over 500,000 people. Thankfully, this is changing and the city is embracing diversity.

Back to the penises. Big shout out to Charles who I met in Seattle the morning I left, who decided to come spend the weekend with me in Portland for a laugh. Now, that was an awkward segue to introduce Charles, but it is due to the events of the first night Charles came to stay in Portland. That Friday night, we drank with one of the hostel staff (a gorgeous lezzo named Lindsay) and an Aussie named Jo. We all toddled off to Silverados, a recommendation made by Sean from Seattle (jokingly?). Well, I was not expecting the Magic Mike show. I'm not kidding, some of the most ridiculously attractive men grinding themselves and each other on stage. And they were all amateur gymnasts and pole dancers, twerking it better than Miley. One of the strangest things I saw was a guy we referred to as elevator nuts; he could lift and lower his testicles with his groin muscles. It was insane. I gave him a $5 tip just for that trick. And of course the guys on stage were only playing for tips so there was no sexual solicitation, just exploitation (of the audience that is). Interspersed was a 'show' where guys and girls could get up on stage and flash their junk. Most of them were pretty unimpressive but points to them for having a go, and I think reflects the attitude of Portland that free speech and flashing are a way of life. Shamefully, we went there for a second night with Charles' friends when they unexpectedly came down too. The really strange thing is that this seemed to be a common feature of at least the (two) clubs we visited in Portland, C.C. Slaughterhouse being the second.

I've been told that the food in Portland is fantastic and diverse. Unfortunately, I didn't get much of an opportunity to sample it, choosing instead to cook for myself most nights. Although I did buy myself a bacon and maple syrup donut from Voodoo Donuts which was sickly sweet but so satisfying. Portland has the highest concentration of food carts per capita in the USA, mostly congregated on car parks around the city. My tour guide told me that this shows the city's support for small business and entrepreneurship, but something tells me that it creates a false economy within the hospitality industry. However, the food was delicious (I had a burrito and General Tso's chicken), its fun and redefines those unsightly car parks. Some other photos I just want to point out are the smallest park in the world, as a result of a local journalist's frustration with an unfilled pot hole. It is really really tiny. The coin was used to determine the name for the city; it could have been called Boston! The sign "Hung Far Low" is a popular landmark so much so that when it fell down during renovations to the building, a local campaign took hold of the issue with both hands, known as 'Re-erect Hung Far Low' (always with the penises). I've seen a lot of ATMs in the cities so far housed in these wooden boxes, some of them quite detailed and unique. To me, this one is trying to seem organic and earthly, to tap into the hipster wallet.

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I want to thank Charles so much for following me down to Portland on his crazy whim. If you're reading this Charles, I hope I didn't misinterpret your intentions, and please do not let this discourage you from coming to visit in San Francisco as it would be amazing to see you. I just hope you come down to have a weekend of fun and adventure and not just to see me like you did in Portland. Charles unashamedly said that he has a massive crush on Aussies as a result of his two trips there in previous years, so there was definitely something more than adventure driving his decision. I take some blame for also 'encouraging' his decision, and we did have a great weekend. However, I have a feeling that I didn't really live up to the standard of Australian he is used to, and that he was particularly happy to have his friends down to entertain him on the final night. But I also learned that, while it is fun to have a travel buddy, this trip is definitely something that I need to do on my own, in that I avoid offending, inconveniencing or just generally annoying anybody with the things I want to do (as will invariably happen). I am meeting some amazing people every where I go, and people have been so kind and generous to give their time to show me around. Charles was even so kind to battle the most terrible drivers in the world in taking me to the airport on the Sunday. But I probably am not the best partner in crime for travelling right now.

Anyway, sorry this has taken so long to write, and that it is also a regurgitation of every thought and movement I made in Portland. I'll try to truncate mah New Orleans experience for y'all. These blogs are also in place of a diary so they are a bit heavy in detail. Hope you enjoyed this edition of my travels, next stop New Orleans for Mardi Gras :)

Hugs and kisses xoxo

Posted by dzabell 16:07 Archived in USA Tagged portland Comments (0)

Seeeeattle

Crossed the frozen border with some very frosty American customs officials into, well, I felt like I was back in Vancouver...

sunny 8 °C
View 2014 Adventure on dzabell's travel map.

Hi there everyone

I very reluctantly got up last Monday morning (following another night out with my new Vancouverite bar friends) and headed on down to the Amtrak station for a bus trip across the border into Vancouver. Knowing me, I had forgotten my commitment to my monkey monument photo, but thankfully found two women who were more than happy to help out. I wish I had gotten their email addresses so that I could get a copy of the photos they subsequently had with me (they loved that I pretended to pick nits out of their hair). But to whomever you are, thank you ladies!

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The snow was falling and therefore there wasn't much to the view out the bus window. Before I knew it, I was woken up with a jolt at the US border and told to take everything off the bus for processing. My tired, sleep-filled eyes and dishevelled hair perfectly resembled my terrible passport photo, and following a string of probing questions and a random $6 fee to help pay down the government debt, I was let into the USA! Suckers...

We had a few more hours to go to Seattle, and past some beautiful snowy landscapes. The Pacific Northwest is heavily wooded and undulating. Unfortunately I won't bother posting any photos of it here as they aren't too clear and don't do it justice. If you haven't seen it in the news, North America has been experiencing unseasonable cold snaps (thanks Canada!) bringing snow quite far south. Only a few weeks prior, snow fell in Seattle and Portland bringing these unprepared cities to an almost complete standstill, save for a few snowboarders taking to Seattle's very steep downtown streets.

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The latest dumping of snow hadn't settled in Seattle and I was instead treated to a typical overcast and nipple-popping Seattle winter's day. Some very friendly gentleman stopped me in the street to help direct me to my hostel, which I took to be some friendly American hospitality. As I learned very quickly, everyone is out for a buck and sure enough, these retired veterans wanted me to buy them a sandwich. They actually walked me back to the station I had just come from and left with some pleasantries and my last ten Canadian dollars. I then jumped in a cab with a driver who managed to condense his extensive and varied life story within the 10 blocks to the hostel. He was your quintessential NOLA African-American (Christie you would have loved him!) and the very few things I could understand were followed by a deep chuckle. I laughed along too but basically had no clue what he was talking about.

I checked into the Green Tortoise Hostel which is very highly rated in America (but has NOTHING on the standard hostels of Europe). The eight bed room was occupied mostly by people attending the national writers' festival being held that week (bunch of weirdos!!!). A man from China had his laptop stolen from the common area which was quite unnerving, the poor guy losing all his files for the festival. The front door is left unlocked so anyone can walk in off the street and nab some poor unsuspecting person's belongings. On a plus side, I met two Aussies in my room who are on a similar but much smaller sojourn of the US and Canada who I'll be meeting up and staying with in Austin for SXSW (seeing as the accomm I booked through airbnb was actually a car space and therefore not ideal). Two little walking tours were run out of the hostel by Jake, a boy-next-door toothy grinned overly enthusiastic American we've all come to know and find incredibly condescending from American movies. In actual fact, he was genuine, informative, passionate and friendly, having developed the Seattle Walking Tours from his time in Europe and SE Asia.

The first tour I did was of downtown, starting just near the Pike Place Markets. Demolition of the markets was muted throughout the 20th century to make way for a car park as was the case with most historical districts. Thankfully, a little bit of foresight from Victor Steinbrueck and a petition to the city council saved the markets, to become one of Seattle's best treasures, loved by locals and tourists. Anyway, a bit on that later. As the heading suggests, I found Seattle to be very similar to Vancouver: in climate, landscape, cityscape and people. The skyline is quite impressive, with the Columbia Centre, the Smith Tower and of course, the Space Needle just some of the landmarks in the sky. However, it is the Puget Sound, Mt Rainier (a dormant volcano past its expected popping state), the Cascades and Olympic Mountain Ranges that make this area so impressive. While Seattle is very car dependent and the downtown ringed by motorways, they are doing a lot to make the centre walk and cycle friendly. There is a plan to bury the waterfront motorway (more monstrous than the Cahill Expressway at Circular Quay) and expand the pedestrian and entertainment areas on the water. What a novel idea. The waterfront area is characterised by the ferry terminal, serving the biggest ferry system in North America, as well as some seafood restaurants and tacky tourist shops. A pier serves as one of the strangest public parks I've seen, with a beautiful view of the Sound and the mountains and the skyline behind it, however so desolate of any furniture and greenery save for a table tennis table that is useless in this windy city.

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We were taken around some of Jake's favourite haunts and educated on the generous happy hour(s) on offer, stretching between 3pm and midnight, with the 'unhappy' hours between 7pm and 9pm. Word of warning: whereas in Australia you can save money by buying take-out rather than sitting at a table, happy hour meals are NOT eligible for take-out. Special shout-out to the douchebag bar tender who didn't tell me this and charged me full price on a shitty burger and oily chips. No tip for him or for the less than understanding maitre'd. Anyway, some other cool aspects of the city were the underground tunnels and basements, remnants of the original sidewalks and shopfronts when the city was raised one storey to overcome the tide of the Sound. "I don't like the level of this city, let's raise it one storey!" They are mostly just basements now, in some cases converted to bars and cafes, but formally housed less savoury individuals and their various trades. Skylights in the sidewalks provide light to these areas and are the purple glass squares found all over. Skid Row, the infamous sections of cities known for their scummy, tawdry and scammy, is named after Yesler Street, which is where the loggers would send their wares 'skidding' down to the docks. Like any timber or mining town in the good old days, the high male to female ratio (14:1) brought brothels, saloons and general nogooders. Pioneer Park and the surrounding district, to the south of downtown, is similar to Gastown in Vancouver however I wouldn't recommend going down at night unless you were going to the stadiums (go Seahawks woo!) or to the infamous 88 keys piano dueling bar (no I didn't go, but I know there are some in San Fran which I shall check out).

Pike Place Market was the second tour also conducted by Jake and explored the fascinating food and history of this very special place. The original Starbucks (originally called Pequod, with numerous Moby Dick references) resides here, still with manual coffee presses and the boobilicious siren as its symbol (calling innocent people to their death?). It wasn't so busy the day I went, but I don't drink coffee so wasn't fussed. They have fish throwers who, well, throw fish, an efficient way in which to get stock from the docks up to the shop. They've got fruiterers, delis, homewares, puppet makers (lets call them Giupettos), button shops, and all other sorts. Some other cool points are the fact that the temporary stalls must be manned at least two days a week by the producer, and only wears made by the stall may be sold, harking back to the markets original use. Oh if only Paddy's was as useful! To help fund the restoration of the main market building, locals were asked to purchase a tile. The two photos I have are from Bill Gates III and the Heaven's Gate suicide group, the date being that of Haley's Comet. Probably my favourite part of the whole markets is something you can't buy or take from (well you can, but its not recommended) but which you are encouraged to contribute to: the Gum Wall. The story goes, that people entering the Market Theatre (now famous for stand up comedy) were told to spit out their gum so as to avoid gum being stuck to the bottom of chairs and the floors. So some geniuses started sticking it to the walls with a penny for a tip. As the homeless started taking the pennies, the wall was left with gum, and the tradition has stuck ever since (puntastic!).

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Speaking of homelessness, Seattle seems to be a real drawcard for the homeless and desperate. It may have something to do with Seattle's liberal politics (legalising gay marriage and marijuana last year), but every street corner seems to have beggars and prostitutes, concentrated around the markets. While some of them can be really funny (one sign said "Bitch please" which I know Tim, CJ, Paul and Sonya will appreciate) it was really confronting. You can't help but feel incredibly sorry for these people, particularly with the cold weather bearing down most of the time, but if you were to help everyone you'd end up right where they are. In my next blog about Portland I'll mention this story about some homeless people taking over an empty lot in the old town that is drawing a lot of rancour from the city but helping address their plight.

Now for the fun stuff! I very fortunately met Sean in Vancouver while he had some time off from the Navy for his birthday, and met up with him for his real birthday the night I arrived. After some complementary beer in his hotel lobby (great idea), Sean, his mate Brandon and myself set off for a night of drinks and mischief. We hit up Rachel's for some Moscow mule's using their signature ginger beer (delish, I had the blood orange flavour) before scooting on up to Capital Hill. Side note, it doesn't seem like there are very strict requirements for toilets in restaurants and bars, as I found out when nature called and I had to dash into a swanky hotel and casually avoid the reception. We had dinner at Paquito's, a Mexican restaurant that shames anything I've had in Australia. My meal looked like two hamburgers in a soup but man was it good, as were the drinks! Then we all toddled off to a few bars whose names I don't remember, where every bartender told me how sexy my accent was in hopeful exchange for a tip, which I of course obliged (nothing about my face or personality though, shallow pricks). I engaged in some banter with Sean and Brandon about American politics, giving them an outsiders perspective that for the most part they did not find at all enlightening or enlightened. Then we moved onto all kinds of banter that surrounded me as an Australian drinking them under the table. And I will say that I did the country proud, those piss weak Yanks can get back to their buds (all true). Oh, they play miniature shuffleboard in bars there! Its like curling, highlarious!

I spent the next day with Sean wandering around the city, walking up to the Space Needle and the home of the 1962 World's Fair. Avoiding the silly cost to go to the observation deck, we walked around and looked at the Experience Music Project building designed by Frank Gehry (of Guggenheim Bilbao and UTS' crumbled bag fame). I didn't go inside, but the exterior is just stunning. Again, my photos don't do it justice but they're below regardless. There is a museum beside it dedicated to Chihuly who is a glass artist (that it appears most Seattleites don't particularly like). There were more from his art school exhibited in the Seattle Art Museum which was for the most part pretty wanky but you can still appreciate the craftsmenship. We then checked out the Olympic Sculpture Park (Emma Finnegan you'll appreciate this, if you've bothered to read this). Emma and I went to a talk at UNSW hosted by the architects of this project, and while at face value it doesn't seem so significant, it really is an engineering genius. It was built over the Alaskan Way, a busy motorway, as well as a busy railroad, and occupies formerly contaminated land. Overcoming all that, the park is a really tranquil space with enormous modern artwork and open space, a cafe and beautiful views over the Sound and out to Mt Rainier. Sean unfortunately had to head home and I didn't see him for the rest of my time in Seattle.

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My last day in Seattle was pretty quiet, which involved checking out the Seattle Art Museum which was, so so. The highlight was an exhibition about the plight of a town in Pennsylvania polluted by a steel mill and the steady decline in population and health of its residents, and a more whimsical installation of cars flying through the air. I also had some pretty average food, and then decided to head out to Neighbours, a gay club up at Capital Hill. Thank god I did! I met two amazing women, Eileen and Megan. These women took me under their wing, introduced me to some more fantastic people and, well, we had a ball! Eileen and Megan are two of my favourite people I've met on this trip and it is such a shame I left Seattle the next day. But who knows, I might hopefully see them soon! I also had the pleasure of meeting two You-Dub (University of Washington) students, Michael from farmland Washington (so many cliches brought out) and Louise from Sweden who is one of the most incidentally well travelled people I've met, but sadly without a strong Swedish accent. These youngens were down in the underage section, away from the evils of alcohol. But I couldn't resist a dance with them following Louise's less than subtle attempts at getting Michael to come and say hi to me. It was the poor boy's first time in a gay club (picture Gumby, dancing in slow motion on hot coals). After a bit of a snog, then an argument with the bartender who informed me that water is not free at the bar (!!!!????) we left and went to IHOP for a breakfast that was made all the better for our classic African American waiter who seated us in the "Vee-AYE-Pee" section and told us to "come all back, yu-huh!". For some unknown reason, it was decided that I accompany Louise and Michael back to you-dub and introduce Michael to the wonderful comedic genius of Flying High. Unfortunately the movie wasn't available so we snuggled in his single dorm room bed for the night instead (oh memories of uni!).

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I then had the pleasure of heading back to the hostel to quickly pack my gear and head out for a coffee with Charles, a true die-hard Aussie fan I met on that most innocent and innocuous of gay social network sites. Charles came to visit in Portland that weekend for a romping good time, stay tuned!

Other random things to remember: pot smoke everywhere! Free view of the city from the Starbucks on the 40th floor of the Columbia Centre. Petra Franklin has lived in the gorgeous penthouse of the Smith Tower and has done for over 20 years. Seattle is named after the local Chieftan whose actual name is Chief Si'ahl, who tried cooperating with the pioneers only to of course be screwed over incredibly like all other native American tribes - "Now is the end of living and the beginning of surviving". Great bread from Piroshki Piroshki, delish!

And that kidlets is where I will leave you. I am playing catch ups with the blog at the moment so Portlandia adventures will come soon. In summation, while it is commonly understood that Seattle is a funny word, it is a great city with a beautiful environment, great food and nightlife, generally friendly and hospitable people, a liberal agenda which of course is always a win (poke, Sean) and you can't forget the Space Needle. I mean, I wish every city had a Space Needle. Like Vancouver, its a city I could see myself living in one day. Next up, Portlandia! Ciao x

P.S. I'm remembering how difficult it is to meet all these great people while traveling, then having the next little adventure tearing you away. Sean sent me the sweetest message, saying if I lived in Seattle he'd ask me out as much as he could. You're so sweet Sean and, even though you're a Republican, I'd have said yes every time. I know you've read right to the bottom, so just letting you know, I feel more than a little sad having left Seattle and you behind. Well if only things were different.

Posted by dzabell 07:40 Archived in USA Tagged seattle Comments (0)

Oh how very Vancouver of you!

The rest of Canada and the USA has a lot to live up to!

snow 1 °C
View 2014 Adventure on dzabell's travel map.

Hi there everyone

I've managed to pull myself away from Vancouver and am sitting in the Green Tortoise Hostel in Seattle. The two cities are only a three hour bus ride apart and are very similar. So before I move onto my next city and memories from the two become all mushed up, I'll jot down all the mischief and mayhem I got up to in Vancouver.

Quick history of Vancouver

Vancouver is the biggest city in British Columbia, on the west/Pacific coast of Canada. Confusingly, the capital, Victoria, is on Vancouver Island, a few hours ferry ride across the Strait of Georgia. Vancouver was inhabited by several first nations tribes such as the Squamish for tens of thousands of years, subsisting off the plentiful environment. The first Europeans to arrive were Spanish, who decided to occupy territories to the south in California while the English, led by Capitain Vancouver (previously first mate to Captain Cook) set up a small colony in present day Vancouver. The opening of the trans-Canadian railroad, a successful attempt at impeding annexation by the USA, led to the development of the beautiful port and timber and fishing industries. Vancouver has over the years had its ups and downs, with legacies of grand and ornate buildings from the 1850s gold rushes, 1920s boom times, one of the largest intact Chinatowns in North America, southern and eastern European communities in Strathcona. Now it is experiencing huge population increases with tourism, high-tech industries and exports its mainstay, whilst managing to remain one of the most livable cities in the world (affordability is growing issue though). I stayed in the West End, just by downtown which is Vancouver's gay district (what a coincidence!), which adjoins Stanley Park (roughly 10% larger than Central Park). Formally a naval base, Stanley Park has been dedicated to the people of Vancouver. There are a lot of totem poles from the Squamish there, as the island once was a sacred site for the nation's dead (they used to put the bodies in the trees). Some other fun areas are Gastown, named after a publican Gassy Jack, which has been revitalised/gentrified with some cool bars and clubs, and the waterfront which played a big role during the World Expo '86 and the Winter Olympics. Granville Island is a former industrial area just next to the west end that has been reclaimed for artists and fantastic markets. Vancouver has the world's only platinum LEEDS neighbourhood, formally the Olympic Village.

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ANYWAY!

Good times, great classic hits

I love staying in hostels, as it's the best way of meeting people, and usually the better ones will run tours and pub crawls. Shout out to Alisha, Zach and Tom who were staying at the Hostel International downtown with me, and to Andrew who came on a few tours visiting from Edmonton.

Tuesday, when I arrived, was typically cold and miserable for the most part, so I didn't accomplish too much. We did stumble around and find some nice bars down in Gastown in the afternoon when it cleared up, which I returned to too many times during the week. The hostel organised a tour of Granville Island on the Wednesday with our local volunteer and die-hard Vancouverite Maeve, which began with a cute ferry ride across False Creek. Isn't this ferry cute? It can only hold 12 people at a time, and the driver is happy to let it chug along without steering while he collects the tickets.

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Granville Island is home to reused industrial buildings holding theatres, food and artists markets, galleries and workshops, boat yards, a brewery, a distillery and a restaurant known as Sandbar (Friday night is cougar night for all the toy boys out there). One thing we Australians freak out over on Granville Island is the size of the seagulls. But they are ridiculously huge! And menacing too. If you walk out of the markets with anything even resembling food, you will be swarmed as one poor Asian tourist discovered. On Friday night a group of us went to a theatre sports club and saw some hilarious improv. Colin Mochrie and Ryan Stiles have both performed there and apparently the Whose Line is it Anyway? cast made an appearance on Saturday dagnammit.

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After Granville Island, a group of us had a few bevies in Gastown at the Pourhouse (meh) and the Alibi Room (fantastic!). I ordered a sour beer which the hostess told me tasted like vinegar. She wasn't far off. Zach and I hit up Davie Street for the first time afterwards, where things got messy. I kept poor Zach out till close at 1am the night before he was due to go bungy jumping at Whistler, and just as we were about to walk home, we got invited to a house party out in East Vancouver. The building manager took us and roughly 15 other people to an empty apartment where wine was cracked open to celebrate an engagement by one of the guys at the party. With Zach passing out and people talking about getting blow to keep the party going (as well as some really uncomfortable moments where someone tried to follow me into the bathroom then try to pull me into a bedroom when I came out) we decided it was finally time to leave. Cut to the next morning/afternoon and I wake up in a random apartment somewhere on the opposite side of the West End. Thankfully, it was near the community gym I had visited that day so I casually (read: shamefully) made my way back to the hostel. Poor Zach made it to Whistler in time to throw himself off a bridge. WITH the rope tied to his waist.

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I took a bike tour around Stanley Park on Thursday and was blessed with sunshine and only a light breeze. Still effing cold though, and I spent a good portion of the ride wondering why the hell I thought fingerless gloves were a good purchase. But when we rode out around the harbour, I fell in love with the scenery, the three imposing figures of Mts Seymour, Grouse and Cypress (host of the 2010 Winter Olympics) framing the gorgeous harbour and the skylines of downtown, North and West Vancouver. It was enough to cure the raging hangover I was experiencing from the previous night. I recommend anyone who is visiting Vancouver to jump on a bike and ride Stanley Park, it is absolutely inspiring and stunning.

Vancouver's multiculturalism creates a great food experience with a diverse offering. Although, when on a budget, you gotta find cheap. Capital on Davie does $4.95 meals that are actually delicious, so of course I basically took up residency. The hostel had kitchen facilities as well so yes Mum I did make my own meals on occasion. Bacon eggs and salad for brekkie and salad and chicken for dinner. I'm determined to avoid Thai restaurants and thus disappointment as everyone knows that Australia has the best Thai food. On a walking tour of Chinatown with a free walking tour company called Tourguys (highly recommended, the tour guides are enthusiastic, knowledgeable and generous) I had the most delicious steamed pork buns.

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One of the best things about walking tours over say bus tours is the intimate experience with the city. Vancouver has a really interesting history and some fantastic architecture. Gastown is built in a Roman Revival style and has a great fusion of North American and European styles. Some other notable buildings are the Shangri La (the building exceeds the forty storey height limit after negotiating to restore the little church on the site, and therefore transferring the air space above the church onto their building. Cheeky!), the Convention Centre, the Marine Building (one of the world's best Deco buildings), the Vancouver Hotel, floating homes on Granville Island and a whole heap of others (see my Facebook for photos). The HSBC lobby is designated public space, like a park, even though it is inside. This great artwork called the pendulum hangs in the lobby, with other local artists able to exhibit their work there. Vancouver's mayor is very progressive (he DJs on weekends) and has brought about huge change to Vancouver, including bike lanes, attempting to make Vancouver the greenest city in the world by 2020. Apparently they have some way to go, and a new oil pipeline from BC to Alberta is causing a lot of anger in the environmental community, with an increase from 6 to 36 oil ships in Vancouver harbour likely to occur (although this is outside the Mayor's control).

Hedonism

My last story for those that have made it this far is full of horrendous debauchery, although thankfully I can say that I didn't participate in any of it (as I know you're all not surprised about). Following the theatre sports, our little group met up at Alibi Room for some standard bevies. Drink after drink arrived (at one point I forgot I had already ordered one so had two sitting in front of me. Oopsies) which finally led everyone home. Except myself and another individual who for the purposes of avoiding shame and embarrassment we shall refer to as Danger Mouse. I decided that Danger Mouse, a straight boy in a monogamous relationship, and I should kick on while everyone else piked.

So we hit up Davie Street, Numbers to be precise, and for some stupid reason decided more drinking was a good idea. I generously off-handed one to the coat check guy who was very grateful but slightly confused. We then proceeded upstairs where I chatted to some of the bar staff I'd met a few nights before, leaving poor Danger Mouse to his own volition. After an awkward hello/goodbye to one of the African American guys I'd met on Wednesday night, Danger Mouse decided that there and then was the perfect time to engage in some, experimentation. No more than a minute after re-engaging with the bar staff for a chat, Danger Mouse is macking on with (I think his name was) Troy. Being the honorable guy that I am, I let him indulge until he seemingly came to his senses and managed to escape Troy's arms. He decided that we should leave to avoid embarrassment, but kick on to another bar; however while outside deciding where to go we started chatting to some local guys, one of them having divulged that he had First Nations heritage which I found interesting. That cold night air hit Danger Mouse's already weakened inhibitions who loudly proclaimed "I don't like First Nations people", leading to me holding both of them back to avoid fistycuffs.

Before I knew it, Danger Mouse was jumping into a cab with two new guys and calling me over. Against my better judgement, thinking I had some responsibility for Danger Mouse's wellbeing, I followed. Thankfully, the guys in the cab, Skip and Howard, were two very friendly gentlemen and informed me that we were going to a house party, at Howard's apartment. Howard lives in a split level penthouse apartment with a roof terrace, with a BBQ, hot tub, garden, outdoor wok station and two sinks. Who needs two sinks on their roof terrace!? That's what Skip asked me anyway. Eventually a group consisting of five straight guys and one woman (referring to herself as the token vagina) arrived. Howard promptly announced that it was a no pants party and so everyone shucked their trousers and jeans (while Danger Mouse ripped mine off me, I managed to get them back on pretty quickly. I don't do no pants parties).

Then the blow came out. Apparently it is about a quarter the price compared to Australia and it was being very freely taken off the kitchen tables. I don't do drugs so I stayed sober while Danger Mouse became the life of the party. By the end of the night I learned that Howard had groomed most of these straight guys into being his little play things coaxing them with coke. As I got more and more uncomfortable, I realised that Danger Mouse had disappeared, as had Skip. It wasn't until Howard loudly proclaimed "your so-called straight friend is fucking my boyfriend" that I realised it was probably time to leave. I waited to make sure Danger Mouse was ok, which he was although the coke was helping propel him into a pretty extreme existential crisis, and so I left roughly around 7.00am. I text Danger Mouse that day to make sure he had gotten home safely, to find out he stayed all day! Apparently Howard was ok with Skip and Danger Mouse's indiscretions. I then informed Danger Mouse that I could not keep his secret and proceeded to tell all our friends in the hostel *sorry!*

So ended my ridiculous adventure, and this installment of my travel blog. While there were some crazy moments, I really fell for the city. It is diverse, it is progressive, it is irreverent yet it is inviting. It is beautiful both naturally and in its buildings. There was snow the last few days I was there and it just added to the magic of the place. I could definitely see myself living there in the future, and I didn't even get out to Whistler or Vancouver Island which are apparently stunning too. If you find yourself anywhere around the north-west of the US make sure you take the time to get to Vancouver. But be careful when you agree to get into a random cab...

My next entry will be about Seattle which I am really enjoying. Especially with the help of the very kind and generous Sean who I met in Vancouver. Thanks Sean! Ciao for now.

Posted by dzabell 18:41 Archived in Canada Tagged vancouver Comments (1)

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