Tuesday, 25 November 2014

NYC --> Montreal

I had been sick for long enough that I was worried.  Even at my worst I normally catch a bug for 2-3 days at a time and then recover, and this had been going on for more than a week.

Even though I had medical insurance I decided to wait until I was in Canada to access health care.  God forbid my insurer decided there was some exceptional reason to deny my claim and I find myself on the hook for thousands of dollars of tests.  In one more day that possibility would evaporate.

The pain and nausea were still fairly intense as I rode the Amtrak train to Montreal.  As soon as I could, I decided to go find a doctor in Canada.

NYC (and when it is bad...)

This happened concurrently with my last post.  This was happening at the same time as all that other stuff.

I was still sick.  I woke up functional but in pain at around 5am. When I went into the living room, the couch had been put back and someone was sleeping on it. I went outside, pre-sunrise, and sat barely within wifi range thinking about how I could make this work, and decided just to walk back towards the subway station in the search for functional wifi that wouldn't involve the hostel. I was in a cold sweat and dazed but at least I was only carrying a small backpack – I left the big pack at the hostel, a simultaneous source of relief (less physical burden) and stress (it might get stolen). The theft risk was mitigated by the fact that there were mostly only clothes – valuables were all in my small pack. Sick people don't make the best decisions.

I ended up in a Starbucks in Manhattan. There were no shops or services in between where I was staying and that Starbucks, none that I could find anyways. I thought “they'll have to have wifi.” No appetite, a cup of chai tea, some dedicated time and attention searching AirBNB, Couchsurfing and Priceline for alternate accommodation... trying to download a map of Manhattan so that I could get vaguely oriented... I tried to cram a lot into that 2 hours of laptop battery. I got a few other things accomplished but I couldn't find a better place to stay that I could afford, or that would give me access to Manhattan. People in pain don't make the best decisions.

So I started walking. My friend in New York, one of the central reasons I had added NY to my itinerary, lives in the downtown section of Manhattan and was going to be free in the evening. I had a whole day to kill in the Big Apple and it was only about 9am (since I woke up so early). I walked up Fashion Ave taking note of the deathly thin women and men, the many students with scroll cases full of fashion drawings... and the nausea. The increasing sensation of pain beginning in the upper part of my guts and winding its way down slowly. I felt as if I had the body and soul of an old man, a bottle of hot sauce broken open inside of my chest, the capsacin running in rivulets across my intestines. I walked a few blocks and sat on a bench. I walked a few more blocks and stopped for awhile. I walked a few more blocks and sat on the grass in Central Park. I walked through the park a little bit and sat on a different patch of grass. It took 5 hours for me to travel from Penn Station to the Museum of Anthropology on the West side of Central Park, a walk that Google Maps says should take about 45 minutes. 

In the MOA, walking around and taking in all of the history and humanity, I could only really think about keeping track of the closest washroom and trying not to throw up on an exhibit.

Lovely masks.  May I vomit on them?

Having lived through chronic illness, as an adult now whenever I get sick there's a little bit of very intense fear that whatever sickness comes to visit me is more than just a visitor. I remember when I got sick once and instead of just passing through, it made itself an unwelcome guest for 15 years. Those scars still hurt when something touches them that closely. I sat on the front steps of the New York Museum of Anthropology and wept like a scared 30-year-old. It took me a few minutes to pull myself together again.

I barely visited with my New York friend at all. I went back to the hostel and, for various reasons, couldn't sleep until 2 in the morning. When I did sleep it was fitful. I barely functioned the next day, making it out of the hostel just long enough to get lunch and nearly fall asleep into a cup of tea. My friend sent me back to get some rest and I slept from 3 in the afternoon until 9 the next morning, tossing and turning and sweating. I must've needed the rest.

It feels like there's some significance to the fact that I had this happen so soon after leaving Lawrence. After touching the memories of being sick all the time, I had this little tactile reminder. This time, I got better. I got some time in NY. 

The light side, what I already posted, is the version that chronically ill people normally let you see. The part that's visible.

There are no external symptoms when people go through an experience like that. That kudzu vine can grow rampant and it doesn't leave marks on the outside. If you know anyone who has a chronic illness, if you love anyone who's sick in a way that doesn't make sense, reflect on the fact that both this post and the one that came before it are about the same day, the same experience, the same time in New York. Both the good and the difficult were real experiences riding alongside each other.

Monday, 24 November 2014

NYC (When it is good it is very, very good...)

Both this and my next post refer to the exact same period of time... for the record.

Penn Station was a natural place to grab breakfast on my way into Manhattan, so I stopped and had an iced coffee and a scone and watched the throngs of humanity go through.  That station is the busiest train station in the United States, and it shows.  People watching was unparallelled.

I skipped the tours and tourist attractions and just walked around.  I nursed a chai from Starbucks and wandered gradually up towards Central Park.  It was cold and I didn't have a sweater on hand, so I bought a cheap (and awesome) one from one of the vendors on Fashion Ave while I watched camera-friendly stick figure people walking up and down the road flanked by students with tubes full of design drawings slung over their shoulders.

There's a friend of mine, someone I've known for more than half my life who's been a friend and confidante for ages.  Saying we've been through some inter-personal ups and downs understates things mildly, and despite her incredibly busy New York lifestyle she managed to find time to have lunch with me one day and set aside almost an entire day for me the next.
New York, and Central Park

We went to Momofuku.  If you don't know about Momofuku, you really should probably find out about Momofuku (link) and then do something like make a trip to Manhattan just so that you can eat there.  Ramen traditionally is the domain of broke college students and instant noodles, but when you turn a world-class chef like David Chang loose on them it turns into the sort of noodle bar that can hold its own against the incredible diversity of food in Manhattan.

Then we went to a place that has one of the most beautiful views I've ever had the good fortune to experience.

This is me, looking out the window of the Mandarin Hotel.  You can just barely see the edges of the little plates and pots of jam that accompanied high tea at the mandarin.

I skipped the food photography.  Aside from the waiter getting me the wrong tea, it was as close to perfect as any afternoon tea I've ever tried.  The Earl Gray was phenomenal and complex, and whoever curated the menu absolutely had their head on straight.

It's such an incredible privilege being able to do things like this.  I was 36 floors up in the air drinking some of the best tea in the world, eating some of the best pastries in the world,  spending time with an incredibly dear friend. 

We walked around Manhattan, I had dinner with her and her husband, I even got a chance to meet her daughter and a few of their playmates before I left town.  Manhattan was beautiful, and is absolutely a place that offers experiences that are available only in Manhattan.  I was lucky to be able to work a few of them in.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Brooklyn, the Gateway to Manhattan

This post contains swearing.  If that's a problem for you, don't read it.  There are times when profanity is the only way to properly communicate something.

I arrive at Penn Station in New York in the afternoon.  I'm travelling with a large hiking pack, so the sane thing to do seemed to be going directly to the hostel and setting it down before trying to strike out into Manhattan.  There's no space in those city streets for a hiking pack.  I took the train to Brooklyn, and walked about 15 minutes downhill, under the freeway, into an area of town that looked rough.  When I arrived to the Pacific Lofts hostel, I saw this.

This building is the Pacific Lofts Hostel.  The reason you don't see a sign on the front saying “Pacific Lofts Hostel” is because the man who runs the hostel takes the sign down during the day to discourage anyone from reporting an illegal boarding house and getting him shut down.  The sign, when it was on the door, was this one:

  I felt reluctant as soon as I laid eyes on the place.  It looked cracked and broken and a little bit dangerous.  The sign may as well have read “we don't give a shit about your comfort” and the flaked paint, cracked brickwork and uneven steps may as well have been another sign saying “no one gives a shit about this house either.”

Welcome to Brooklyn, asshole.

I was sick.  It was late afternoon.  This place had online reviews that made it sound like it was workable and had been operating as a hostel for awhile and I thought I'd give it a chance.  All I wanted was a bed and a place to store my stuff that was within semi-easy reach of Manhattan.  Warm reception aside, this hostel was still offering me exactly what I was after.

So.  I was shown into the downstairs space.  The door frame had warped to a point where the door barely fit anymore, and when it pushed open this place said hello.

Hope you enjoy your stay.

When I wrote in my journal about it, my exact words were:

"This hostel is sketchy mc. sketchville, served with a side of sketchy with a decent lug of house made sketch sauce."  I stand by those words.

The landlord had been digging up the cheap, press-on laminate in the living room while guests were staying in the hostel.  The couch, TV, cleaning products, mortar mix, buckets, brooms, shovels, fans, personal junk, lysol, spray-starch and a bunch of unrecognizable garbage that couldn't possibly have belonged to guests were...  well... here.

Next to the fridge, there was the cooking area.

Off-camera, there was a single pan.  The technique to cooking with this single pan was first to remove the microwave from the stove, and then line the pan with tinfoil and put it on the burner (where the microwave used to be).  The kitchen didn't have a sink so you would have to throw out the tinfoil afterwards rather than wash the pan.

That way the pan wouldn't get dirty and other people could use it, of course.

Necessity really must be the mother of invention.

Pardon the mess, he says, we're just replacing the flooring.  He didn't add that this decision had been made while the hostel was full.

The dorms were just behind the last door and weren't a lot better. No air circulated in the basement space.  Something that looked a lot like mold was on the baseboards.  The guy running the hostel didn't check my ID or make sure I wasn't a NY resident (which you're legally required to do if you run a hostel in NY).  He had lost his phone so he didn't have a chance to charge me for my stay at first.  I got to sit and think about it for awhile.

Making decisions while you're sick as a dog is more challenging than making decisions when you're feeling well.  The calculus works differently.  The factors involved in “should I find another place to stay” are more complicated.  Could I find wifi, find another place to stay within a reasonably comparable price range, get to that place to stay and avoid getting into an argument with the operator of this hostel, and do it all without degenerating into a vomitous mass of Jonathan?  Probably, probably, probably, probably and probably not... in that order.  Travel while sick is more complicated than travel while not sick.  I just stayed the night, stale damp air and all, hoping that the next morning I would have a few more personal resources to bring to bear. 

Friday, 21 November 2014

Sorry DC, but I'm on my way out

There was a moment in DC when I walked out of the hostel to explore, made it about three blocks and almost collapsed from fatigue, nausea and gut pain.  Food poisoning had hit me pretty hard.  I limped into a coffee shop and sat in a comfortable chair until the worst of it went past.  24 hours later and the food poisoning (or whatever it was) still hit me hard.

I was still so sick the day that I left DC that I meant to go to several museums - the Smithsonian, the aerospace museum, DC is full of fascinating things and I wanted to see some of them.  Nausea and pain were not cooperating with this plan.  I took two steps into the US Postage museum because it was the closest one to the hostel, and then when I had no interest at all in its contents I limped to the museum of art (the next closest, which I also had no interest in).

In the end, I just got onto a train and left DC.  Getting sick stole that experience. To get it back, I'll need to go back to DC.

6 hours on the train seemed easy.  Next stop, New York City.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

I wonder if I could eat that without getting arrested...

In addition to many buildings being strange, spooky, looming edifices that look designed to project power to the humble, ant-like pedestrians below...

there are also some oddities.

Outside the US Department of Agriculture, within reach of the sidewalk, there are a few rows of corn.  Chalk that up among the things I didn't expect to see wandering the nation's capital.

The pictures that everyone takes

I spent most of a day laying in bed.  I hadn't slept very much because of the nausea and the pain, although thankfully I wasn't making any mess.  Around 3 or 4 in the afternoon I felt well enough to stand up and walk around a little bit, and I kept saying to myself... I've only got 1 more day in DC.  No matter how I feel, I have to get out there and look around.

Once I got going it was dusk - late enough that all of the museums I might be interested in were closed already.  I went to view the monuments that I had missed the day prior.  My bike ride was disoriented and feverish on account of the fact that I was disoriented and feverish. 

The Lincoln Memorial was so still, so quiet and so revered by the people inside that it felt as ceremonial as any church that I've ever attended.  I have to say, again, I can appreciate the symbolic power of devoting so much space and energy to these values literally in the heart of power.

These pictures seem obligatory for anyone who went to DC.  I'm not adding anything new or artistic to the world with these images, but they're special because *I* took them with my own camera in this place.  The feeling in the air of that monument is an odd mix of electricity, meaning and profundity.  Words don't do it justice.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

DC, Bicycles, and the EULA

In DC there's this interesting bike sharing thing.  You rent a bike at a kiosk, you bike around, you stash it at any of about a hundred other similar kiosks around town.  It's sort of like Car2Go only for bicycles.

Page 2 of how many?

It is also a perfect example of how no one reads End User License Agreements (link) - there were 137 pages of monochrome text in the contract I had to agree to.  Do you think I read them all?  Do you think anyone reads them all?

Hostels, and the pubs that surround them

At night, at the DC hostel, they give out free beer.  It encourages people to mix and get to know each other, and it's just... kind of fun.  A dozen people were in the common spaces and we talked and spent time and it was good.  A random Swede named Stephan was tooling around drunk and stoned and trying to push his intoxicants on the other guests.  He was far enough gone that he gave me his tequila and asked me to hide it until tomorrow so that he wouldn't drink any more of it.  Apparently he also started to get naked at a certain point, which from what I gather isn't that weird for Swedish people.  It just freaked out the other guests.

Stephan, if you ever read this, I'm sorry I never got a chance to give you back your tequila before the staff evicted you from the hostel.  If it's any consolation I really enjoyed it once I realized you weren't coming back.

As things wound down I went a couple doors down the street with two of the other people in the hostel and got a beer and some pub food and I realized that talking with strangers is one of my favourite things ever.  I was also a little bit fragile from my time in New Orleans.  The pub had a themed event - a screening of the Fifth Element, with themed dishes around the 4 elements.  I tried a beer, plus "fire" and "earth."  It seemed safe at the time.  The restaurant was one that gave none of the indicators of being unsafe but I'm pretty sure I got food poisoning.  I started to get really, really sick.

Monday, 17 November 2014

The Values of the United States, Carved in Stone

In Washington DC, I stayed at what is so far the very best accommodations of the trip - even better than the stunningly beautiful hotel space in the French Quarter.  It was called very simply "the Downtown DC Hostel" (link) and was cheap, clean, friendly and lovely.  I stashed my bags and set out.

I realized that Washington DC is imposing.  My personal belief is that the architects that design the buildings in DC focus on making them look like imposing extensions of power and dominance.  The buildings in the downtown area rely on width rather than height to create a sense of really heavy presence - it feels like someone has dropped gigantic, artful bricks into the dirt and then hollowed them out to make buildings.  Rather than the artful spire of a high rise, these buildings are relatively low to the ground and just *feel* huge.

I was born an American citizen and spent a good dose of my childhood tearing around a ranch in the desert in the States.  I also have pretty deep Canadian roots, so I was surprised to feel a little bit of strange American national pride creeping in as I walked through the monuments in the USA.

Carved in stone as a good example, in Washington DC

The values of the United States as presented in these two memorials are something I can really get behind.  In the Jefferson memorial - men (people) are created equal.  They have inalienable rights.  Governments are instituted to secure these inalienable rights among men (people).  Or from the FDR memorial, "we must scrupulously guard the civil rights and civil liberties of all citizens, whatever their background.  We must remember that any oppression, any injustice, any hatred, is a wedge designed to attack our civilization."

It's sometimes difficult to find people in Canada who can relate to this... but reflecting on how those two ideas are/were foundational to the creation of the United States of America as it is today made me really proud to be American.  The USA is involved in some international activities that I'm pretty uncomfortable with, and the way that the US exercised its values on Native Americans when the country was being formed should give any informed person pause... and even still I can appreciate the symbolic power of devoting so much space and energy to these values literally in the heart of power, in the centre of this country.  It gives me hope, and it encourages me to exercise the responsibilities of American citizenship in a good way.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

There's a Word Missing

The District of Columbia will get its time in the sun.  First things first though...

What's Wrong With This Picture?

In case you need to be pointed in the right direction on this one, you might want to look into the origins of the quote at the bottom of the license plate.

None of the people I talked to in DC had a clue why this was on all of their license plates.

My cousin, upon hearing this quote (and its omission), laughed... and then didn't believe it... and then looked sad and said "yeah."

After actually reading the Wikipedia page that I just linked, the omission is deliberate and has specific origins.
The District of Columbia (DC) pays Federal taxes but doesn't have representation at the Federal level.  The DMV in DC added this to the license plates that it printed to acknowledge that, and to protest it.

So, literally, people in DC feel that they pay Federal taxes without representation.  That's what that's about... rather than a blunt nod towards power imbalance, or something silly like that.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Grand Designs, Part 3 (Before the Fall)

Next stop was walking along a street that looked like this...

In order to get myself in contact with a bottle that looked like this.

If you try this, and Denise is your bartender, tell her I say hello.
Absinthe is a vice of mine.  I've tried every type that I've been able to lay hands on so far, from the B.C. made Taboo absinthe to generic Lucid, bottles who's labels I couldn't fully read, and eventually my very favourite bottle in the whole world so far, Vieux Pontarlier (link).  I likes me some absinthe.  Pirate's Alley had a bottle custom made for New Orleans and imported from France, so... that was something I pretty clearly had to try.

I'm... pretty sure she poured me a double.  Pouring someone a double is dangerous when the alcohol you're pouring is 120-proof (60%).  I stayed there for awhile and geeked out on absinthe with her, partly because it was fun and partly because if I'd tried to stand up I likely would've wobbled.  Remember... an hour before this I had just finished drinking 4 shots of rum.

My lovely bartender Denise suggested I hit karaoke at a local place later that night, gave me the coordinates, and sent me on my staggering happy way.  The hotel was 2 blocks away and when walking, I felt surprisingly steady.  I got back to the hotel, took the cigar and matches and rum out of my backpack, filled up a flask and went up onto the balcony.

Pride, as they say, always comes before the fall.

I lit the cigar and took a few pulls - I knew not to inhale into my lungs, but other than that it was the first cigar I've ever smoked (and only the 2nd nicotine product - I smoked part of one cigarette once about 3 years ago).  That cigar and that rum really, really, really paired well.  The jazz wafted up from a band playing in Jackson Square, and for a moment I felt like I had found the perfect expression of my time in New Orleans... happily tipsy, enjoying a luxury I never even considered before, sitting in ridiculously humid summer weather and listening to the notes of a city that knew what it looked like to just play for the sake of playing.

Feeling like a boss lasted about 10 minutes.

About 1/4 of the cigar went away - maybe 1/3rd.  The jazz paused, and I thought this was a good time to withdraw to the hotel room.  Maybe I'd take a nap before I went out to karaoke...


Nope.  Actually I'd get back to my hotel room and get violently, unpleasantly ill.  The nicotine, the absinthe, the rum, the coffee, the rich food, the fragility that comes with travelling to new places, the heat, the humidity, some shell of health I was surrounded by cracked, and the pressure of all my recent lifestyle choices flooded in all at once.  I purged until I was empty.  I realized that the smell of cigar smoke had absolutely permeated all of the clothes I was wearing and washed them each several times in the sink, with a generous helping of soap (to no avail).  I hung them to try and then laid down in misery, and tried to sleep.

Hours later I went out to get food and fought nausea back the whole time.  I did make it to karaoke eventually (didn't sing, didn't see Denise or any other familiar faces there), but it was a token effort and was fixed in a cloud of perpetual sickness.  I went back to the hotel and accepted that I'd had as much fun as I was going to have in New Orleans.  The next morning I was on a train to Washington, DC.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Grand Designs, Part 2 (Pride...)

Spitfire Coffee doesn't have a web page or I would link to it.  This is the place with men who looked like they were from Portland behind the counter - I went in and talked with them a little bit, and one of them actually was from Portland.  He mentioned this as a way of explaining that he drinks espresso straight, no hot water or milk or other adulterants.  He poured me a shot of espresso that he described as "fruity as hell."

Now... ok... listen.  There's a whole narrative of coffee drinking that I'm carrying around with me.  I've had good coffee before - Heart in Portland, 49th Parallel in Vancouver, and a scattering of places in almost every city I've been to so far.  I've been able to pick out the chocolate notes, the chicory notes, the fruity notes, and put all the elitist coffee snob commentary in context.  I like me some serious coffee.  This guy suggested straight espresso and that sounded pretty damn good.

Once, at Heart in Portland (link) (which served me the very best cup of coffee I've ever had in my life), I brought a good friend along to have a coffee with me.  I was shocked when she acknowledged that it was a good cup of coffee, but then said "I don't understand why people in North America are so afraid of full-bodied coffee."

Spitfire blew.  My.  Mind.  They suddenly made sense out of what I'd been told in Heart Coffee Roasters.  The coffee I had at Heart was the best cup of coffee I've ever had.  The coffee I had at Spitfire was also the best cup of coffee I've ever had - they were absolutely not the same thing at all.  Heart roasts coffee so that it tastes incredibly smooth, the acidity is incredibly mellow, and it's like drinking velvet.  It's the white wine of coffee.

Spitfire served up a teensy espresso cup that lived up to its "fruity as hell" description.  It was like the red wine to Heart's white wine.  The fumes from it filled up my face, the fruit notes absolutely could not be ignored, and suddenly I understood what she meant by "people in North America are so afraid of full-bodied coffee."  This stuff was a different creature than any coffee I've ever had before.  The West Coast coffee I'm used to is smooth and easy, this cup was potent and pissed off and rewarding to anyone who could put up with it.

I know some people like that... potent, pissed off, and rewarding to anyone who can put up with them.  Spitfire makes that kind of coffee.  They were a highlight head and shoulders above, in a place absolutely chock full of highlights. 

With apologies, you'll have to pardon the absence of photos.  10 minutes before I drank their coffee I'd had 4 shots of rum.

And no, that did not influence my opinion of them.  I dare you to drink their coffee and disagree with me.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Grand Designs

I meant for that day to be a day of pleasures.

I woke up and went straight to Cafe Du Monde, again.  Beignets and coffee lose some of their shine on round 2 - it was still good, but it was basically a breakfast of donuts, powdered sugar and caffeine.  As it turned out, once was enough.

Since that experience had lost its shine, I took the next few steps along that path.  I'd been told I needed to go to Pat O'Briens and drink a Hurricane.  I had seen an absinthe bar in Pirate Alley that got my attention.  There was a teensy coffee shop with men who looked like they were from Portland serving coffee.

There was a balcony at the hotel that looked over Jackson Square, which was constantly filled with music.  I had been told I needed to try New Orleans spiced rum (link).  I noticed a cigar shop.  I had very little time left in New Orleans, and a plan began to take shape. I literally wrote it down.  I wanted to make sure I got in everything that I wanted to do.

Go to cigar shop, get a nice cigar.  Go to liquor store, get spiced rum.  Go to Pat O'Brien's and drink a hurricane.  Get coffee.  Go to pirate bar and drink absinthe.  Go to hotel in the early afternoon, drink rum and smoke cigar.  Stay at hotel, since I will be drunk.  Go out at night and explore, even if still drunk.

The summary...

I got a cigar from a very helpful man at a cigar shop about 2 blocks from Canal and Decateur - I wish I could remember the name, but I've lost my little red notebook and Google doesn't know about it yet (recently opened).  I stopped at an utterly generic liquor store on the way to Pat O'Briens and got a 40oz bottle of spiced rum (they don't sell smaller ones, and booze is cheap in the States).  I stopped in at Pat O'Briens and ordered a hurricane.

I'm just going to pause there.  A hurricane is a drink created during the time where in order to buy whiskey, you *had to* buy 20-50 times as much rum. It was designed to move rum as quickly as possible.  I watched the bartender (who kept calling me, and everyone else in the bar, "my love") pour 4 shots of rum into the glass.  4 shots.  I saw her do that, I thought about the absinthe and the rest of my plan for the day, and wondered if I was going to be able to pull this off.  I left early the next morning.  "Now or never," so the expression goes.  It was a decent drink, which is an accomplishment, considering how more than half the liquid in it was 80 proof alcohol.

My steps were faltering by that point, but I could still see straight.  As long as I didn't get behind the wheel of a car, I figured I would be fine.  Coffee was next up.

Monday, 10 November 2014

They Look Like They're Worth More Than That / How About I Show You Mine for $5?

One night I walked home along Frenchmen Street, just East of the French Quarter.  That's where the local craft market sets up, and is apparently also where the New Orleans jazz that made Bourbon Street famous moved to once Bourbon Street mostly became about tits.  I ate a gator sausage po'boy and listened in to the half dozen bands playing in the clubs and bars along the street.  The jazz was lively, a cover band did a weird rendition of Ice Ice Baby, and a sudden and angry rainstorm blew in and had everyone running for cover.  I finished the gator sausage and waited for the squall to end, then started walking again.

It was almost 2 in the morning.  Stepping into the French Quarter I walked past two men and a woman lounging in the closed storefront of some trinket shop or another.  I walked past, and they asked me if I wanted to buy two bottles of wine for $5.  I smiled and said a polite "no thanks" - they missed a beat, then asked if I wanted to buy two bottles of wine and see the girl's tits for $5.

I kind of wish I'd made a snappy quip, or that I hadn't been so surprised, but I said something like "I'm good thanks" and kept walking.  I went to the hotel, went for a swim, then turned in for the night.

Don't have any photos to go along with that story...

Sunday, 9 November 2014

My Day as a Tourist in NOLA (pt 2)

I rode out to the zoo on public transit, which let me stare out the window and observe the city beyond the French Quarter.  That city is lush and dense with life, ivy crawls all over everything and regular efforts clearly need to be made to beat back the encroaching greenery to keep civilization in place.  Bugs hum and birds chirp out of every nook and cranny.  Restaurants selling po'boys and beignets and gator sausage became less frequent, but stayed consistent during the entire bus ride.  So did the clubs, bars and coffee shops advertising jazz.

A note on coffee shops in New Orleans: Most of them sell booze too.  The distinction between a bar and a coffee shop starts to get pretty academic.

Once I arrived, the zoo was a mixed experience.  The first guest I visited was an orangutang - I forget his name.  Mostly he was hiding from the fairly intense sunlight inside of a shade structure, but when a group of people started holding out their (empty) hands as if they were offering him food, he crawled out and started interacting with us.

He looked sad, and frustrated.  I'm probably anthropomorphizing him, I don't know what orangutangs look like when they're sad or frustrated or happy for that matter.  I only know that angry is baring teeth and making lots of noise (and he wasn't doing that).  This primate, though, is capable of learning sign language and has a level of comprehension that's way beyond anything else in the zoo with the possible exception of certain parrots (link).  He was trying to get us to give him food that he's not allowed to have, and if I were in his shoes I'd also be trying to get some relief from the intense boredom and lack of stimulation.  It was fascinating to see an orangutang in the flesh, but it was a conflicted fascination.

There were a bunch of zoo animals... flamingos, turtles, smaller primates, a small group of rhinos (which were pretty neat), some elephants, some giraffes.  I didn't think the zoo had any surprises in store for me once I took a picture of a few goats for the teens I volunteer with back home.  I was happy that I'd done it but the whole thing left a kind of ho-hum taste in my mouth.  I had fulfilled my obligations as a tourist.

Then this happened.

The giraffe pen has an observation area where you can feed them by hand.  I missed the feeding time, but that didn't stop the giraffes from coming over to see what was going on.

I've never been face-to-face with one of these things before.  Somehow observing the elephants wasn't this... majestic, or this profound.  Giraffes are as graceful as horses only they're massive.  When I stood there, coming up roughly to the thing's shoulder, I felt like I was in the presence of magical, unearthly giants.  I got kind of choked up and I still can't explain exactly why.  On film giraffes are a curiosity but in person, their giant black tongues probing out and the strange mottled frame supporting an animal that feels almost impossible...

I just don't know how to say it properly.  I was moved.  It was such a big feeling that I almost didn't take a picture, out of respect.  Giraffes in the flesh are profound creatures to be close to. 

I stood there staring at them for awhile.  Feeding didn't happen again that day, otherwise I would've probably waited around for hours to have them nibble a branch I was holding.  I don't know what makes these animals in particular so significant, but they were.  I felt it all the way down to my bones.

That was really the single significant thing that I saw at the zoo.  I wandered out, a little bit aimlessly, and stopped just long enough to take one more picture.

A capybara.  Presented here simply because it's a capybara, and those things are hilarious.

Friday, 7 November 2014

My Day as a Tourist in NOLA (pt 1)

For the first day I was a tourist.  I did classical touristy things.  When I woke up I did not pass Go or collect $200, I went directly to Cafe Du Monde and ate this.

If anyone asks you to define what "a lot of powdered sugar" looks like...
It was bloody inspired, it was so good.  I was hungry, of course, I hadn't eaten at all and that made everything even better than it was already, but the beignets were better than the best donuts I had ever eaten and the powdered sugar had been dusted (dumped) the instant they came out of the friar.  It was sticky and soft and amazing, and I understand why beignets and iced coffee at Cafe Du Monde is one of those things that every breathing human being who I spoke to with any experience in New Orleans at all said I absolutely had to try.

Then I went to the New Orleans Aquarium.  It's comparable to most aquariums that I've seen so far, full of exotic things, only I would say it was a lot better stocked and curated than the one that I'm most familiar with in Vancouver.  I almost immediately learned something I had never known before...

Look closely at what these manta rays are eating

Apparently manta rays go absolutely bonkers over eating broccoli.

It's like a cat eating tuna fish - when the hell would a cat in the wild ever have a chance to even see a tuna fish?  And even if it did, what house cat could possibly ever actually manage to kill a tuna fish?  Tuna are huge!  The cat wouldn't stand a chance.

It's apple-apple here.  What manta ray would do more than asphyxiate if it was land-bound and presented with broccoli?  The broccoli plant might be disturbed by the thrashings of the manta ray, trying to breathe outside of water, but the environment of the broccoli would defend it just as successfully as the size of a tuna fish would defend it from a house cat.

I still find it weird.  Nature never prepared a manta ray to love broccoli so much, and yet there they are, loving broccoli like this lady loves apples (link).

Just after that, me and this guy spent some quality time.

Where else would you find an albino alligator, aside from the NYC sewer system?
He absolutely could kill me, and he absolutely wanted to.  If it were down to me and this beast, he'd grab my idiot self and roll me around underwater until I was dead and turn my empty shell into dinner.  The plexiglass made me brave, but it was a funny feeling being 6 inches away from something that was born to kill and eat warm, squishy mammals like me.

The aquarium had its cast of characters, for sure.  The lionfish looked just as poisonous as the stories suggest, and for some reason the blowfish was ABSOLUTELY FASCINATING (although he wouldn't pose for a picture).  If there was a single thing that I saw that made me feel feelings, it was this...

"Of the 122 animals identified by Lewis and Clark, how many are left today?"
I'll expand it, since the text is small.

Extinct: 1
Possibly Extinct: 1
Federally Endangered: 3
Federally Threatened: 2
Other Official Designation: 37  (candidates for federal or state listings; protected in some manner)

44 out of 122 species that Lewis and Clark identified, or 36% of the wildlife that existed before the land was developed, are extinct, endangered or protected.

It was a heavy note to leave on.  It didn't deter me from being a tourist, but it gave me something to think about while I headed to the zoo.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

My Introduction to Party Town

As I was leaving Lawrence, someone said "Oh!  You're going to see Nola!"

It took me a minute to realize he meant New Orleans, Louisiana (NO, LA).  The name immediately struck me as a sort of vulgar shorthand for a city that I hoped would be more beautiful than that.

The train ride from Mississippi felt short compared to the 20-hour ordeal I went through travelling from Kansas to Memphis.  By noon I had crossed the border into Louisiana, and started getting acquainted with the changes in the terrain.  The land and climate helps define a city and its people, and for the first time I found myself travelling through this...

To the right of the train was this marshland, dotted with green.  To the left was open water as far as I could see (with, inexplicably, a set of high-voltage electric lines going off into what looked a lot like nowhere at all).  Somehow this climate and this place gave rise to the home of jazz and Mardi Gras and parties and intensity and all of these things that ended up looking a lot like...

The French Quarter of New Orleans.  This is Jackson Square, adjacent to the St Louis Cathedral and the Louisiana State Museum. 

The square, which is only suggested by this photo and isn't clearly visible, has a spread of street performers, ragtime bands, tarot readers, palmistry booths and other seers and strangers ready to take your donations.

I hiked through the French Quarter and explored, still wearing my 60-lb pack and trying to find a place that looked welcoming and interesting.  The whole city has a thick fog of religion and superstition - even Mardi Gras is predicated on preparing for lent.  The voodoo shops spill incense smoke onto the neon of Bourbon Street and the traces of pagan practice mix with the bells of the cathedral.  New Orleans is what would happen if someone tried to recruit the Catholic church to work with a hundred houngans to build another Las Vegas at the South end of the Mississippi river.  There were no traces of irony or mischief that I could detect when I saw these signs advertising spaces for rent.

I prefer the haunted ones.

As far as I could tell, these signs were absolutely sincere.  When I struck up a conversation with a few locals one of the first things I heard about were hauntings - construction sites, houses, parts of town, mostly with the lead in of "I consider myself a skeptic, but..."

The Visitor's Centre was extremely helpful.  I got a steep discount on a hotel in the French Quarter and settled in for a few days.  I settled in and settled down to a hotel room, where the view from my window looked like this...

About then, I decided that New Orleans and I would probably get along just fine.

The Pyramids of Memphis

It's going back in time a little bit, I know, but I just wanted to mention that there's a giant glass-and-steel pyramid in downtown Memphis, TN.

This pyramid is currently empty.  If you think of it as a cultural symbol, a monument to the culture of the area, it points one towards wondering what sort of thing would go *into* this pyramid.  Something deeply reflective of the aspirations and beliefs of the culture surrounding it?

Previously, it was a casino.

Next, it will be a tackle shop (Bass Pro - link).  Note that the website refers to the pyramid as "one of America's best known icons."

Tackle, fishing rods, camouflage, camping gear, guns, bullets, scopes, and plenty more.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

The Land of the Free

I'm told that after the Civil War broke out, three slaves crossed into the Union states and asked for amnesty. The decision on what to do with them went all the way up from the military unit that sheltered them to Abraham Lincoln himself. If the slaves were freed just because they crossed the border, it would undermine one of the major economic engines of the South by encouraging their workforce to jump ship. The call was made, the slaves were freed, and the rift that started the war got bigger.  Later, the Emancipation Proclamation made it bigger still.  One of the major sources of productive labour in the South was slavery - giving them a compelling reason to leave the South undermined the whole economy of the separatists. My cousin described the U.S. Civil War as a war around secession where slavery became a central issue, rather than a war around slavery specifically (the history textbooks support her on this one).

Slavery gave rise to some interesting architecture - plantation houses.

These properties were built to house the masters, to separately house (and control) the slaves, and to be an expression of wealth and privilege. As beautiful as plantation houses are, they're a strange sort of monument to the cheap/free labour that made such expressions of largesse possible. Families could afford this sort of excess because slave labour was cheap - buy a slave once and you got every productive hour that they would ever work for the rest of their lives.
Not only that, but they're built on top of land that was cleared of trees, wildlife and Native Americans, all of which were lumped into the same calloused category by the settlers of the time. This particular plantation manor (above) is built on top of an "Indian Mound (link)." It's beautiful, there's grandeur, there's a unique Southern style, and the buildings are tinted forever by the system that produced them.

Some are in better shape than others - this one (below) was rebuilt and refurbished. When the Northern states came through in the Civil War they either stole or destroyed a lot of wealth in the South. War is ugly.   This is the Cedar Grove Bed and Breakfast in Vicksburg, Mississippi.  Cedar Grove still has some of the scars from the war, literally.

Just around the corner from a beautiful hall and doorway, "bohemian glass" and all, is a cannonball that's still embedded in an interior wall. You can trace the line through the door and some parts of the hallway where it shattered the wood. 

Cedar Grove was used as an impromptu hospital during the war, or it's likely that it would've been bombarded and razed along with the rest of the city. 

Many plantations ended with a bang - one of the functions of war is destruction of the enemy's economy. Many ended with a whimper. What wasn't destroyed by the end of slavery was often economically destroyed with the Great Depression. Even the Biltmore House (link) had to open its doors to the public after that era. Some that survived such intense trials have been left to ruin more modernly - two of which I was taken to visit in Mississippi. It was "urban exploration" without the "urban" - two beautiful houses allowed to fall gradually into disrepair.

This is what I mean...

This one, fallen almost completely into ruin. It could only be rebuilt from scratch. Ivy has overtaken the outside, and the inside has fallen to pieces. There were (weirdly) still some things intact... 

A piano, sitting in a hallway. Old photographs in picture frames scattered, broken, on the floor.

In another house, the bones are still intact but it would take significant financing and dedicated effort to ever get it back to its original state.

 You can still see some of the glimmer of the gilded age, underneath the ruin and mold.  It's easy to imagine Southern belles and their bustles, and the shadow of the slave trade just over their shoulders.

Plantations houses are part of history in the South, telling a story of a strange and shaded chapter of U.S. history.  They're a reminder of a time of slavery and excess, of the cruelty that's possible towards people we don't think of as people.  They're also a symbol of glamour, class and Southern hospitality.  Both things exist side by side, and walking through these empty places was uncomfortable, and revealing.