Well it has been over a month since I got home and well over a month since my last blog post. When I wrote the last blog post I was still sitting in Canada, pretty much packing up and ready to get the flight home. Did I say ready? Well prepared to get the flight home is more appropriate.
Its hard to believe its been a month already, just as it was hard to beleive a month traveling had gone by. In the last few weeks Ive been catching up with my other photo work, getting back in touch with students, starting to wade through the thousands of images to be edited, captioned and uploaded to various sites and sitting watching the rain bounce off the windows.
Its been a tough couple of weeks, not just from the work perspective and the fitting it all in whilst trying to get a house and everything back to normal. The boring mundane ordering of heating oil and cutting the grass dont quite compare to flying over nigara falls in the helicopter but they have to be done.
Its also been a wrench leaving my friends, its not that I dont have good friends here but there is something about traveling together that bonds people. I have 3 close friends that I have traveled the world with and I remember the first day they met, it was down in dublin airport and none of them had met before. I had traveled with them all individually but not as a group so hadnt even considered the dynamics. Our first task as a unit was to report all our luggage missing on arrival so it was a baptism of fire. There is something about the bonds of friendship made whilst traveling that go beyond normal friendship and I have that in abundance now with my friends here, in Canada and in South America.
People have asked what the highlight of the trip was, of course there are loads of things I could mention and already have in the blog but like my trip to South America there is one thing that stands out for me, the people I travelled with and the people I met. Whilst I didnt quite need emergency room treatment as in Buenos Aires, I was treated like a friends by strangers and welcomed into the family by people who didnt need to do that.
Oh but here, did I mention we got buzzed by a crop duster in North Dakota?
With the recent events in London and indeed Belfast it is sometimes easy to draw the conclusion that the world is going to hell and in a bloody quick manner but when someone in nowheresville Iowa comes over to your table and asks how you are and what you are doing there and recommends the platter then its not that bad. When you are invited to a family barbecue even though you arent part of the family but feel like it by the end of the evening then it shows there are more good people than bad in the world.
But Im not knocking the sales of water cannon photos or soldiers on the streets.
It was my first trip to Canada and definitely wont be the last, I felt at home there, I felt as though it was the same as here only different. Ive been so taken with the place I spent the first couple of weeks looking at visa regulations and work permits and the like. There is a danger that the grass is always greener and boy if I complain about the winters here then…
…well you get the point.
I have always been a traveler, even when I didnt know it, its not really about the start or the end or even the bit in the middle, its about the journey as a whole, its not so much about what you see but how it affects you and what you do about it afterwards. Its about meeting people and seeing that we are pretty much the same the world over, we want to be fed and a roof over our head and if we can all have a laugh in the process, so much the better. The world financial system can go down the toilet but as long as you can put food on the table, thats pretty much all that should matter.
I am back to earth with a bump here but it is home and always will be home, I missed the soft grass and the soft rain (ok Ive had enough of that already) and sitting out on the lough fishing as the sun goes down is now an experience having met someone who has never seen the sea. Not to mention the freshly caught mackerel barbequed with friends.
Im waxing lyrical about the trip and the place but I’ll bring it back to the people, it would not have been half as much fun without the old and new friends on the trip and I think if we’d sat in the house for a month it would have been equally as enjoyable.
Just saying thank you isnt really enough, I am a wee boy from the Falls Road in Belfast, I should never have seen the things Ive seen (good and bad) and would never have imagined Id have been to the places I only ever read about or saw on a wee small black and white portable tv as a kid. That means its all an experience, its all good (even the bad bits).
Life is not a rehearsal so even if its just lying on the grass, sitting out in the rain, go and do something you havent done before, say yes to something you would normally say no to and see what happens along the way.
So thanks to everyone I met in the US/Canada, its been emotional Its also been great craic and would I do it again – 4 weeks ago I’d probably have said no, now I’ll say maybe, in 4 weeks time I’ll probably have a bag packed.
After Ive got the rest of the photos edited of course…. ..better get back to work and pull a few all nighters!
Firstly a couple of my usual bug bears with travelling in the US or more specifically, spending money in the US. You walk into a shop and it might say 2.99 for a large coffee so you hand over 3 dollars to be told it actually costs 3.27.
That price doesnt include tax sir.
It just doesnt.
FFS sort it out, get with the rest of the real world, if its in electronic format or stick on prices then add the sodding sales tax. If you are a hotel and quote 91 dollars then charge me 114 on my credit card then I will bloody well complain to my credit card provider in the UK. Ok I wont but its the principle of the thing.
Bloody stupid idea.
Oh and dont get me started on tipping. That 2.99 coffee now costs me 4 dollars as we tip here. Just pay your staff decent wages and include it in the price of the coffee! Its not rocket science.
How much to license this photo – 50 dollars – ok can you invoice us? Yes that will be 325 dollars total then. What? Well tax and sales and admin and issuing a paper invoice oh and we request a 500% tip at all times.
Bloody hell, travelling through the US is just a series of Ryanair purchases.
Right, got that off my chest.
Facebook is a marvellous thing, it enables me to turn my phone off and avoid all those Indian call centres, wedding price list requests, photography students looking summer jobs and the odd strange request to see if I can help photographing bull semen. (yes that is real – you really couldnt make that one up – 2 calls – each time I was travelling and in the middle of the night where I was).
Just turn on wifi and use facebook on the phone for updates.
Well thats when it does update of course, which explains why Im sitting in my boxers with a cup of coffee in my hotel room when the leaving time has been bumped forward to 9:30 and the rest of the team are in the hotel lobby.
Still they went and got me a cracker barrel breakfast – took them a bloody hour and a half but if Id got my arse out of gear quicker it wouldnt have been a problem.
Today it was all about Memphis, getting to Graceland. Its hard to meet someone who isnt an Elvis fan of some description so being this close and not going would be a waste of an opportunity. Yes its about a 4 hour detour but we may not be this way again so didnt want any regrets. The original plan was to stay in Memphis and spend the evening on Beale Street after Graceland but with the change of route home due to the flooding (including a nuclear power station – safe my arse!) and the apparently horrific crime rate in Memphis, it was wise to get on the road as soon as we can.
I had expected that Graceland would be a bit OTT but I cant really say it was that out of place. Elvis invented bling long before the word bling ever came along and certainly if I had his money, fame, good looks and status Id be a hell of a lot more tacky than he was. Again you have to remember this was in the 50s/60s/70s so totally beyond the normal for then but compared to some of the tat thats shown on MTV its quite tame.
It was a great insight into Elvis life, I was only a kid when he died and remember seeing TV pictures of people with candles outside Graceland and here am I standing in the house itself. The upstairs is still closed to visitors, the sceptics saying that when the visitors start to dwindle they will open that as well but I prefer the conspiracy theory that hes sitting up there in his rocking chair having a laugh at the rest of us.
Hes not really dead at all but working on a duet album with Michael Jackson and going out for a morning ride each day on Shergar.
Just in case he was at home we pressed the old original gate intercom to see if we could catch anyone out.
Another must see was the Lorraine Hotel, on this spot Martin Luther King was shot as he walked out of his hotel room on the second floor. Its now the National Civil Rights Museum and has a wreath where he fell and the car is still parked outside. Judging by the coach loads of people arriving and leaving this too is an important spot.
As Beale street was close we headed for a walk down it and a quick drink in one of the bars. There is a bar there just serving slush cocktails but unfortunately as we were all going to be driving at some point it was the one and only non-alcoholic one in the bar. We probably looked like aliens all asking for the non-alcoholic varieties.
The downtown area has a bad reputation and the place was swarming with cops, I suppose it is reassuring there are that many squad cars around but inevitably lead to the ‘lets get the f*ck out of dodge’. I wonder if Dodge City is nice
Doing such a momentous trip really gives you an appreciation of what the life of the interstate truckers is like, hours and hours of open highway driving, not knowing where you are sleeping and all that. Each day we drove a larger distance than is possible in Ireland in a straight line. Sooner or later you are going to end up in the water!
A few years ago I did a tour of the west coast of the USA and tried to keep off the interstates and visit some of the non-chained restaurants, hotels etc on the way. It made for a more interesting trip and ave Gorman did an ‘unchained’ trip where he did just that but with a lot of hassle.
Of course the problem with doing this is that there are few roadsigns and driving off the interstate seems to be meant for locals, not tourists. Of course if we had turned the voice on, on the sat nav we might have got by better but with the huge amount of flooding and roads closed it was inevitable that we would get caught up in it.
The other issue with this sort of travelling is that sometimes when you give yourself a cut off time for driving and just pick the nearest hotel/motel then you can end up staying somewhere where you have absolutely no clue where you are. Our first stop after Memphis was somewhere near St Louis but to this day I still have no idea where.
It does have its plus point though as you find wee places like Mount Pleasant, the town square looking like the set out of back to the future and lovely local diner where the local poetry group was meeting and doing some readings etc.
Oh and they served food as well.
For me this is pretty much the real USA, people here are very welcoming and want to hear strangers stories and have the time to sit and chat with them. I like others often judge the book by its cover and often only get to see major cities, airports etc which are impersonal in most nations but get out into the sticks and meet some real people and the attitude changes. Without doubt in every small town we were welcomed and genuinely felt guilty that we didnt have more time to spend in those communities than just sitting in some nice but bland hotel waiting for the next tour bus.
It gets to the stage you do just live out of your luggage and it was time for me to buy some new luggage. The wheels had literally come off my previous bag (bought in Chicago funnily enough) and I got a set of new ones which will probably kill my baggage allowance on the flight home. How come when you leave home with 5kg left in your allowance, and you buy nothing (ok a bottle of Jack Daniels, oh and some ice wine, oh and new socks and boxers and and) your bag is overweight on the way home.
Saying that though I did used to regularly fly with one airline which would not penalise people for being overweight leaving Belfast but would sting them severely on the way home.
As we decided to give the area involving the flooded Nuclear power station (which was safe apparently) a miss we headed North via Iowa then Minneapolis (which I still cant pronounce). This gave us the opportunity to visit the Mall of America.
Now it is argued that this can be seen from space but someone should tell the highways agency it might be worth while sticking a few signs up. The only signs we saw were within one interstate turn and by then it was too late, that was after the sat nav took us 10 miles out of the way. Even in the hotel across the road where you could see the Mall itself, people were asking for directions.
We arrived at the Mall just after closing so had something to eat – sorry no photos – I was too hungry – buffalo burger I believe, just in case you are wondering. Got a hotel across the road and then would hit the mall in the morning.
The mall was amazing, not just for the size of the place.
Oh and wee tip, if you are busting for a pee, run into the mall of america with one of your travelling companions, head straight for the row of urinals where he decides to make comment on the vastness of the mall with the immortal words ‘can you believe the size of this thing’ whilst relieving himself, you tend to find the people around you zip up quickly and head out of the bog with wet fingers.
Have to say I nearly peed all over my shoes at that comment I laughed so much…
The Mall has a funfair which would rival one of the disney resorts but we couldnt stay and only saw about 1/10th of the shops before hitting the road. We needed to get to the border for 9pm to make sure all the road crossings were open…
We raced through the flat lands of North Dakota, which has to be seen to be believed. I know people tell you its flat but you have no comprehension of the term. Even when Im out on my boat on the sea in a flat calm day you can still see coastline and mountains in the distance, this is just flat. So flat we could see the crop duster dusting the fields in the distance. They would dust, fly up and round then fly under the power lines, over the interstate and start dusting again. When he made his turn when we approached he probably thought he would time it just right to pass behind us. Of course with me hanging out the back with the camera giving the driver instructions to hold up just enough let him pass in front of us, well lets just say it was very close and I can still almost taste whatever they were spraying.
We reached the border about 10pm and Canada was closed. Sorry folks, closed for the night, try again later.
Like seriously? WTF? So we drove back the 12 miles to the nearest town and scared the shit out of the local cop by walkin up to the car in the dark and asking directions to a 24hr border post.
He did wish me well on my journey and Im sure the guy was genuine and meant well but when hes sitting in his car with his hand on his gun, its not very reassuring.
On the way to the 24hr post this stupid wee bird decided he wanted to hover over something on the road just in front of us as we were doing 70mph. We didnt get to see the aftermath, probably just disintegrated, like pigeons perhaps.
We got to the border post and it was a less arduous experience than entering the states.
Do you guys have any alcohol?
I have a bottle of Jack Daniels Single Cask I bought at the factory.
Do you guys have any livestock on board?
Are you sure?
Ok then, on you go.
Pulling out of the border post it did feel like a weight removed but we couldnt get too complacent as not more than 100 yards on a deer ran out across the road in the darkness and behind it a whole field of deer looked on.
It was all about putting the miles in then, up to Brandon and do the drive around looking for hotel at 1am in the morning. Found a lovely hotel – Victoria hotel or something like that – beautifully cooked hot breakfast – again no pics, sorry I was starving but it was eggs benedict.
Packing the car in the morning the front of the car was covered in dead mosquitos, oh and a small black bird headfirst into the headlight assembly, cartoon style with feet sticking straight out. Straight to the scene of the accident! The border guard must have seen it, he couldnt have missed it!
Finally we managed to make it back to Saskatoon.
The stats are 11 US states, 2 Canadian provinces, 2 time zones, 4642 miles driven in 11 days, one dead raccoon, one smuggled illegal immigrant dead bird, back in time to put the kettle on before band rehearsals.
Would I do it again? Standard answer is not in a million years, then ask me a week later and its a maybe and a month later I’ll be planning the next one.
Thing is though, after 3 full days in Saskatoon we are on the road again to Winnipeg for another 9 hour each way drive and a couple of days at the Winnipeg folk festival.
Ah this rock and roll lifestyle, you could get used to it…
..I love shopping in the USA, I havent been ‘medium’ size in nearly 15 years….
..Non-Dairy creamer – like really? WTF is that? Its just slightly less toxic watercolour paint..
…continental breakfasts – now heres a thing – Ive always understood continental breakfasts to mean two things, firstly the continent is Europe and secondly its a minimal non-cooked breakfast.
Mostly its coffee and a croissant/pastry and possible maybe a slice of bread with a slice of ham/salami and cheese and even at a push a cold hard boiled egg.
Now I appreciate that North America is also a continent and perhaps thats what the ‘continental’ refers to but lets face it, bacon, scrambled eggs, mushroom stew or something, biscuit (fecking bun!), pastry, cereal, pancakes, gravy (never seen white gravy in my life before now) and shitloads of other stuff does not really constitute the worlds definition of a continental breakfast. Full dinner for a roomfull of people perhaps but continental breakfast for one? Saunter!
Meanwhile the food tour continues and although Im going on an enforced diet from now on its primarily to try to limit calorie intake to below 10 thousand per day. Oh and I might just introduce alcohol while Im at it.
My first night in Nashville was sort of a recovery exercise, I planned to take it easy and unpack in the hotel, write my previous blog and then go to bed early for the evening.
So after the blog writing I just thought Id go down and have a look at what the hotel bar looked like….
…I left at just after one after spending an evening with an aircrew from Atlanta. It was slightly disconcerting that this was their stopover and they were flying out the next day after a few whiskeys in the hotel bar but then again its not my flight and I’m sure they will be fine. I cant really go into the conversation much because my head really hurt the next day but that was probably the long journey but in case it wasnt watch out for the Yazoo dark ale in Tennessee. I did leave the aircrew with one legacy though, as I left there was a chorus of ‘Ah for fuck sake, dry your eyes!’ I might have said this once or twice in conversations about the price of gas (petrol) and other things. I just hope that if some person on a plane the next day complains about their non-dairy creamer not being skinny or tall or any of that shite that they get told to ‘Ah for fuck sake, dry your eyes!’ The world will be a better place.
Ive resisted the temptation to join the redneck nation by not buying a pair of cowboy boots or cowboy hat. I have to say though I do quite fancy a cowboy hat, if only for a laugh but the price of Stetsons and so on would make you cry. 200 odd quid for an off the shelf pair of cowboy boots and starting at half that for hats that dont look like they were bought in a joke shop.
Besides which the hats come in boxes which would need a plane by themselves. I know I could wear the hat home but lets face it, I look a big enough dick walking through airports with enough camera gear to run a small press office never mind sticking a bloody cowboy hat on. Besides theres a slim chance I might meet someone who knows me and outside the social wearing the cowboy hat as a joke scenario…
We headed out the first evening to a place called the station inn, which is apparently quite good..
So good it was booked up and we didnt even get to the door. There is something about a place that tells you to feck away off, they are busy by using a paper plate stuck to the door. Thats the type of informality I’m getting to like around here.
It was a lovely evening and unfortunately probably the last good one for the trip to Nashville its been grey skies and thunderstorms the whole week, which pretty much rules out a lot of photography so I’ll just have to keep eating…
In the car park of the station Inn we bumped into Vince Gill. Id now idea who Vince Gill was but apparently its a big deal….
It was then time for ice cream – why? Well when isnt it time for ice cream?
I thought Id go for a wander downtown in Nashville and see if there were any hop on hop off tours available. There were but you had to hop off and on at the same spot and the busses were an hour apart. They only ran from 10-4 with I think 8 stops. Which fecking genius worked that out? I booked myself on the tour to the Jack Daniels factory on thurs instead. Which reminds me I must read internet reviews in future before booking anything else!
For the rest of the afternoon it really did chuck it down, more of a singing in the rain than an all shook up.
You know the way people tell you stories of their travels and the further it gets from the trip the more exaggerated things become? Well apart from me who exaggerates it to start with. Id just like to add on the record that everything anyone tells you about jacks BBQ on Broadway in Nashville is true.
Unbelieveable food, tender slow cooked bbq’d meat falling off the bone and without doubt apart from a BBQ I had in Canada the best meat dinner Ive ever had in North America. If you only get to eat out in one place in Nashville, make sure its Jacks.
After jacks we went to the famous legends corner honky tonk bar and there was a guy called Matt Mason playing here. He has just won Country Music Television’s next superstar competition. Id never heard of it but apparently its a big deal…
We tried to make bookings for the Station Inn the following night for some famous show or other and halfway through the booking answering machine message I got facebook messages to not book it.
Now I grew up listening to all sorts of music, Ive all sorts of music on my portable mp3 player (mr Jobs doesnt sponsor me so I wont advertise him either) as well as my non i-whatever phone. From classical to rave, rock, pop, irish trad, irish contemporary, african, country and western and so on. Every sunday morning it was Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Elvis etc on the radiogram.
And I knew what the Grand Old Opry was as a lot of the live recordings were from there (and San Quentin ) I knew it wasnt the modern building before me but rather a black and white version of the old building in town.
At this point I’ll add a bit about the net reviews of the Grand Ole Opry calling it redneck central. Well it is and it isnt. I was spectacularly unimpressed with a lot of the cheap ‘buy my album and latest song for our troops’ shite from the first few performers. I hate that, wheeling out injured soldiers and the like saying they are heroes. Dont get me wrong I think anyone that dons a uniform and puts their life and limbs on the line in the name of their country should be looked after for life if they get hurt and if they are killed their families should be well looked after.
If you are going to dedicate stuff to wounded soldiers then give them all the fecking money, they need it more than you do. Not 10% or any other such crap, continue with your convictions.
Similarly theres a hell of a lot more innocent civilians lying dead and injured in squalor in far flung places due to actions of said military, but few people care about them, and they wont further anyones career.
The second half of the bill was just pure entertainment. I dont care who you are or what type of music you like but good music is good music.
Jeannie Seely had the place in stiches and despite being over 90 years of age Little Jimmy Dickens rocked the place.
The final act was a guy called Rodney Atkins who had some issues with his mikes and all that but still had the place roaring. Hes quite well known and although Id never heard of his stuff, its apparently a big deal…
Just a word to stave off any potential ligitation, the photos of the performers at the Grand Ole Opry are for illustration and blog purposes only, they are not for resale or intended to be offered for sale. That should satisfy the lawyers and PR people – although they were all quite nice and at least allow personal/blog use.
If I havent pee’d enough people off with the slight politics talk, I’ll now go on to religion seeing as Im on a roll… …Other than back home I have never seen as many churches, anywhere (ok possible exception of Rome but they are predominantly one religion). Its big business here and I mean big business. The bat building (AT&T) is only 1/3 full yet the religious ministries buildings are expanding. Drive out into the country and its seriously like driving through Northern Ireland, you are falling over churches.
I was told another ‘must see’ was the Loretta Lynn ranch and we drove like lunatics to get to the ranch for the last tour of the day at 4pm. Its a bit weird in all honesty, theres a reconstruction of her daddys old wooden home to show the poor beginnings. In reality I wouldnt mind living there as its bigger than my house! Yep a coal miners daughter was a hard life, no doubt about that but until the early 80s we were still crapping in an outside yard toilet and no central heating or running hot water.
Our tour guide had all the charisma of an England football team manager and glossed over certain bits (or just couldnt be arsed – which is more likely) but if you have an interest, its certainly worth a visit. Particularly to see the community that exists there now, theres a camping park, playground, communal grounds and a bike racetrack.
By this stage having raced out our stomachs thought our throats had been cut so instead of the bland pseudo motorway service station food we had been eating we stopped off at a wee mexican roadside diner.
Without doubt the best mexican food I have ever had and this coming from a guy who gave serious thought to opening a mexican restaurant in Belfast. A fail on the pics of the food but I was soo hungry I didnt bother, just a quick grab shot of the outside afterwards. Guess we might have to stop there again on the way out of Nashville tomorrow…
…another quick stop on the way back was to the Hickory Hollow Mall. It was advertised as being huge but its partly closed and a lot of the shops are shut, looks like the recession has hit it hard and a few tumbleweeds wouldnt have been out of place, just like some of the centres back home.
It did have the biggest American flag I have ever seen in my life though. Wonder if its just up for the upcoming 4th July celebrations or if its a permanent feature. The americans do love their flag everywhere.
Today it was off to the Jack Daniels distillery. Id booked a tour to take me there, to another distillery and a quick trip to Lynchburg town square for a bit of shopping (or lunch in my case). I missed breakfast as it was an early start and was worried Id be completely paralytic by lunchtime due to the whiskey sampling…
Only later in online blogs and reports did I notice that the distillery is in a dry county, so they arent allowed to serve you samples. Like seriously, WTF? Come to Jacks famous distillery and have some lemonade? It was nice lemonade but come on, if you are selling bottles of stuff that is only available here, then at least allow us to sample them somewhere. FFS! Like seriously, catch a fecking grip. Thats not on and a serious pisser to any whiskey fan. Then again to be fair any serious whiskey fan isnt going to touch most of it with a barge pole. Maybe its a marketing ploy, you have to wait until you get home to find out its dark pish in a bottle.
The tour was interesting because I was there but nothing I didnt know from 30 miles up the road in Bushmills. Im sure some of the residents of Bushmills would like it to be a dry county but at least there to get to taste versions before they do the hard sell on you. Even in the town of lynchburg they can only sell you the empty bottles. The town is just a square and they were setting up for their frontier day so it wasnt much to write home about. I wandered off through the rest of the town and got talking to the local sheriff. Well as usual I was going to get my collar felt and talked myself out of it We had previously agreed to spend the rest of the time at the town and skip the second distillery – if they werent in a dry county Id feel even more short changed than I do now. The ‘entertainment’ on the bus consisted of episodes of the Beverly Hillbillies and some other black and white show – andy something or other.
That was it really, slept on the bus on the way back and really pissed off that I now feel obliged to give a tip when I’d paid 45 dollars for a fecking bus ride oh and the 7 hour trip included the hotel pick up and drop off times as well which were an hour either way. Im glad I went but Id not really advise anyone to do it unless they were a real JD fan and one of the local busses would be quicker and a hell of a lot cheaper.
Right its getting to the stage where the immortal words of one of my friends comes to mind ‘lets get the f*ck out of dodge’. Close enough but maybe theres enough time for one more ice cream or maybe those cowboy boots after all. Tomorrows overnight and start of the journey back north should be interesing. In the last week one of the towns we travelled through has been evacuated due to flooding and tomorrows overnight could be in one of the US’s most dangerous cities. And no its not dodge city!
Well not quite but if it wasnt so bloody cold I might have.
Its been almost two weeks since I embarked on what would be a reasonably long journey home. I left after I was scheduled to leave and got home at the same time as I should have, but did it feel like a long journey.
Firstly the outbound flight from Buenos Aires was delayed as expected. Washington was snowed in so my much anticipated visit to the Smithsonian museum was cancelled. Slightly gutted but having waited in the queue for check in for two hours Id have paid everything I owned for a teleport system.
So two hours waiting, we know the flight isnt leaving, we are through ‘security’ and standing in line, of course they decide to stop check-in right as muggins gets to the front of the queue. So two hours of waiting for them to officially tell us we were going to Chicago even though we’ve known it for hours. With an hour left to wait I received the email from United Airlines telling me the flight that should have left an hour ago was delayed. Well no shit sherlock.
At this point United did appear to be the worst airline I’ve ever flown with, they could have just checked us all in, given us our seats and sorted it out later. No. Of course they did a re-check-in which seemed to me stupid as about 1/4 the passengers had already got their seats and boarding cards and were waiting at the gate. Again I would have assumed that it would cause chaos to reassign those seats to the next 1/4 of passengers. They didnt and it did. I did mention that everything in South America seemed to result in a discussion that would normally last about 30 secs at home before someone said ‘look just sit the f**k down’.
Even the first class passengers and the 17 levels of segregation that United apply to passengers above cattle class had to stand and wait as well. Sometimes theres a lot to be said for Ryanairs, every man for themselves policy.
The flight the day before was delayed and so this one was packed. Now I’ll have to admit, being a single bloke on a 14 hour flight you do hold out hope of some nice looking woman taking the empty seat beside you. If she could speak english and was looking a part exchange on an EU passport then all the better.
Dont be stupid.
Now, in the last couple of days there was the case where a larger than life film actor/director was asked to leave a United airlines flight because he should really have booked two tickets. Well normally Id have sympathy but now Im thinking of asking for a refund on the 40% of my seat that I didnt actually use on the flight due to the overspill of the passenger beside me.
So after 6 hours awake I went to the stewardesses and asked if there were any spare seats or could I just sleep on the floor in the kitchen. Their reply of ‘you must be joking’ wasnt exactly what I wanted to hear.
I did think about my reply carefully from quips like ‘if I was joking I would have said, a man walks into a bar with a duck on his head’ to ‘can I have some clean water as I’d like to wash my body before we all meet my maker’ to just taking her overly made up face and smashing it into the still warm plate of microwave airline meals beside her.
No matter what I said would probably end up in the plane diverting to some central american airport with my heathrow ticket being exchanged for one to Guantanamo Bay.
Back to my half seat I went and resigned myself to elbowing my fellow passenger in the ribs and kicking him in the ankles when he tried to play footsie. Im sure he wonders where all his bruises have come from.
Travelling through the US is a nightmare. Im not going to do it again if I can humanly avoid it. Ive mentioned the one carry on bag and the queues for immigration even though you are going nowhere near US soil. If I have to go through the US again it will be from Dublin where I can clear US immigration in Dublin. Another hour queueing for immigration, then waiting for my bag and taking it through customs only to drop it off a further 100 yards later for it to go to Belfast.
To be honest though it was a relief to see it, and to see it intact. There were rumours about stuff being nicked from bags in Buenos Aires airport. When checking through security there I was asked what was in my checkin bag, I was specifically asked if there were any camcorders, digital cameras and anything else worth nicking, sorry above 50 USD. When I said yes, there was a big sticker put on my bag. I dont think it said ‘ransack through here’ but it may as well have. One of the joys of travelling with an old beaten up bag with only one wheel and one other trick I learned years ago. Three days before you are due to come home, soak some of your dirty clothes. t-shirt and trousers is enough. Put them in a plastic bag and leave them in the heat. When you go to leave, put it at the top of your bag and cut it open before quickly closing the bag. If anyone opens that bag, smells that and still rifles through it looking for valuables, they are more than welcome to the contents.
By the time I got to my destination gate I had no idea who I was, where I was, where I was going and quite frankly I didnt really care. Having been to Chicago a couple of times before I just wanted to lie down somewhere but needed something to eat. If you are in Chicago they have their own brewery called Goose Island and they do a nice Christmas Ale. This wasnt christmas but I thought Id try the local brew anyway. Of course I got funny looks at 9:30am asking for a beer but hey I’d no idea what time it was.
I splurged on the 50 dollars it cost to get access to the frequent flyer lounge as quite frankly it was a bargain. Lovely soft seats, free net access, tv, papers etc etc. Free soft drinks, well not like UK free, but US free served by a barman which attracts the obligatory 1 dollar tip. Now Im not against tipping barstaff but hey if you are travelling to another country and I know the US people find that strange you dont necessarily carry US money. Particularly when you dont think you are going to spend much time there. Besides which in the UK you have fridges with cans of stuff and dont need 4 bar staff to change the TV station for you.
I just want to go home.
To cut another long story short, soon enough I was home, in my own house and I realise how quiet it is where I live. Silence.
I remember moving here from Belfast City and spending the first couple of weeks waking up because it was ‘too quiet’. When things went quiet in the area of the city I lived it generally meant it was going to get real loud real quick.
So Ive had a few emails from people asking me to go through what gear I use, how I used it etc etc etc. To be perfectly honest I’d rather stick pins in my eyes than talk photo gear and Im sure most peoples eyes would glaze over as well. I’ll leave the photo talk to photo forums but heres a few things that did make my life a lot easier whilst travelling.
Noise cancelling headphones – absolutely superb. I baulked at the price of these things just to use on planes etc but they really are worth their weight in gold. Apart from using them on planes, ferries, in airports etc they are useful in noisy hotel rooms, disconnect them, turn on the noise cancelling and go to sleep.
Wee small plastic bottles less than 60ml. You dont really realise how difficult air travel has become until you try to book a flight with hand luggage only where the destination is full of mosquitos and 40C+ You cant buy that small a bottle of sun cream so the ability to pack some into smaller bottles to pack in hand luggage and avoid a one way rendition flight is understated. I do wonder why they persist with this rubbish as lets be honest if I wanted to take a plane down, I’d buy a bottle of vodka and a lighter in duty free and then see if the aircrew thought I was joking.
Besides which if they’d applied the air safety laws that were in force on September 11th, the hijackers would never have got on the planes in the first place. When you have a load of people on a watch list, you just dont let them get on a plane. Back here during the troubles you couldnt go 100 yards in the car without some military patrol appearing from somewhere.
Maybe if security spent less time robbing us all of our purchased in the security zone bottles of water and duty free which by its nature had to be purchased airside, and actually out chasing ‘terrorists’ then wed all travel a lot easier with less hassle.
Im ranting again but seriously, who gives the UK border protection jobsworths the right to photograph me then stick a sticker right across the front of the harp on my irish passport. It might only just be a sticker but that harp can get you out of trouble quicker than you can say ‘no inglaterra’. Yes it does wash off but thats not the point, Im going to tell the minister for foreign affairs, after all the passport is his property still.
My smartphone, ok I couldnt make any actual calls with it for some reason to do with no reciprocal arrangements with some networks, but the ability to use wifi to check email, carry pdf maps etc etc. Its not an iphone so the battery lasts about a week and if Id had the wit to bring a headphone adaptor I could have used it to play my mp3s and could have left the ipod at home.
The ipod nano itself is again worth its weight in gold. I’ve the ministry of sound chill out sessions just for travelling, put the headphones in, get into bed, press play…. …and I’ve never heard the end of that album.
A microfibre travel towel. Small, light, very absorbent, for places like the waterfalls and easy to carry. It was a tip from a good friend of mine who travelled a lot.
‘Memory’ AA batteries. I was very sceptical about the use of these type of batteries. Basically they discharge slowly and keep their charge longer. Its not until you are travelling until you realise that the ability to keep charge for a couple of days is a godsend. No need to bring chargers for a quick trip with light or possible usage.
Ive mentioned the plastic carrier bag tricks before, to keeping the camera dry, putting all your creams and lotions in in your main baggage in case one goes pop and wrecks all the clothes in your bag, to putting on your hands and feet to avoid leaving footprints… …sorry meant to say to avoid your feet and hands getting soaked…
Pencils. Its like the old joke, NASA spent 1 million dollars developing a pen that would write in space, the Russians just used pencils.
The netbook I left at home. I have since found out that the hard drive failure in my macbook is a ‘known problem’. Known in that it was known by mac and theyve sat on it for 3-4 years. They issued an advisory note and extended warranty last week, a month too late for me. If I’d known the hard drive was likely to fail, I’d have had it changed before I left. Dont get me started on the ipad.
Only one last thing to do (other than edit the photos from the trip) and its to retire the passport. Its my 2nd full Irish passport and the first one was a four continenter. This one has been to all 5 continents and I think it deserves a break from travelling…… …although theres some cheap flight emails on the go at the minute…