Thursday, 25 October 2012

INSTANT!!! Day Out - Just Add Water

The Greyhound from Pittsburgh to Buffalo, the next stop on our route through the US, wasn't nearly as comfortable as the Megabus. It's the doddery great uncle of coaches, smelling faintly of wee, desperation and stacked with tall leather seats slick with the sweat of previous passengers. Megabus in comparison, is the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed gadget-savvy teen; vibrantly coloured and roomy with wide skylights and petulant wifi.

We've so far been travelling exclusively on Megabus, buying tickets back in July and August when we could get them for the fabled $1 a ride. But for some reason we had to catch the Grey to Buffalo and it was a piss-poor experience. The driver rarely took breaks leaving us no time for a roadside dinner. The connecting bus at Lake Erie failed to turn up so we were herded onto a bus, some of us baa-ing and moo-ing in indignation, with a different company. It was so full one poor bloke was forced to stand in the aisle for near on an hour until we reached the next stop. It rained the entire day, making each coach humid and uncomfortable. Whingewhingewhine. At one point, the driver braked at a set of red lights and instead of stopping, the bus skidded forwards for a few horrifying seconds on the slick tarmac.

wings from Anchor Bar on the second night
I was just excited to get to Buffalo. Ever since I was handed my first buffalo wing at a dive bar called Turtle Jack's, I fell into hot and spicy lust with this incredible sauce. I love it. So much so that I was given a gallon of it for Christmas last year. It looks pretty toxic - neon orange and the same thickness as Heinz tomato soup, with a lemony spiciness that isn't overpowering but gives food a flavourful kick. It is as fantastical and bold as Tom Selleck's moustache. And now I was going to Buffalo, New York state's second largest city, and the town that gave birth to this condiment dream.
The plan was to gorge on buffalo chicken for the duration of our stay.

It was pretty late when we got to Buffalo bus station. We threw our bags into the back of a cab, dumped our stuff at the hostel and headed right back out in the pouring rain and dodging screaming tramps to sate my hunger for buffalo chicken.

It was all I dreamed it would be. Five BONELESS wings saturated in delicious, spicy sauce accompanied by skin-on fries. Boneless wings. Effortless. They're not like chicken nuggets; these weren't shredded bits of poultry re-lumped together and fried, eyeballs, feet, gristle and all. No siree, pure meaty, white chicken. I'm not a huge fan of eating off the bone - it feels feral and I can never get to all the meat properly because I am hindered by tiny teeth and poor technique. Also I am worried about ingesting marrow even though it is reportedly delicious. What if another chicken needed a bone marrow transplant and I sucked away that chance? I don't really know what I'm talking about here, but my point is, boneless wings are

Food decimated and after a restful night's sleep in an eeriely quiet hostel that had all the fittings and fixtures of a lunatic asylum, we made tracks towards the locality's greatest attraction; the magnificent, marvelous and mighty Niagara Falls. Forty minutes on a local bus dropped us off a couple of minutes away from Rainbow Bridge, just a couple of hundred feet away from the millions of gallons of freshwater that cascades over American cliffs and into Canadian turf.

I don't really know what to say about Niagara Falls. It's Niagara Falls. A lot of water making a hellotta fuss. It's the sheer power of nature that people go to marvel at. The sound of so much water surging off the cliff sounds like a freight train gunning right towards your pathetic, fragile human body. You can get right up to the spray if you're on the US side - there's an elevator in the trunk of the observation deck that you can descend for just one dollar and a set of concrete stairs skirting around the side of the Falls. Cheap day 

You should definitely go and see it for yourself, but if you can't afford the airfare right now, feel free to photoshop yourself into my pictures x

Monday, 22 October 2012

Brits Ladding it Up in the Pitts

It's always nice hearing a fellow British accent when you're away from home. We'd only been on the road for a week, but when I heard Tom and Pat's familiar chat at the rest stop after leaving hum-drum pig's bum Toledo, I very nearly fell upon them like they were from the embassy and I had been released from a traumatic hostage situation. But in the way probably only the British do, I shyly skitted past them and reported my discovery to Gassonatron. She looked mildly interested but was far too busy celebrating our escape from Yawnsville, USA by yelping out all the amazing things we could see, smell, do and eat now that we'd mercifully rejoined civilisation.

Anyway, it wasn't until we rolled up in Pittsburgh and eyeballed each other's backpacks that we actually converged and conversed. The lack of hostels in the vicinity meant that they were most likely staying at the same place as us; Not Another Hostel.

Tom, blond and tall, leapt in first with a toothy hello. We sang back cordial greetings and then got on with the business of exchanging names, ages, where in England we were from (London, Devon, Devon, London by coincidink), and how long we'd been travelling (us: seven-ish days, them: around the two-month mark) before debating the merits of getting a taxi together. It was a choice of either hunting down two buses at $2.50 a ride, or piling into a cab and splitting the fare amongst us for a three mile journey. The obvo choice was to find the nearest cab with a capacious back end for all our junk.

I can't pinpoint the exact moment I realised Tom and Pat were Lads of the Highest Order, but it was probably when I suggested we stop for happy hour at a bar offering $1 beers on our way to finding Mount Washington. The original plan was to get up the cable cars and look down on the city by sunset, but we all quickly consented to a swift pint because frankly, at that price, the bar was practically paying us to drink.
Pint drained, mountain conquered, dinner inhaled (we all went for half-price chicken wings with various marinades - ONE OF THEM RASPBERRY. Blew my mind. I usually abhor the idea of pairing fruit with meat (par example pineapple on pizza. Who in the hell invented that? A right frickin' wrong 'un, that's who) but raspberry barbecue marinade on wings was Offish Delish*) and cab caught, we returned to the hostel to find our host Jon whizzing around the dorms, chucking bed linen and towels on mattresses for us.

We spent the rest of the evening in Church Brew Works, a pub in a church that had barely been converted out of its religious moorings into a palace of ale. Apart from the fact that the altar now housed a full-on brewery with copper pipes and tanks and stuff, the place would be ready for Mass at any given second. I wondered if they performed beer baptisms.

Seeing as Tom and Pat were in town for the same length of time as Leah and I, and we all wanted to see the same things, we decided to knock about together the next day. During this time we:

Ate at Primanti Bros, a restaurant known for its ridiculously stuffed sandwiches (fries, coleslaw and cheese are the default basic fillers) and immortalised on Man vs Food. Adam Richman basically jizzes his pants when he has one, and while it was good, I don't think my arteries could take eating another in a hurry.
On the Lad Scale of Ladditity, I'd give this activity a 8/10. It would have gotten more if bacon was involved.

Strolled down the strip, one long road round the corner from the hostel that led us into the heart of downtown Pittsburgh. We passed houses that had properly gone to town with Halloween decorations, scrap and junk yards, sections of dilapidated dockland warehousing and then grocery stores, bars and food markets. Here's where we picked up ingredients for dinner, because nothing marks out a bunch of Lads more than lamenting about the lack of houmous and selecting items to make falafel and salad for dinner.
Lad Scale of Ladditity rating: 6/10. Would have received a higher rating if we did it rat-arsed, goin ' fackin'  MENAAALLLL and with bits of kebab in our hair.
Went to the Andy Warhol museum. Located on the other side of the river, the museum houses six floors full of videos, magazines, art work, sculptures and installations created by the Daddy of Modern Pop culture. Warhol made his fortune by making the mundane and everyday into the iconic, so a lot of the stuff was a bit like, why am I trying to find artistic genius in this rubbish drawing of a Heinz ketchup bottle?
Then you turn the corner and WHAM! It's the iconic screen print of Elvis, or a giant replication of the front page of the New York Post using black glitter, or a space filled with rectangular silver helium-filled balloons floating dreamily around the room. Great place to while away the day, but the $20 admission fee seems a bit excessive.
Lad Scale of Ladditity rating: 5/10. A lot of it was awesome, but it made me think about social norms and how people behave and celebrity begfriending and yeah. Thinking is an unapproved activity in the Handbook of Laddism, Chapter Six, Coping with Culture so pĂ´ints had to be deducted for that.

Anyway, wicked time. Loved the Pitts more than Brad Pitt in Interview with a Vampire. Going to eat a burger now. Hugs and rainbows xx


Friday, 19 October 2012

Down in the Pitts

When I was researching Operation of US of Heeeyyy! a couple of months ago at work, there didn't seem to be many places to stay in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Then I stumbled across Not Another Hostel, run by Jon and his then girlfriend, on a donation-only basis. If you couldn't afford the suggested $25 a night, you could pay whatever you could or they would let you stay for free. A highly philanthrophic idea that seems rather unusual in the United States of Corporate America.

However, as Jon told us the night we arrived (holed up in a church that had been converted into a pub), he didn't always have good experiences. He left home at 18 after falling out with his ultra-religious parents and opened the hostel after returning from travelling for four years. His first group of visitors were in town for a music festival and invited total strangers to sleep in the lounge so that Jon woke the next morning to find a bunch of decrepit tramps on his sofa. Another flushed tampons down the toilet, causing the plumbing to break down and flooding the basement with a metre of shitty tampon water which cost $1000 to fix.

ONE GUEST EVEN SHAGGED JON'S GIRLFRIEND, then had the absolute cheek to hang out with him the following day and ply him with drinks. Out of guilt I suppose, but what the eff!? Who would have the nerve to stick around? Pig dog.

You'd think after this catalogue of horrendous episodes, Jon would just give up and shut the place down. Most people wouldn't have the heart to carry on. But Jon has 'social experiment' stamped through him like a stick of rock and a generally optimistic attitude, so not persevering was never an option.

The $25 per person per night donation keeps Not Another Hostel in operation. It pays for laundry, rent (the landlord is an old hippy who doesn't mind the place being used as a hostel), food, toilet roll and beer. Say the hostel is full every night, and everybody who stays coughs up the money, Jon easily clears $2500 dollars A WEEK, just from hosting travellers in his house. It's not even his full-time job, he runs a paragliding school over the city during the day. And because the hostel is donation based, there's no requirement for fire escapes, extinguishers or the need to pay additional tax or insurance. Schweet. The address remains a secret until you arrive, to avoid an army of tramps and vagabonds pawing the front door. Staying there is sort of like going for a sleepover at a mate's house; it's comfy and a bit messy but you don't feel awkward helping yourself to a beer.

It's a brilliant concept, and a pretty brave one too. I don't know if I could have randomers in my house ALL THE TIME. You couldn't wander around in your pants. Or watch Emmerdale without judgement. Or pretend you were starring in a reality TV show. Whatever.

It relies heavily on people not being douchebags. And while most aren't, you never know which sly bastard about to trip into your living room could be about to poke your girlfriend in the vagine.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Toledo - An All-American Mess-Up

From the minute we pulled into Southwyck 'shopping centre', I could see that planning a quick stop in Toledo, Ohio was a bad idea. It was a town mired in failure. The arsehole of the state, if not the country.

Signs for fast food looked like they were made entirely out of clipart. Retirement homes were deathly still. It was raining. Even the pavements seemed like they'd given up hope, ending suddenly for no apparent reason.

It's most famous resident ended up marrying the high Priestess of an American super cult, just to get the hell out of there. Katie Holmes is safely ensconced in a NYC apartment these days, but Toledo remains a right old dump.

Our motel, America's Best Value Inn, (which at $80 for two nights for two people and TWO DOUBLE BEDS did offer extremely good value) was a mere mile and a half down the road. Unfortunately, this stretch of road included a monstrous dual carriageway that had no safe passage for plebby pedestrians. We were urged to suppress our natural survival instincts by half-witted locals and told to traipse along the hard shoulder. Mate. No. So we rang for a cab.

Perhaps it's because we failed to tip the restaurant we were standing in front of, it could be because the cab company were undiluted douchebags who had no comprehension of running a business, maybe there was a cosmic prophecy that decreed all visitors who found themselves flailing on streets the streets of Toledo would be gawked at but not offered assistance. Who knows? The whole town exists under one big grey question mark.

After forty minutes of watching a heavily obese man attempting to mow the carpark asphalt with his mobility scooter/lawnmower, ten minutes of wandering around Trotter's Tavern and five asking questions at a petrol station, a kindly grandfather offered to drop us off on the other end of the road. It was a risk getting into his car, but by that point the weight of the backpack on my bra straps was in serious danger of loping my arms right of.

We made it to the motel and the next day, feeling brave, decided to head into downtown Toledo to see what the place had to offer. Ziltch.

The only form of culture we derived from that outing was the deranged screaming of a black woman on the bus, who was seriously cheesed off with her husband/ the rain/ waiting for the bus/ Hello Kitty dolls. She was 70% rage, 20% fury, 10% weave: 'I DAWG ON TELL Y'ALL CALL ME WHEN THE BUS COME...YOU SHUT YO' LYIN' ASS, YOU DI'NT TELL ME NUTHIN'.... UH HUH, UH HUH MAKIN ME LOOK A CRAZY ASS FOOL. AH DAWG ON HATE STOOPID PEOPLE!!!'

So that's the short of it. I also nearly got run over in front of Taco Bell, befriended a crackhead and plucked my eyebrows. I can't write anymore, it's too depressing. Never go to Toledo.

Unless you're looking for someone to mow your driveway.

Boresville, USA

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Le Freak, c'est Chic

I'm writing this post a couple of days after leaving Chicago so details are a bit hazy. Here's the stuff I can remember:

1. Drinking $5 martinis with elderly Republicans at a suburban bar called Black Steer. Mick and Marlene* were exactly what you'd imagine suburban Americunts to be. After making racial slurs about Mexicans and muslims and attacking Obama (the hottest man in politics), Mick presented me with the address of a shooting range and made me pinky promise to send him a postcard from bible-belt country. Lad.

2. Eating a crabcake burger in a PRETZEL bun. It was delicious; chewy and salty but without feeling disgustingly heavy. Move aside, brioche.

3. Standing underneath 'The Bean' or 'Cloud Gate' in Millennium Park. It's a steel installation by Anish Kapoor that resembles a giant silver coffee bean. Perfect for looking at the reflections of Chicago's skyscrapers.

4. Eating a deep dish pepperoni pizza on Navy Pier. Law in Chicagotown.

5. The spectacular view across Lake Michigan from the Signature Room. Lake is a bit of an understatement, I'm fairly sure you could fit the whole of England into that area, maybe even squeeze Wales in too. On a clear day you can see five States. It's dazzlingly high. I don't know how window cleaners do it.
I found the best view was right outside the ladies toilet cubicles, where after you've finished your business, the door opens out in front of floor-to-ceiling glass windows and you can spot the rich and restless frolicking in their heated rooftop pools.

*names have been altered to censor the racist, right-wing and downright ridiculous.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Two Guys One Cup

On my first morning in Chicago, we headed to the 7-Eleven where I secured myself a Big Bite hotdog with all the trimmings for a mere $1.29. Breakfast sorted, my attention was turned to the day's local voting statistics, the popularity of each candidate helpfully illustrated via the medium of coffee cups.

The cups say one thing, but the numbers another. If I drank coffee and my opinion counted, I would have picked up a blue recepticle. Obviously. Also, I read in a magazine that if the dastardly double act that is Romney and Ryan get into the White House, all the kittens in the northern hemisphere will die. Or something to that effect.

Eff that.

Nobody Expects an American Inquisition

Lee the passport control guy looked as bored as I was excited. After a nine hour Virgin Atlantic flight, five months of planning and approximately fifty word doc pages worth of emails, Leah and I had MADE IT to O'Hare passport control in Chicago, our gateway into the States and the starting point of the greatest ever American adventure to have happened in the history of 2012.

'What are you doin' here ma'am?'

'HELLO! I'M TRAVELLING,' Too enthusiastic. Calm it down, start again. 'My friend and I are here for a couple of months seeing the country.'

'Uhhhhh huh,' he flips idly though my well-used passport, gently stroking the stamps from Dubai and South Africa. He reminds me of Lenny from Of Mice and Men. He looks bewildered at my Indian visa, 'and what do you do for a job... Ehhhhbah?'.

As of last Monday, nothing. I am funemployed and spunking money on journeying across the land of the brave and free, seeing the whole shebang from sea to shining sea. Buffalo, New York, Graceland, Salem, New Orleans, Hawaii, in one three-month gulp. I can't tell Lee this though. He looks bored enough to embark on a full-on interrogation. So I show him some teeth and get creative with the truth. 'I work in the media.'

Nearly true. He looks unsure. I can see him thinking of more questions to ask me. We both wait in anticipation. Eventually he gives up, scans my fingerprints, takes a snap of my face and waves me through.

Welcome to America.