Day 12: My Favourite Place on Earth

The pep talk I gave myself last night seemed to have worked. I went down to breakfast and got talking to an Aussie guy named Mark, who’s just driven about 4,300km from Vancouver to Toronto. He didn’t go to uni until 24, instead choosing to travel for a while, and said he’d highly recommend me hitchhiking down to the West Coast. I considered it for a while but there’s no real need for me to risk doing so. I’ve now found lifts to a lot of the cities I’ll be travelling to in the next nine or so weeks. There’s always next time though!

Naturally, I went back to the dorm a lot more confident and thought “the guy in the bunk below me can’t be that bad”. He really wasn’t. Con (that was his name) was another Aussie, who lives in Melbourne and spent the last three weeks working at a summer camp in New Jersey. According to him, the best time to get work in Australia is over the summer i.e. from December to February and bar-work is best found in Melbourne and Brisbane – the bars all close at 12 in Sydney. He said to get in touch if I’m ever in Oz, something I will definitely do.

After signing up for a free walking tour of Georgetown, I worked on a blog post, before deciding to venture out and find some lunch. After walking down K-Street, the home of dozens of lobbying firms and therefore, arguably, the most significant street in the world, I passed rows of food trucks on Farragut Square. Street food tends to be cheap, right? Not in DC. In a city built largely for working professionals, prices are vastly inflated beyond what they would ordinarily be. At a farmer’s market I walked past, for instance, green juice was being sold at $11 a bottle. That’s fine if you’re on a six-figure salary and leave the city at the end of the working week. It’s not so good if you’re on minimum wage and stuck there full time. It’s easy to see that, for the majority, survival in a city where 8.6% of the population are said to be millionaires, would be tough. Basic economics says as much.

Walking past the frat houses of George Washington University which, for the record, were surprisingly small, I came across a Segway tour. Now, some cities just don’t seem suited to them but DC definitely is. Riding down the National Mall from the Capitol to the Washington Monument would be incredible on a hot day, or any day for that matter. As it’s such a compact city and the buildings retain heat well, it often feels much hotter than it actually is. It can be 26*C but feel like 30*C, which is more UAE than USA.

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At the end of Constitution Avenue is the Lincoln Memorial, the only building I’ve ever seen from a distance and unwittingly said “WOW”. It’s seriously impressive. Photos don’t do its size any justice and its design is quite simply timeless. It’s very hard to imagine that it was built hundreds of years ago. Surprisingly, there are no security checks when you enter and I do feel it’s lost its touch a tiny bit. It’s a self-declared temple to Lincoln and, for that reason, “Quiet, respect please” signs are dotted around, all of which are ignored by noisy tourists taking photos, of which I was, admittedly, one. In decades gone by, when the majority of people still had an emotional connection to slavery and to segregation, would this have been the case? Who knows? Either way, it got me thinking: has time detached us from the implications of Lincoln’s work?  As I sat on the steps outside, watching Russian kids slide down the polished marble as if it were a slide, it certainly felt so. Regardless, I was still struck by just how powerful and thought-inducing that monument is. I guess everyone takes to it differently but for me, it raised the question of “What will my legacy be?”. Lincoln was a champion of human liberty; what will I champion? What will I do with my life? I just sat there transfixed for about half an hour. I don’t know what I was thinking about; I just knew that getting up and leaving didn’t feel right. It’s the sort of place that movie characters go to in those scenes where they’re having their breakdown or re-evaluating their lives.

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I spent a very brief couple of minutes at the Washington Monument, so short in fact that I won’t pass judgement on it, and then rushed back to the hostel for the tour of Georgetown I’d signed up for. 40 minutes of brisk walking and a lot of sweat later I got through the door, just in time, and guess what? It was cancelled! How peak is that! I did have quite an experience in the time that I would have been on it though. A guy, baked out of his mind and, for some reason, wearing those antique welding goggles, walked in with his girlfriend. I got the impression they’d just been evicted so I spent about 10 minutes explaining how hostels work to them. I say to them: it was more to her; he was barely functioning.

Later on, I found some free macaroni in the kitchen. With a bit of sauce from a grocery store down the road, it made for a pretty cheap meal. One thing I noticed was that even though the big grocery stores have economies of scale, the smaller ones seem to charge lower prices. I guess Americans are just willing to accept higher prices if they can buy everything from one store, rather than shopping around? Maybe it’s wise to buy from Trader Joe’s and Walgreens though. Either the pasta was out of date or the sauce but, either way, I felt pretty grim after eating it. Or, maybe someone hadn’t bothered to wash the cutlery before me. It wouldn’t surprise me.

Anyway, I sat down and ate with a few people. They all had headphones in or were on their phones so no-one spoke but that was fine. As I said yesterday, I’ve realised that hostelling can be as social or unsocial as you want it to be. You can treat it like a hotel or like a commune and that’s something I was really learning to appreciate.

Day 10: 9 hours on a train

I ate leftovers and Ben & Jerry’s for breakfast this afternoon whilst listening to a podcast on Spotify: The Foreign Desk’s ‘Democracies and the monuments of their past’. It was a particularly fitting thing to listen to right now and put forward some pretty solid arguments, as you’d expect when the guest speakers are all historians. What was particularly interesting was the way in which it looked at the current situation here in America within a wider historical context i.e. by comparing it to the tearing down of statues of Lenin and Saddam Hussein.
After eating my last meal of pad gra prow (Thai Basil Beef) that evening, I said goodbye to Greg and Hee Yeon and headed out the door. They were great hosts and I can’t thank them enough – it was the experience of meeting such kind strangers that led me to fully consider extending my trip. If they were horrible people, which they weren’t, then I’d have had second thoughts.
I walked to the T in the dark, not at all worried as by now I was accustomed to the route. My 7-day Metro pass had expired so I missed the train waiting at the platform by a matter of seconds whilst I paid for a single journey ticket. I probably could have run and caught it but by then I was sweating like mad simply from having a jumper on. I tend to travel in the heaviest clothes and boots I have in order to reduce the weight on my back but even at 8:30 at night, wearing more than 1 layer is foolish. Time was getting on and I began to worry about whether I’d make it to South Station on time – I’d spent about 4x my average daily spending on a non-refundable, non-transferable ticket so this train really wasn’t something I wanted to miss. It was all fine in the end though – I ended up with about 30 minutes to spare.

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After a disinterested Amtrak employee gave the briefest of glances to my ticket, I chose to get onto the ‘Quiet Carriage’. “I’m bound to get some sleep there, right,” I thought. “Not much but more than in other carriages”. Wrong. I got about 4 hours of fractured sleep that night, partly because I sat in the worst possible seat I could have found. It turns out that seats with the most leg room aren’t always the best places to sit on overnight trains. Seats in the middle of the carriage, where you’re not constantly being disturbed by people coming and going are. Regardless of where you sit though, none of the seats have blinds so it’s always a good idea to bring an eye-mask.
I finally got to sleep at about 12:30, as the train sat at the platform in New Haven (CT) for what seemed an age. An armed policeman walked through but that wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. I later realised that we’d stopped to wait for a freight train travelling in the opposite direction. It seems this is always the case simply because freight companies own the railroads. I guess business has priority over people here…
To be continued… 

Day 9: 44% Sugar Chocolate

Here’s a thought: I don’t know anyone in a 3,000 mile radius. Sure, I know Greg and Hee Yeon but, apart from that, I’m completely on my own. It’s a weird thing to think about but it’s not really worrying me – whilst the people I trust are 5 time zones away, so too are the rumours and preconceptions that blight people’s first impressions of you. In that sense, it’s liberating.
As ever, I spent the morning working and catching up on blog posts in bed. Ideally, I would have booked bus tickets from D.C. to Philly a few weeks ago but, as it turns out, not doing so was a better option. It seems that if you book them on the day, or the day before, you save about £10, compared to the advance ticket price. I also signed up for Kindle Unlimited, in order to get unlimited access to the majority of Lonely Planet guides on my laptop. I somehow ended up with a 7-day free trial, no strings attached, and a subsequent 30-days for free when I actually subscribe. I’ve attached a link in case anyone’s interested.
I was just about to post Day 7 when Greg’s friends arrived for his ‘chocolate sub-group’, a sub-group being a group of Church friends who meet outside of services in order to strengthen their faith and sense of community. The thought of not hiding away in my room and the prospect of free food led me to put it on hold. As it happened, that turned out to be for the next 6 hours.
It was worth it though. Jace, the 8-month old baby of one of the couples there took what I think were his first steps. He seemed to love the sound that was made when I flicked my lower lip with my index finger – I wish I was that easily entertained. Another friend, who’s name I forget, was about to begin some post-doctoral work at Stanford. We had a nice chat about the importance of finding an academic discipline that interests you and then just seeing where your exploration of it takes you. That’s the approach I seem to be taking to choosing a degree – if a subject interests me on my travels, as US Politics is doing at the moment, it might be something I choose to look into studying later.
My blood sugar rose so high during those six hours that, at one stage, I felt nauseous and had to sit down for about half an hour. You don’t expect chocolate to knock you out like that but put it like this: a bar of Hershey’s (39g) contains 17g of pure sugar… Whilst my mouth was thanking me for shoving in truffles and cookies and chocolate covered strawberries, my body most definitely wasn’t.
During that time, I also realised just how much I’ve warmed to the American accent; I almost barely notice it now. I think my own accent’s become a tiny bit Americanised as well; it wouldn’t surprise me if I come home in a few months with a full on American twang. I guess we’ll see at Old Boys…

Day 7: The Best Tex-Mex Food in Boston

Another lazy day today – I left the apartment at 3:30… I got up late so walked to the Trader Joe’s just round the corner to buy some food. I love that place! The really friendly bearded cashier gave me free food because it wouldn’t scan. I don’t know whether that’s company policy or whether he was just a nice guy?
Walking there, I was the coldest I’ve been in months – it was 19*C outside but that now feels like sweater weather, such is the hot weather I’ve grown accustomed to. I had goosebumps I was that cold… It got me thinking about which clothes I actually need and which I could afford to send home/sell. I can pretty much make do with 3 T-Shirts and one pair of shorts. I could keep a few more clothes but I think my main bag might be small enough to be counted as hand-luggage, at least on some airlines, which would save me a lot of time and checked baggage fees.
When I finally got into Boston, I found myself in the city centre at the same time the terrorist attacks were happening in Brussels and outside of Buckingham Palace. A few years ago I’d have freaked out but I thought about how slight the odds of anything happening here were and so carried on with my day.
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I returned to Faneuil Hall about 15 minutes before it closed, just in time to catch the last few minutes of a talk that a National Historical Park ranger was giving. Having never studied American Revolutionary history, the Freedom Trail was starting to bore me – a lot of the signs on the trail are repeating very similar information and I had no other perspective to look at things from. If you ever come to Boston, I’d recommend reading up on the Revolution first, if only on Wikipedia, as it would make the trail a lot more interesting. One thing that struck me though was how steeped in irony Faneuil Hall actually is. Built by a merchant who made his money from the slave trade, it was used in later years by dozens of abolitionists speaking out against federal laws on slavery. The centrepiece of the room is a painting of two Senators debating the Union, with the words “Liberty and union now and forever” inscribed underneath. Whilst the state abolished slavery in 1783, it was still compliant with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the courthouse around the corner housed many runaway slaves before they were returned to slavery. So much for liberty…
Around this time (5 pm) the majority of attractions in Boston close. I aimed to go Old North Church which closes at 6 but realised that, as it was quite a far walk from where I was, I wouldn’t have much time there. Instead, I walked past Dick’s Last Resort, a restaurant made famous by its obnoxious waiters,  and on to see the Boston Massacre Site. Most people walk over the large memorial plaque but with the 300-year old Old State House, the site of the massacre, still standing and nestled amongst skyscrapers, it’s easy to imagine the mob surrounding the building and the ‘Incident on King Street’ unfurling.
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The Old State House
I ended up at the marina, sat on one of the piers, watching super-yachts and occasionally steamboats come and go. Street performers seem to be actively encouraged in Boston, so the sounds of a busker playing the guitar and the chatter of restaurants nearby made for a really pleasant evening.
A few hours later, I’d arranged to meet Hee Yeon and Greg at one of their favourite restaurants and so got the T back from South Station to Harvard. By this time it was, naturally, fairly busy but I was still got the feeling that I was about to be targeted by a bag snatcher. A guy in a do-rag was giving me weird looks on the platform. He got on after me and then walked back and forth, up and down the carriage. I was sitting in a seat closest to the door and, eventually, he decides to sit on the opposite side of that door, on the same side of the carriage. It wasn’t a problem; I just walked back down the train to another door when getting off so as to keep some distance from him. It did make me realise just how much of an easy target I likely am though – being a baby-faced white guy with a distinctly British accent really does mark you out.
After nipping into one of the Harvard buildings to find somewhere to fill up my water bottle, I met with Hee Yeon and Greg at the Border Cafè, which is popular with students for its Cajun/Tex-Mex food.  On a Friday night, the queues are literally out of the door but for good reason. The chicken bandera I ordered was well worth the wait, as was the chimichurri steak, although it wasn’t the best I’ve ever had. That accolade goes to Abi & Eliav, some family friends of ours. One thing you don’t get in the UK are drinks served in 32oz (1 litre) cups which are constantly being replaced, even if you only about a quarter of the way through one. It doesn’t really make sense – why allow people to fill up on water and therefore order less food? – but I guess that’s American hospitality. Another thing I don’t really understand is how a large proportion of restaurant workers end up living below the poverty line. I know their take home pay is largely composed of tips, as opposed to wages paid by the restaurant, but even with people tipping 10-20%, they still don’t earn enough. I’m sure there’s a reason for this, I just don’t know what it is.
We stopped by CVS on the way back, to get food for a hike in the Appalachians tomorrow, at which point I was freezing cold again. I think it was probably tiredness reducing my ability to control my body temperature. Hopefully, I’ll be well rested before spending a night on an overnight train and then 3 nights in a hostel in D.C. next week but we’ll see…

Day 5: Inside the Massachusetts State House

I was on the T, reading that copy of the Havard Lampoon I picked up yesterday when I realised something. It’s often said that ‘Americans don’t get British humour’ but from what I read, I don’t get American humour. Bits of the magazine were genuinely funny but others just made no sense at all, at least to me. It was almost as if the editors had got high, written the stories and then just decided to go with whatever their frenzied minds had thought up. Here’s a link – does anyone else agree?
Four days after arriving, I finally felt like seeing a bit of the Freedom Trail, a 2.5-mile route through the city stopping at 16 sites significant to the American Revolution. I didn’t feel like rushing through things so decided to skip the walking tour and make use of the booklet I found on the internet, which I’m presuming is the exact same one they charge $13 for? It’s possible to do the entire trail in a day but since I’m here for another four, I thought I’d space it out.
The trail starts on the Boston Common, the oldest public park in America and the place where, over the years, dozens of pirates and ‘witches’ met their end. Martin Luther King Jr. also held a civil rights demonstration there back in the ‘60s. That all sounds good but it was hot and touristy so I left pretty quickly.
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What I mistook for the golden dome of a mosque a few days ago was actually the Massachusetts State House. I was told that tours needed to be pre-booked but found that you could just walk in through the unfortunately named General Hooker Gates and simply just join one.
Tourists seem to have free rein over the majority of the building. The office doors of Senators and Representatives are often left often, to counteract the heat of the New England summer and the Speaker of the House, Robert DeLeo’s office is in a publicly accessible corridor. In theory, anyone could just knock and enter. That would almost be the same as me strolling into Parliament and turning up on John Bercow’s doorstep…  Whilst such a way of doing things will undoubtedly be politically motivated, as it’s an easy means of proving transparency, it’s quite surprising just how open state politics here is or at least seems to be.
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This same logic applies to the Massachusetts’ political process itself, or at least in the House of Representatives. There’s no division system, as is the case in British politics: Representatives press a button on their desk to vote and their voting intention is instantly made visible, to all those present, on an electronic voting board. It seems there’s no way for them to hide their vote from their constituents or parties.
Having studied US politics last year, the 30-40 minute tour was extremely interesting. You begin by getting up close to the portrait of Lincoln on which the $5 bill is based. You then move through to Nurses Hall. Murals above you depict James Otis, a lawyer who, in 1761, argued against the British Writs of Assistance in a British court – those writs allowed English soldiers to enter private homes/shops in search of smuggled goods and subsequently seize anything they felt like seizing. Whilst Otis was inevitably unsuccessful in his plea, his case was hugely influential in both the triggering of the American Revolution and, later, in the creation of the 4th Amendment, which protects US citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures.
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Just down the road is the Old Granary Burial Ground which, surprisingly, isn’t as dead as it seems. Waiting outside the gates is a man named Jimmy Cole, a local historian, who lets anyone who’s interested borrow a guide he’s put together. All he asks is that you return it and pay a donation towards his daily living expenses, if you so wish. Looking at faded gravestones is never particularly exciting but I found it worth thinking about how much the people buried here have shaped US history. We’re talking Samuel Adams’ (one of the Founding Fathers’) and Paul Revere (an organiser of the Boston Tea Party and the man whose famous “Midnight Ride” marked the start of the Revolution) as well as the parents of Benjamin Franklin. I’d definitely recommend going, if only for a quick visit.
That was really the end of my day. The next site on the trail was Faneuil Hall but I was exhausted by that stage so decided to go back home and get some food.
You know when you’re so hungry that you’d eat anything despite knowing how bad it is for you? I was feeling like that so threw a pizza in the oven. “No worries. It’s quick, it’s easy!”. Whilst it was cooking I looked at the box. 2,280 calories. So if you fasted for an entire day and then ate just one 12” American pizza, you’d still be going over your recommended calorie intake. No wonder America’s got an obesity problem…

Day 4: Attending a KKK Rally?

I stayed in Alewife today and took a day off from exploring Boston. I’ve more or less decided that I’m going to skip my flight home in three weeks time and just keep on travelling. The only question I have is where to, so I spent a lot of today trying to map out some ideas. The trip I’ve planned so far ends in Pittsburgh, so two options, in particular, make sense. I’ve been told by a local that SoHo and Greenwich Village in New York are really exciting places to be right now, so I could quite easily head east and catch a train/bus into the city. Alternatively, I was speaking to a friend yesterday about countermarching at a ‘free speech’/white supremacy rally. It started out as a joke but I soon realised it was actually something I’d quite like to do. I’ve not found any rallies in particular but there seems to be a lot going on in Virginia/North Carolina at the moment so there’s always the option of me heading south.  After that, I’d quite like to spend a week or two road-tripping over to California, most probably through ride-sharing sites such as Carpoolworld.
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If, however, I’ve grown sick of America, I could always book the cheapest flight I can find to a country such as Thailand. British citizens are entitled to a 30-day visa exemption after which I could pay to extend it.
With so many options open to me, does anyone have any thoughts or advice?

Day 1: MAN to BOS

Leaving home, I wasn’t particularly excited. Last night I had the pre-trip jitters – “have I forgotten something?”,”Will the airline lose my bag?” (they didn’t but I wouldn’t have minded – being compensated for wearing the clothes you flew in for a few days is hardly the end of the world). This morning all that had gone, almost to the point of me being emotionally void. I was ‘flying the nest’, ‘going walkabout’ for (up to) 3 months and I felt nothing. No excitement, no terror. I guess because this is the trip I’ve been dreaming of since I was 14, there was nothing more I could do but go and see where I ended up.
I got the train to Wilmslow and still felt no excitement. “You’ll feel it when you get to Boston,” I told myself, “you’re not feeling it now because flying’s no longer a novelty.” I was wrong. I stepped off the connecting train at Manchester Airport and it hit me. I walked into the departure hall grinning like an absolute knob.
I checked in and was through to the gates in less than 25 minutes. I was happy that I could waltz through; the tetchy woman sorting trays for the scanner wasn’t. “Take your belt off”, “take your coat off”, “quickly”, “hurry up” “NOW!”. Lovely. Skipping the lines sounded good, but really it meant waiting around to board for longer. Alistair Humphrey’s second book ‘Thunder and Sunshine’ helped but I was still bored in the 2:30 hours I had to wait. Hardly promising for the weeks ahead!

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Fortunately, that boredom was somewhat alleviated by the flight. Having been playing music all day, my headphones decided all of a sudden to break before takeoff. So there I was, with no music or in-flight entertainment, repeating the following for the next 7 hours: eat, sleep, stare into space, repeat. In fairness, the food really wasn’t that bad. That said, I ate school food for the majority of my teenage years. A lot went on in my head in that time. I realised that Trump, a man with a nuclear football, is now in charge of my safety for the next however many weeks… What a thought!
I touched down in America at 3:20 EST. Waited for what seemed like an hour to get through customs. Put my fingerprints on record and was waved through with a stamp. Then waited for what seemed like another hour to collect my bags and changed my SIM card – I got 5GB of data free from Three but that’s a story for another day. Took my luggage tag off my bag to appear less of a tourist and then hopped on a Silver Line bus to South Station.
This is the point at which I thought I was going to be robbed. I put my bag on a bag rack and sat down on the back row. I noticed the guy sat next to me and a guy in a snapback & Timbs next to the door were making eye contact in a “we’re in this together kind of way”. Or so I thought. In my head, the guy next to me would block me in whilst the guy at the door would get off with my bag, just before the doors closed at a stop. I was just about to get out of the ‘situation’, by getting off with my bag and catching the next bus (they’re only every 15 or so minutes) when we got to the last stop. Shit! As it turned out, these guys had never met and both got off with their own luggage, baggage tags and all. I realised at this point just how on edge tired, jet-lagged me was. I guess at times like that it’s better to have your defences up too high than not have them up at all though.
After all that I took the T to Alewife (Ale-wife not Ally-wife) to finally meet Greg, my godmothers’ nephew and his wife Hee Yeon, who’ve kindly agreed to let me stay with them at their apartment in Cambridge. The Metro in Boston is great – you can get signal underground and (young) people tend to smile at you if you smile at them, instead of giving you a resting bitch face like you’d get on the Tube. The only bad thing is that the seats are rock solid. Like sitting on bricks.
Greg, as it turns out, is a really interesting guy. He’s just completed his doctorate at MIT and come back from a trip to Japan. His wife, Hee Yeon, is a Harvard grad, who grew up in Pittsburgh then moved to Boston when she met Greg. Both are lovely people and I found myself at ease and eating slow-cooked beef and sticky rice within minutes of getting through the door. By this stage, it was about 11 pm at home. I thought I’d try going to bed at a reasonable local time – apparently, it allows some people to sleep off jet lag within a single night. So I sat up and watched 2001: A Space Odyssey (weirdest film I’ve ever seen) and an episode of John Oliver’s ‘Last Week Tonight’ (how Trump hasn’t had him deported yet I’ll never know).
So, 21 hours after waking up, here I am in the States, tired but well-fed and well. The start of my gap year(s) couldn’t have gone any better!