Friday, July 22, 2011

Oh! I remembered!

I remembered what I was going to say when I got on the tube.

Dearest Perth friends, I will be back in May as my darling sister, Stefanny Catsanus, will be marrying her boyf, Dean (I don't have a rude name for him yet, but it shall come, soon-to-be-brother-in-law!). I have apparently been made a bridesmaid and will start practicing...whatever I need to practice to do that well. Getting drunk and sleeping with the groomsmen? KIDDING MUM! How can I sleep with them if I'm in London and they're in .... Moranbah/Port Kemblar/Perth.

I just came from a job trial for that touristy pub. I was going to stick it out because they pay me, but I felt crappy (from my cold, not morally) and it was a horrible pub. One of those giant chain places that make sure you have an immaculate appearance. No thanks. Five years of St Mary's dictating exactly what I look like was more than enough. I'm not going to change my hair and take my nail polish off for a shitty pub job. They also started the trial with a DVD and said there was booklet we had to fill out afterwards. Seriously? What am I in year four again? The half an hour of DVD I watched was all about making sure you "sell up and sell more" which is one of the most frustrating things and I refuse to do it. I know its all about making money, but if I wanted a fucking bowl of nuts with my pint I would have asked for it wouldn't I?! So I got up and told the guy I wasn't interested anymore and that I didn't want to waste his time or money [my Friday afternoon]. He looked at me like I just said I don't small fluffy animals and then let me go. Phew.

So now I'm definitely working at Sacred Cafe where I can have nail polish and have whatever hairstyle/piercings and shoes I want. Bring on forty hour weeks on minimum wage!

I'm going to go and watch Bridesmaids again in preparation for whatever hideous dress Mum (the wedding planner) will put me in.

First 2 weeks

I currently have a cold and am feeling a bit shitty and mopey (I want vegemite damnit! Alas my vegemite is in my big suitcase which by now is probably back in Illinois) but life is otherwise looking up at the moment. I should really be going out and getting a National Insurance Number and opening a bank account but seeing as I'm hacking and coughing and just generally feel like staying on the couch - that's what I'm going to do. Blog writing totally counts as being productive though.

Oh, so my suitcase. My friend in Champaign was the only person who could do anything about it because she is the shipper. I technically have nothing to do with it at the moment. So she had to have it shipped back to Champaign and then she will send it to me in London. It's going to be expeeeeeeeensive but at least I will see my dirty cons, shiny hipster shoes, Michelen Man Jacket, purple umbrella and polaroids again.

So I guess I should start with the best news. I have a job and somewhere to live! And they both pretty much happened yesterday. I had a flat interview in Bethnal Green (East London). I didn't get my hopes up because it was only the third one I had seen and I realised how naive I had been about finding somewhere to live. Anyway, the flat is on a quiet street but close to the Bethnal Green Underground (which is on the Central Line - super handy for my job). I will share with three other people - a Canadian guy, and two girls whom I haven't met yet. The guy, Daniel, was really friendly and kept saying how 'chilled' the house is. He said he liked me and would convince the others to let me move in, which I guess he did. Hazaar! The room is smallish but it has a double bed/it's a roof over my head in a nice flat with nice people. It's £460 pm (~$AUS690) which I can just afford on my new full time minimum wage job.

I had a job trial at a kiwi owned cafe in Soho in Central London. I'm not super happy about working in London with people who are from New Zealand (as in because they're not from England, not because they like sheep) but it's a friendly place to work, I'll get to be a barista again and they pay 7p (~10c) more than the pubs where I was offered a place. I have a trial this afternoon at The Silver Cross, a touristy pub in Trafalgar Square. I'm going to go, but I'm not really that interested. My boss/manager from the kiwi cafe, called Sacred Cafe, said I can text her tonight after my trial and if I still want the job I start full time on Monday. After all the bitching I do about tourists, it's probably not good for me to forced to smile and do everything they ask for 40 hours a week.

My initial plan to get a live in pub job failed when no one replied to my applications on gumtree and I asked at a few Central London pubs and they said they don't do it any more because of the GFC. I think I'd be happier in a flat, away from work anyway - even if I won't be able to afford much else.

So by the time I move into my room in Bethnal Green I will have been couchsurfing for two weeks, with three different people. I freakin' love couchsurfing but it's driving me a bit nuts now. I want my own space and I want to lie in bed without feeling guilty/thinking about the reference I'm going to get at the end of it.

George Orwell's house in Hampstead.

My first host Asia (in Hampstead near Camden) was...not that great. She gave me my own room, a plate of Indian and a mobile to borrow. She also barely spoke to me and asked me to pay for electricity which breaks major couchsurfing rules. I bought her a pot of roses damnit! So I'm breaking another one and not writing her a reference. I'm scared she'll say I treated her like a "free hostel" which is a really horrible thing to say about a surfer, but I had to do that when she didn't engage in conversation and then asked me to leave her alone for a day. Cow.

Giulio and his flatmate Frederica a "summer" festival. We got drenched in the rain.

Giulio (Lambeth/Brixton - south eastish) was an amazing host. He was fun and bubbly and generous. He took me to reggae concerts in the park where we danced in the rain, got me a cheap ticket to a dubstep/reggae dj concert and put me up for two nights longer than I originally asked because I was a bit stuck. His housemates were super nice and offered tips for finding a job and somewhere to live and made me amazing pasta at all hours of the day (so much pasta!). I definitely plan on keeping in touch with Giulio.

Brixton Jamm

Giulio and pasta.

Oh. I also saw Harry Potter with Giulio's flatmate, Frederica. It was kind of strange. I don't think I'm madly in love with Harry anymore (please don't stop talking to me Stench), but like everyone else my age I wanted to see it to experience the final installment from a major part of my childhood/teenage years. It was an okay movie, I guess. Some of it was a bit shitty, as always and the "nineteen years later" bit was almost more painful to watch than it was to read in the book. I forgot how ridiculously emotional and dramatic it was and spent most of the movie with tears streaming down my cheeks, underneath my 3D glasses. It also made me feel a bit homesick. I've always seen Harry Potter movies with close groups of friends and reading Harry used to be like a safety blanket to me (/everyone my age). Alas, I am "grown up" now (what the hell does that even mean?) and out in the real Harry Potter world (London) seeing the movie with a relative stranger (we weren't even sitting next to each other!).

Harun (Kentish Town, near Camden) is also pretty cool. He's laid back and easy going and even gave me a key to his apartment so I can come and go as I please. I feel bad because I've been a bit tired, stressed and now sick so I haven't felt like going out much but he understands and has even given me an amazing cold and flu remedy. He has another surfer coming this weekend but he said I can stay until I can move into my room on Sunday, which is awesome. The thought of finding another host, packing my shit up and carting my broken suitcase across town again makes me want to give up altogether.

So I'm getting used to London a bit more now. I don't get lost quite as often as my first few days and I can confidently get myself around on the tube (go me!). Although I am going to start looking into getting a bike because it's stupendously expensive. I like the weather, well, when I'm not caught in the rain wearing thongs. I'm getting quite sick of all the clothes I've been wearing for the past two and half months and can't wait til I have a few extra £s and can buy something DIFFERENT. I feel like I had a whole lot of other things to say but it seems the current amount of mucus in head spaces has prevented me from remembering. Basically, all is well amigos! Or it will be well very soon.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Sian Met Uncle Sam and Then Moved to London

I'm in the process of redoing my blog to be more UK appropriate. I know the header is not centered but I can't be bothered working out how to do it now. I should really be redoing my CV (apparently the British way is to have only one page), printing it out and then going job hunting.

I chose the "Keep Calm and Carry On" thing because it seems a relevant thing to have on my blog with all the problems I keep having. As long as I keep calm and carry on, it's all going to be okay. There's not point sitting down and having a cry about the fact that I might not see my suitcase ever again or that I hadn't slept for two days, got lost in Central London trying to find my bus stop and then my suitcase broke and I had to carry the 18kg beast instead of wheeling it behind me because that's not going to get me anywhere. You know?

It was originally printed on a whole lot of posters by the British government at the beginning of World War Two to raise morale in the public, but now it's a massive tourist thing. Like Uncle Sam. I seem to like war paraphernalia.

So far I have found London a bit unfriendly, it's fucking impossible to find free wifi (one woman asked me what wifi is) which seems ridiculous and it's way more difficult to get myself around that in North America. Every city should have grid systems! I'm missing America a bit, to be honest. I have also spent £120 already (about $AUS180) just on basic food and transport. However, English Starbucks makes better lattes, their oranges are nice and I like the way London looks super English. It looks more English than America looks American. Also my accent is already changing.

I was couch surfing in Hampstead, near Camden Town, with this woman who had heaps of couch surfers come through her house. She had some other couch surfers while I was there who constantly spoke about "beautiful human beings", "auras" and how the world is "such a beautiful place." It's all right, I guess. No, I'm kidding. The world is an amazing place, but I'm not into sitting around and referring to people as "humans" and the "positive love and energy" in the cities I've been to. One of the guys cried because he saw how much rubbish was left over after Glastonbury. But I feel like they were real travelers. Couch surfing everywhere, sleeping in parks and busking for money for food everyday.

I loved her apartment and she put me up for free (although she did ask for money for electricity which I thought was a bit uncouchsurfing-esque) but I didn't feel welcome in her house and felt like I was always in her way. In fact she asked me to leave the house one day even though I had been keeping to myself on my laptop the day before. Whatever. I am now couch surfing near Brixton with an Italian guy, Giulio, and his Italian housemates. I definitely feel way more welcome and some of them have suggested cheap rooms in their friends places that I could move into, as well as tips on finding a decent job. Giulio pretty much said I can stay as long as I want which is super nice, but I am going to start looking for jobs. Like actually going out onto the street and handing my CV out.

I had a house interview on my third day here but it was living with two girls in their late 20s and they were looking for someone close to their age which is fair enough. I was initially looking for a live in pub job but I thought if I found somewhere to live then it would open up my options for jobs. I think now I will find a job first and deal with living arrangements later. I can always couchsurf for a bit.

For those not sure, it is "summer" here which is kind of nice, although I would prefer if it was a bit colder.

I have a UK number, so send me an email and I'll give it you so we can all be text pals. I will keep you posted with anything exciting when/if it happens.

I only like New York as a friend (maybe with benefits)

Apologies for the long post. I was too lazy to break it up as I wrote it all in one in a Word document at the airport.

I got out of immigration in JFK at about midnight and all the shuttle buses had stopped running or were booked out for their last trip. Being as tired as I was, I really wasn't keen to get the subway straight away but I also knew I couldn't afford a taxi (or be bothered waiting in the stupendously long line), so I asked someone and they straight away said to get the subway. Can't be that difficult then. It really wasn't. I got to my hostel at about 2am and went straight to bed in my 12 bed all girls (ew) dorm room.

I soon discovered that they were all tall, skinny girls with long blonde hair and pink suitcases. The kind of girls that make the rest of us get weird haircuts and wear strange clothes in the name of being 'alternative' [to skanks]. Anyway, enough about my insecurities. My first day I figured I should do some exploring so I got the subway to Times Square. I'd always been really excited about Times Square but it's kind of gross. There were so many freakin' people and it was disgustingly hot, as soon as I'd seen the main view (towards the police department) I wanted to leave. It reminded me of Las Vegas, actually. All those trashy flashing lights and commercialism.

Don't know why I bothered taking a photo - you all know what it looks like anyway.

I grabbed a map from one of those guys trying to sell city tours (on the big double decker buses – why would you do that? You see so much more on foot) and realised I was really close to the Rockerfeller Center.

I can hear the theme song when I look at this photo.

I make fun of people who go on those Sex and The City Tours of the city but I guess I'm no better, considering how excited I got about being somewhere that is featured in 30 Rock. Except I am, because 30 Rock is quite possibly the greatest show ever and SATC is about a bunch of whingy women – I seriously feel sorry for all of Carrie Bradshaw's boyfs, not only does she look like a foot, but she doesn't stop complaining. (Please don't stop reading if you're a hardcore SATC fan, I'm sorry). I was grinning for about twenty minutes non stop.

I might not be smiling there but I was pretty excited. This is the first and only photo where I asked a stranger to take a picture of me. It was worth it.

I tried to the find the Museum of Modern Art because it was a couple of blocks away on my map, but seemed to be hiding from me so I gave up and headed to Central Park. It's nice I guess. It was reeeeaaallllly busy but it was very pretty.

I walked around for a while, found Strawberry Fields and then headed back to the hostel, which was two blocks from the south west corner of the Park.

I had been craving cold beer all day and so I walked to the closest supermarket to buy a six pack (cheaper than going out) and some Ramen and bread to save money on food. I also made the switch from iced lattes to iced coffee with milk at Starbucks, which is half the price. I walked upstairs to the kitchen to put my beer in the fridge and was greeted with the NO ALCOHOL ALLOWED ON PREMISES sign stuck to the fridge. How incredibly lame. I'm really not a fan of the hostel I stayed in. After couch surfing and then staying with Sam and her family it was extra lame. It was twice as much as any of the others I'd paid for and definitely the worse. It wasn't bad, per se, it was just worse than the others I was in. The staff weren't very friendly (apart from Steve, the night guy who was one of those people that just make you happy because he was so friendly), the bathrooms were terrible, the wifi only worked occaisionally, it was somewhat antisocial and no alcohol allowed. Although there was no curfew which I liked. And the room I was in was really big. And the location was amazing. 60th and 9th in the West Side, two blocks from a subway station. Wicked.

That night I ate some Ramen (like 2 minute noodles/mi goreng) and went to bed early, still exhausted from the night before. Wednesday morning, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by the heat and the tourists so I spent a day in the New York Public Library, taking advantage of the airconditioning, wifi and significantly less tourists (although apparently some of them know about books, too. I guess it is in several movies). It's an amazing building, inside and out. I recommend you go. I was also really stressed about moving to London in four days without a job or anywhere to stay so I spent some time sorting that out. Although I still don't have a job. Or anywhere to stay longer than three days.

El Library.

That afternoon, I met up with Samir, a couchsurfer who had caught the bus from Jersey to hang out with friends in NYC during the day. I had posted a message asking if anyone else was going to the Kid Cudi concert and wanted to come with me, and Samir decided to buy a ticket at the door for significantly less than I paid for mine. It was in Brooklyn at the Williamsburg Waterfront which has an amazing view looking across the river back a Manhattan.

I'm not a huge fan of Kid Cudi but I thought it would be cool to see him in New York as that's where he's from. His support act, Chip tha Ripper, sung/rapped only about smoking weed (which Kid Cudi does a lot, I guess, but he's better at it) and I couldn't help thinking I could have sold my ticket and got some money. But then he came on stage and I chilled out a bit.

Unfortunately I was surrounded by a swarm of teenagers and didn't think to move away from them/go to the over 21 area so I was a bit grumpy. There was a huge amount of weed. I hadn't smelt that much weed since I was in California, except people were getting caught and having it stamped into the ground. We're not in California anymore, Toto. Or whatever the quote is. It was kind of funny to watch mildly stoned people try and pretend they didn't have any when the guards had just seen them take a hit.

Kid Cudi finished on one of my fave songs after making a huge speech about everyone going through their own problems and it being okay and that we should all stick together and support each other because we're all on our own “Pursuit of Happiness.” It was incredibly corny but it totally worked.

Tried to capture the city line at night. Seemed to have captured a ghost instead.

Samir and I got separated but we found each other on the street on the way back to the subway station. We bought some beer from a supermarket because we knew it was a cheaper option and had a few hours before he had to get his bus back to Pennsylvania. The plan was to find somewhere to drink it but we ended up buying juice, pouring the juice out, filling the bottles up with beer and heading to Times Square. Our cheap option beer turned into $6 beers.

Standing in front of NYPL and looking down Library Ave.

The next day I went back to the library – I really don't like summer, and those Chile blogs took me a while to write. Once I'd finished writing them I forced myself to enter the real world again and ventured out to MOMA. I've seen some pretty cool exhibitions this summer and even though I've always wanted to go to MOMA, I wasn't that keen, but Mum insisted and I knew I'd probably regret it otherwise. It was good, I guess. I saw some more abstract expressionism, pop art and documented performance art (Pollock, Warhol, Johns and Rauschenberg, Acconci, Benglis) that I studied in Art History which made me really happy, oh and some Van Gogh and Monet, but apart from that it was mostly 'eh.' I used to think I could look at art all day every day, but I guess not.

The weekly couchsurfing meetings in New York are on Thursday nights, so I took the subway to the West Village and went to Central Bar. I was talking to some Turkish people, and then some Americans and then a middle aged guy from Queens who seemed to have a mail order bride from Russia (probably not but that's what crossed my mind when I saw his thick gold chain and when she introduced herself) and then a hipster from Chicago who went to school at UIUC! We chatted for a while about how Urbana is way cooler than Champaign and then swapped travel horror stories. I told him about getting bed bugs and moving to London with $400 to my name, no job and no where to live and he told me about moving to New York with $100 and a broken arm. I said he won. He was living in the West Village on an air mattress and introduced himself by saying he had just seen someone shoot up heroin on his way over to the bar. Unfortunately, he disappeared at one point and no one really knew who he was so I didn't get to see him again.

Every second couch surfer I spoke to offered me a spot on their couch when I complained about/mentioned I was in a hostel which I probably should have accepted even though I had already paid. I was always a bit overwhelmed with the options of things to do and see in New York and would have loved to have someone recommending things to do. I also got made fun of for being in a hostel. By all couchsurfers. Apparently that makes me a tourist. How dare they.

A bunch of people went out afterwards. We first headed to The Beauty Bar, a bar where girls could get a cocktail and a manicure for $10. Although, when we got there it was really quiet so we moved on to a club with an underground dance floor and exposed brick walls. I can't remember everyone's names but we were a group of about ten to start with. A middle aged Taiwanese guy was with us handing out glow sticks which soon turned into making glow stick earrings, handcuffs and eventually biting them open and spraying the liquid on each other. Try not to get that stuff in your mouth, it doesn't taste great. But your spit will glow which is kinda cool.

After dancing all night the others in the group accompanied me on the subway even though I said I could do it myself. It probably would have been better if I went on my own because they persuaded me to get off several stops too early, when I was fairly sure I had to stay on. Rather than wait another 45 minutes for the next train at 4am, I decided to walk the twenty odd blocks with what felt like severely bruised feet from dancing all night.

Midday on Friday I rolled out of bed and met Andrea, a Peruvian girl living in Salt Lake City, Utah and visiting her aunt in Jersey. We walked across the Brooklyn Bridge (I wanted to explore Brooklyn during the day but we got off the subway on the Brooklyn side), met another couchsurfer for lunch, Bart (yes, as in The Simpsons) from The Netherlands staying in an apartment in Chinatown for five weeks, got bubble tea, met another couchsurfer, Mohammad from India/Pakistan but living in Queens and went to a bar.

The vertical smudge in the background to the left of me, next to a horizontal smudge - is The Statue of Liberty.

Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge.

The New York couchsurfing crowd is unlike the others I have encountered, as far as I could tell anyway. They seem to ignore the “don't use couchsurfing as a dating site” rule and sleep with their hosts/surfers. And then gossip about it. Well, no, they sleep with each other's surfers and then bitch about each other behind their backs. They were like high school kids. I thought it was really funny at first and then I got kind of sick of it. If I wanted to sit around and bitch about who was sleeping with who, I wouldn't have left Perth. But they were cool people and I did have fun with them/I joined in with the gossiping. Gotta put my private school education to use every now and again anyway, right?

Mohammad, Bart, Andrea, Giles (from France) and I went to Mohammad's tiny, mildly depressing, one room apartment in Queens to continue drinking after we abandoned Nabi (Uzbekistan) and his latest floozy (Hawaii, who was originally Mohammad's surfer) at the subway (see what I mean? Bitchy!). Mohammad is Muslim and doesn't drink and he had a bottle of Bailey's that surfers had unknowingly left him so Bart and I happily finished it off, after Mohammad had a sip (pretty sure Allah won't like that). Nothing much really happened. We drank, chatted, listened to music and kept Mohammad's Russian surfers awake. I discovered that none of them knew what Ayers Rock/Uluru is. I thought that was all anyone knew about Australia. Thankfully they had heard of kangaroos. I walked back from the subway station to the sun coming up.

Now, I had a big suitcase which I left with a friend in Champaign. I had left her some money, an address and instructions to FedEx it to me in New York a few days before I got there, so I could pick it up and take it to London with me. That way avoiding paying check in luggage fees for a bag full of clothes that I didn't need during summer. Unfortunately, FedEx stuffed up somehow and it didn't get to me in time. I tracked it on Saturday just to check, as I had worked out that it should have been there the day before. It was in Brooklyn in a closed warehouse (because it was the weekend) and was scheduled to get to Manhattan the day after I left for London. Fucking great. So I did some calling around and discovered that there was pretty much nothing I could do because everything was closed for the weekend, including changing my flights to stay in New York and wait for my bag. Had to leave and hope that I could sort it out from London, where it would cost at least $400 to have it sent to me. Eugh.

After spending the morning arguing with customer service on the phone, I met Bart in Chinatown to go to Coney Island.

We ended up getting there late afternoon although it was still extremely busy. We walked along the boardwalk to the beach, and found a spot among the thousands of others. Not my idea of a nice beach experience, but then again I'm not really a beachy person. The water was freezing at first but beautiful after a while. Even if it was filled with jellyfish. And had no waves. And was a murky blue/grey colour. I realised that was the first time I had been to the beach (and in the water) since I went to Lancelin with friends the weekend before I left Perth. At the couch surfing meeting someone had recommended I go because the beach is “just beautiful.” I said “I'm from Australia, we have pretty amazing beaches. I highly doubt that a beach in New York is going to compare to Australian beaches.” She didn't seem to get it. Bart revealed that he had never heard of vegemite and I wondered what they were told about Australian in The Netherlands.

That night we (couchsurfers) went to a rooftop party in Brooklyn. I have always wanted to go to a rooftop party/bar and there seemed like no cooler place to go than Brooklyn. As you can imagine it was filled with hipsters. There were drinks for a donation price (I think the money went to some kind of theatre organisation/school), photography projected onto a wall inside, crimping, poetry and contemporary dance performances. The second last guy to perform did this bizarre dance where he acted like a child/retard and asked the audience for hugs. The kind of performance that made most people go “What the fuck? Can someone get me another PBR [hipster beer]?” But I spoke to the Nabi afterwards about it and we managed to make sense of it between us which was cool [pretentious] of us. We all left at about 3am. The party had died down and I knew I had to get up early to try and fix my Fed Ex problem (to no avail).

I spent the next day on the phone and on the couch in my hostel. Whinging about my situation and lack of sleep. It wasn't exactly how I had imagined my last day in America. Well maybe, the hungover bit. I would really like to go back to New York and stay for much longer than a week. Like a couple of months. They say that even people who have lived there their entire life don't see most of the city, so how can people be expected to see even a decent chunk of it in a week? It makes little to no sense. I guess if you're just doing all the major touristy attractions/shopping it's fine but as I keep saying that doesn't interest me. I'd much rather just walk around, go to cafes, bars, restaurants, rooftop parties etc. Besides I didn't even make it to the Seinfeld restaurant or the soup kitchen or order a slice of pie and chocolate shake from a diner in the middle of the night.

Next time I go travelling I'm not going to plan it all out and have more freedom to stay in one place if I really like it. Although that would mean I'd probably still be in Portland. Also never travelling in high tourist season again.

So I have absolutely loved my time in The States. Friends and family often asked me if I got sick of the accent or found Americans annoying and neither of these things ever happened. In fact I like the accent (I miss it already. I'm writing this in cafe in Hampstead Heath, near Camden, after just eating my first English breakfast :) ) and have now become a confident defender of the Americans. Sure there's fat, stupid, obnoxious Americans out there but there are fat, stupid, obnoxious Australians, English, Spanish and Chinese as well. Besides, they have a ginormous population and they can't all be wonderful people. Pretty much all of the Americans I met were amazing and didn't come close to fitting the ridiculous stereotype that most Australians hold about Americans. I'm going to miss how friendly everyone is (even in New York), how easy it is to get around, how every city I went to was completely different from the last and how the Australian dollar actually means something there. I definitely plan on going back one day.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Sian's Guide to Not Getting Mugged/Kidnapped/Raped/Brutally Murdered In An Alleyway

I'm always shocked when other travelers congratulate me on what I've been doing/am going to do. I don't really think it's that challenging but people seem to be impressed. A Welsh girl who was staying in my hostel in New York called me a 'rager' when I said I'd been getting the subway everywhere. Hey, we can't all afford the luxury of a cab (I can barely afford the subway actually) and if New Yorkians can take the subway then so can I. It never occurred to me that I was particularly brave. I thought everyone got their selves around like I have been. So I have compiled some tips and a list of things that I have picked up. It occurred to me to write this when I was stumbling along the twenty blocks from the wrong subway station to my hostel in Manhattan at 4am the other night.

Also an American guy I met in Vegas told me to buy some pepper spray when I said I was going to New York because I “will get kidnapped.” I was all “bullshit, Manhattan is safe. I'm not going to be an idiot and walk around Brooklyn or West Harlem in skimpy dress at 2am” and then he made me promise to buy some. I'm too poor for self defence items (I met a girl from Utah in NYC who carried a tazer around with her) so instead this is how I avoid being kidnapped.

Confidence, Cohen.

The first and most valuable point is to be confident. And if you're not – pretend. I can't can't act for shit, but I can pretend to be confident if I need to be. And I feel way more at home when I do. I learnt to do this in San Francisco when I walked home from the subway through the deserted Mission, which looks kind of dodgy. The Lonely Planet said something about “be wary of gangs” but I never saw anyone threatening looking. I don't know if I trust the Lonely Planet all that much, any more. A Russian/Korean couch surfer in New York kept saying “walk around like you own the place.” You might look like a dick but no one will bother you.


If you're really shit scared and have that worried, lost puppy look on your face, I recommend wearing sunglasses and listening to your iPod. Listen to hip hop or something that makes you feel hardcore. Or I guess you could put your headphones in to make it look like you're listening to something so you can hear if someone is following you, but this generally makes me more paranoid. Music will relax you. Also, if you're so inclined – smoking. You know those people you see taking a drag on their fag every couple of steps? Blowing smoke into oncoming pedestrian's faces? They look scary. I wouldn't try and mug them. They know where they're going and their comfortable enough to smoke. Plus then you have a weapon – cigarette burn to the face should distract a potential rapist for a bit. Sure, they're not going to live as long, but then it's win/win. No muggings while they're alive and less time to be mugged. You could chew gum obnoxiously, I guess. But I fucking hate that and if I had the skills I would mug you just to stop you from chewing like an arsehole. Seriously, chew with your mouth closed – you look disgusting. A couchsurfer from Pennsylvania told me that when he walks around on his own at night he carries a hot cup of coffee so he can throw in someone's face and run if he has to. He's never had to even though according to him Philadelphia is the “ghetto” (even though it's always sunny).

Don't draw attention to yourself.

As in don't make it obvious that you're a tourist/traveller/alien whatever you want to call yourself. I feel the most vulnerable when I'm walking from subway stations with my suitcase when I've just arrived, because I know what I look like. I also don't have a map which generally makes me feel uneasy. Walking around with the Lonely Planet in your hand is like asking to be pick pocketed in some places. Similarly walking the streets and reading your map at the same time. Work out where you're going first and remember it. If you get lost, walk into a supermarket and read it again. Don't look around too much. It's hard not to in some cities but you can spot the tourists because they're the ones looking at the skyscrapers with a look of awe on their stupid, annoying faces. Be subtle if you're going to take in the sights in deserted areas.

Better than not drawing attention to yourself is trying to blend in.

One way to pick the locals in New York is to watch the people who cross the road before the walk sign comes on. Tourists are scared of j-walking or getting honked at by a cab or something, I don't know. They're like sheep, really. If the coast is clear, cross the freakin' road. Don't be afraid to weave [push] your way through a crowd. Show the tourists who's boss. I don't know how I feel about bum bags/fanny packs and those travel wallet things because obvz locals don't use them (although the bumbag is making a comeback), but they're designed to be difficult to pickpocket/steal so I guess I'll allow them. I'd personally prefer to blend in, maybe I don't at all though. Apparently in Chile, some women have two hand bags in winter. The real one under is their coat with their wallets and valuables and then a fake, empty one on the outside so it doesn't matter if someone attempts to steal anything. Chilenos are apparently some of the word's greatest pick pocketers so they know what they're doing.

Sexual harassment.

I don't really have to say anything because every girl has had to put up with some kind of wolf whistling or cat calls at some point. All I have to say is if some one goes “mmm, girl you lookin' good today,” as you walk past - don't freak out. Ignore them, or better yet smile and say thanks. It's a compliment, after all. And if some teenage guy with neck tattoos, his pants at half mast, lifts up his shirt to reveal his boxers and asks for a hug in the subway station - give him one. You'll make him and his friends smile. Everyone loves hugs. He has neck tattoos; you know he's hardcore so do what he asks. Maybe you should get a neck tattoo. Preferably one that says THUG LIFE across your throat. And a scorpion and a crown.

Join the crazies.

If all this fails, you could just talk to yourself. Everyone leaves the crazies alone. Because they're so confident they don't care about looking insane. Clever, really. You could stop showering, as well. I remember in year elevenish we had some Christian freak (I say that because he was all “women should respect their bodies that God gave them; I don't understand why anyone has one night stands.” I personally don't see how the two are connected, so I didn't like him after that) come to St Mary's to tell us how not to get raped and his final, last resort suggestion was to try and shit your pants and throw up on yourself because no one will want to have sex with you then, forcefully or not. So there's always that.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Chile: Walking Tours, Wrestling Masks and Skiing

Mary took us on a Human Rights Walking Tour of Santiago with her ex Spanish teacher, Ricardo. First we had amazing sushi for lunch, which was served in a boat. I don't know why, but the sushi in Chile was way better than Perth sushi.

The walking tour was really interesting (it was about Allende and Pinochet which I mentioned in my first post about Chile) but it was a lot of information all at once and I found it a bit overwhelming at times. Towards the end of the tour we tried a local drink made with dried peach and wheat. There was also a dried peach and wheat in the drink. It was a strange flavour but it tasted pretty good and would be refreshing on a summer's day. We saw some really cool parts of the city and it was great to be able to link up all the familiar places by foot rather than via subway. Most subway stops are only a few blocks away from each other but when you're on the train you feel like you're travelling much further. It's strangely disorientating. At the end of the tour, Ricardo told us about his band (he plays percussion) that was playing the next night in Bellavista (double 'l' is a 'y' sound; 'bay-ya-vista'). So Sam and I dragged Mary out to see him play at 11:30pm.

The band was playing at a bar with a relatively unmarked door for which we had to ring the doorbell to be let in. No one else was there (Chilenos pre-drink at home and then go out much later and we were pretty early) so we bought a bottle of wine and drank it in the corner.

The club slowly filled with expatriate kids and punk Chilenos. Finally they came on stage and started playing. The music was really good and was a strange mix of The Beach Boys, The Strokes and Latin American music. That's what I thought after several bottles of wine and beers, anyway. Oh and the musicians were all wearing wrestling masks which was hilarious and didn't seem to match the music at all. Sam later asked Ricardo why they wear the masks and he said it was part of hiding themselves and becoming someone else (right, Sam?).

The next band was supposedly a punk Chilean band. I'm not sure what the Chilenos think punk sounds like, and I'm by no means a punk aficionado, but that was not punk music. It was...indie rock at best. Anyway, the crowd seemed to like it.

Mary left at about 2am half way through the "punk" band's set but Sam and I stayed out at the bar drinking and dancing with Ricardo and his friends. After the bands had finished playing, the DJ played rockerbilly, jive music which was lots of fun to do daggy dance moves to. Then it suddenly changed to Australian pop music from 2003. A la Sophie Ellis Bextor and Kylie Minogue. Strange bar. Sam went outside and chatted to a Brazilian for a while and struggled for ages to explain to him that she studied feminism. I came along said 'man - woman' with a swishing hand movement and he suddenly got it. I'm pretty amazing like that. I suspect he may have just recognised that we kept saying 'feminism' and copied the word, pretending to understand.

At about 5am we went outside and drunkenly wandered around the streets for a while. We met two Brazilian guys, said we wanted to keep dancing (we clearly didn't know what time it was) and so they said they could take us to another bar. Neither of them spoke English and we couldn't speak Spanish, so apparently I managed to have a "conversation" with him in Spanglish. One of them left, so it was the two of us and the one Brazilian guy. He took us to an unmarked white door and argued with the bouncer to let us in (presumably because they were closing soon, I guess?). We waited in the strange white hallway while he continued to argue with the bouncer to let us in further. Two girls walked straight passed and I guess I thought it was a bit weird and decided we should just go home. The Brazilian guy was super nice and found us a taxi and made sure we got home okay. Sam freaked out and thought we had almost walked into the Cocaine Den of Santiago, which had me completely confused because I totally didn't remember it being that absurd. We woke up Mary (in her matching floral pyjamas) with the ruckus we made coming home at 5:30am, with me trying to work out when we were ever in danger that night. It was all fine, really. Too much piscola (pisco and coke = gross), I guess.

A couple of days later, Mary, Sam and I went down to Chillan ('chi-yan') a skiing town about 5 and half hours south of Santiago. We stayed in a Cabana which was owned by an English guy and his Spanish wife. Sam and I played in the playground, watched the stray dogs chase the one female on heat, explored the cabana site and hoped that it would snow the next day.

Swings are my fave

Frozen swimming pool

Waiting for our beer to get cold

It didn't snow, but we went skiing anyway. We found Gerard, who was staying at the cabanas with us and was going to be my skiing instructor. Gerard was nineteen, from Catalina and had been skiing since he was three. I have never skied before. It was somewhat intimidating. He took me down the beginning beginners slopes first. I clipped my boots into my skiis, leant forward and went straight into the fence. I soon got the hang of the snow plough, brake, turn pattern and he took me up the ski lift to try some bigger slopes.

My first reaction was "Oh no, I'm not going down that!" To which he and Mary replied, "Yes you are. You'll be fine." My arse, I'll be fine. And that's exactly where I ended up. On my bum. Over and over and over again. And occasionally into the fence again.

Gerard and I on the lift

I've got it!

Mary or Gerard would congratulate me when I was doing well, I'd get excited and forget everything I was told and fall over.

I twisted my knee and landed on my wrist awkwardly which was constantly on my mind when I fell over (actually they still hurt occasionally when I get tired or twist the wrong way). I soon got exhausted and inexplicably thirsty (I was about to eat the snow) and couldn't take it anymore. So I stopped and grabbed a bottle of water while Mary and Gerard continued to ski like pros.

That night was supposed to be a wine free night which was motivated by the excessive amount of alcohol Sam and I drank at Ricardo's band's performance and the hangovers the next day which left us moaning in the study, watching Grand Designs all day. Unfortunately for our livers the wine free night, turned into three bottles of wine between the three of us.

Vino tinto, smoked salmon, cheese, crackers and quince jelly

That night it rained and rained and rained, so we hoped it would get cold enough over night to snow. It just kept raining. Mary was keen to ski on the bigger slopes with Gerard but the rain had washed away all the ice so she couldn't.

I couldn't decide if I wanted to do it again. I knew I should have but it was freakin' hard work for a small amount of fun. And my muscles ached in places that I didn't know I had muscles for a few days afterwards. I'm really glad I had the opportunity to try and maybe I'll give it another go later, but I think I'm happier with water sports for now. I guess it's just because that's what I'm used to. Gerard has been skiing since he was three and I've been in the water since...before I was three. Suddenly remember Mum and Dad telling me about the time I fell into the pool as a baby and sat on the bottom looking up at the surface.

We had lunch at a restaurant which served a Chilean/German sausage called Longaniza. I didn't have high expectations (I don't know why, never been a huge fan of bangers and mash, maybe) but they were really yummy.

After lunch, Mary and I wanted to swim in the thermal pools in the resort. We drove up to the resort on the mountain and asked around but the staff were very unhelpful so we gave up and went back to our cabana for wine and TV. Oh! And it had started snowing which was what we had wanted for the weekend.

It was lovely to sit by the fire and watch the snow fall out the window. Despite Mary and mine's effort to keep the fire raging at night it had gone out by morning, leaving the cabana freezing cold. So cold that a glass of water that I had by my bed had frozen over. Unfortunately we had to leave the next morning as Trevor needed the car, so we didn't get a chance to ski on the fresh snow covered mountain or try again at the thermal pools. It was a lovely weekend though.

So I just crammed three weeks into three fairly brief posts due to laziness and forgetfulness. We did some other touristy stuff in Santiago, ate more local food, I spent a lot of time on my laptop looking for work in London, Sam and I went out a few more times and we went on a wine tour on my last day which was really nice. We got to meet Mary and Trevor's current Spanish teacher, Edith, who was a bright and bubbly woman. We drank delicious wine and ate amazing food. All before returning home, having a few hours sleep and heading to the airport at 4am for my 20 hour return trip to New York.

Local soup with beef, corn and other veggies

Held up by cowboys

I really enjoyed Chile. And I definitely want to learn more Spanish, go back and backpack around South America one day. It was something that I had always thought you had to be a super experienced traveller to do, but I don't think it would be that bad. Even though Chile is quite different to other South American countries. I will be forever thankful to Mary and Trevor for looking after me so well and it was lots of fun to catch up with Sam again.

Getting excited about the snow in the car park of the resort.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Chile: Valparaiso

Valpo (local term, not Australian boganified) is a seaside town about an hour and a half north west of Santiago. Mary drove us down, gossiping about St Mary's with Sam while I attempted to sleep in the back seat. She was forced to test her driving skills in the town where road rules seem to be ignored. We spent forty five minutes (I don't know how long it took actually, I made that up) trying to find our hostel driving up and around the main hill along one way streets (sometimes going in the wrong direction) much to Sam's horror. We also had a useless SatNav which told us to go in completely the wrong direction. Her calm, persistent voice mixed with Sam's squeals of anxiety made the whole thing very entertaining. We even ended up in a four way traffic jam, with a few cars threatening to drive into us and someone yelling at us from a motorcycle. Mary and I loved it. We ended up parking back near the harbour and getting a taxi up the hill.

Street art is legal in Valparaiso

Upon opening the door of the hostel and greeting the owner, Jorge (Hor-hay), I stepped forward into the gutter and fell on my bum. Good first impression, Sian!

We had lunch at a very nice restaurant where we had pisco sours, wine and pasta dishes on huge white plates. I ordered something (octopus stuffed ravioli, I think?) that was in the medium range of prices, yet consisted of five pieces of ravioli in a cheese sauce. I couldn't help thinking that we could have bought something for a quarter of the price and got five times as much food. Not that I'm ungrateful, I just wasn't used to not thinking about how much everything costs and whether its worth it or not. It was a relief, really, and amazing to be looked after like I was. It was yummy cheese sauce, anyway.

Mary left us to our devices and made me promise to keep Sam away from the expensive bars. I said I would do my best; it's no mean feat.

The view from our dorm room window - looking towards the dodgy part of town

Sam and I bought some local beer, Escudo, and drank it at the hostel before going out. First we went to SaborColor, a fancy bar that Sam chose around the corner. It had live music and made amazing pisco sours. Then we attempted to find Cummings Street -a road full of bars that the locals go to. Mildly intoxicated as we were, we struggled to work out the map and the windy, hilly, cobble stoned streets and ended up following a group of Chilean teenagers. We found ourselves at a local karaoke bar which made me feel nervous (I hate karaoke) and made Sam move on. Next we went to a busy, lively bar with a live Latin American band playing, where we stood by the bar, drinking Escudo and discussing Sam's plans to become a Child of The Revolution.

We wanted to watch people making street art, but unfortunately, didn't get around to it.

The majority of the next day was spent incredibly hungover and talking smack in the park. It was nice, apart from the pounding headache and occasional wave of nausea. At about 2pm we got hungry and found ourselves ordering Chilean burgers which consisted of cold shaved beef (like in a donner kebab), green beans and an unsuitable amount of avocado and mayonnaise. We ate less than half and returned to the park to lament our consistently terrible food choices without Mary's assistance.

It looks good, but trust me, it wasn't. Even the chips were gross

On the way back to our hostel we bought salami, cheese, disgusting black olives, crackers and a bottle of wine and had a romantic picnic watching the sunset over the harbour. I'm impressed that we managed to buy these items from a delicatessen/butcher/dairy shop given our limited Spanish. I also took a photo of a military ship, which is apparently illegal. Like go-straight-to-prison-illegal. Although, I feel that if someone saw the quality of the photo taken with my poor excuse for a camera, they would probably just laugh at my attempt to break the law (kidding, Mum, I would never break the law just for fun).

The military ship is the grey smudge behind the trees

That night we drank our terrible, terrible Chilean wine (we thought we were safe picking a middle priced bottle) which actually got worse the more we drank. We met the other people staying in our hostel and chatted with them for a bit. There was Exel from Belgium (seriously, who's named after a computer program?!), Pim from Holland, Stefan from German and two Israeli girls whose names I can't remember. Exel "worked" at the hostel but she never seemed to do/know anything so Sam and I suspected Jorge just liked having her around. She thought she was pretty great because she had been in Valpariaso for a week. She also pursed her lips way too often. Stefan was really nice and Pim was incredibly sexist which was a danger to reveal around Sam and me. The Israeli girls were really cool and were travelling around South America after finishing their national service in the army. Apparently it's really common for Israeli people to travel South America after being released from the army, much to the Chilenos dislike.

Freaky mannequin outside a thrift store

We went back to SaborColor for a pisco sour and then went back to the hostel, not wanting to be disgusting hungover again. Unfortunately we woke up to torrential rain, some of which was coming in through the window next to my bed, and couldn't do anything touristy as most of our plans consisted of exploring the city by foot and visiting Pablo Neruda's other house. We decided to head back to Santiago, thinking we may as well sit around the apartment all day which had Trevor's good food Mary's choice of wine, a TV and wifi, rather than a hostel. I made Sam walk in the rain to the bus stop which I loved despite getting everything in my backpack quite wet, and also my socks as the waterproofing on my Docs had worn off. We bought two bus tickets for about $6 and read our books on the way home.

Mary had lent me Marching Powder by Rusty Young. It's about an English cocaine trafficker, Thomas McFadden, who gets caught and sent to San Pedro prison in Bolivia. Rusty Young, an Australian, lived with him in the prison for a couple of months to document his story and the happenings within one of the weirdest prisons in the world. Prisoners have to buy their own cell or they're left on the streets and they can do pretty much anything they want as long as they can bribe the guards involved, including buying the cocaine (apparently the best in Bolivia) made in the prison. I suggest you read it.

After an hour of reading about the corruption in San Pedro, we got off the bus at the wrong stop and my first instinct was to bribe someone. Not ask for directions, bribe them. Luckily we didn't need to do that and found our way to the subway and back to the apartment.

I really liked Valparaiso and it's shame it rained so much when we were supposed to stay for another two days. I'd definitely go back there if I got the chance.

That Sunday, Mary and Trevor took us up a mountain (can't remember what it's called...but the top was called Nevada, Colorado maybe?) near Santiago which was covered in snow after all the rain.

The hair pin bends over a steep drop made Sam freak out again, but it was all very exciting to me. Half way up we had to put chains on the wheels because the roads were covered in ice.

It was great to be in the snow again. We had lunch at the top and then headed back down.