Thursday, June 17, 2010

Feels like home

Hooked up with Sylvain, a couchsurfer from France, to take a roadtrip out to Peggy's Cove and Lunenburg. We spent the car ride out there cross referencing three different maps, realizing how badly we'd forgotten everything we learned in school, discussing french deathcore metal (him) and fifteen minutes trying to explain moose, elk and caribou (me - this is because in european english moose are elk, elk are wapiti or red deer, and caribou are reindeer; he thought caribou was french for moose, this was about fifteen solid minutes of confusion until we found a quarter and a brochure of pictures).

It was drizzling steadily all day, so Peggy's Cove was only crowded with tourists instead of being completely overwhelmed. Even so, there's a reason it's the most iconic and visited site in Nova Scotia. The glacier-sculpted coastline alone is worth the drive - the town itself is basically a model turn of the century fishing village. I'm not sure if any of the boats or traps actually get used or are just there for the tourists to look at. I'm not being disparaging here, it was still neat, although it does feel like a really, really convincing museum exhibit. My favourite part was a giant whale pelvis propped up against a shed, covered in lichen and slowly disintegrating. No one in town knows where it's from or how it got there, it's just 'always been there'. Lunenburg is a still active shipbuilding town - it's where the Bluenose was built, and currently the home of her successor, who is due to be hauled out for refitting. There was a museum with a rumrunning exhibit. I am so proud of my country, you guys.

You know how even when you're at your own house, in the place you've grown up, you can feel homesick? I don't feel like that here. It was the same in Oregon and Vancouver, and Scotland too, a bit...standing on a jumble of boulders, watching the waves, cold and soaked and completely at peace. Maybe everyone has a different kind of landscape that resonates with them - rocks and oceans are mine.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Richmond and ROMA

Got into DC later than expected, due to the previous post. Decided to go try and find a bakery I'd heard about in Georgetown. I failed, but Georgetown itself is beautiful - full of canals and bridges and trendy shops (all much too expensive but it's fun to look at the menus). And DC is a nice city to walk around. Well, the touristy parts at least.

Hopped on the bus to Richmond the next morning to meet up with Matt, aka Stiggen. He is an extremely awesome guy. We went for lunch and spent a few hours trying and failing to find Poe's grave, then wandering this huge rambling park, complete with aviary and koi pond. Richmond is a much bigger city than I'd expected.

His band, ROMA, was playing the last set at a bowling alley that night, so we headed to their practice space to get the instruments and start setting up. The practice space is in a huge three-story warehouse, the top two floors of which are slowly being partitioned to rent out to various bands and artists. Getting between the floors is accomplished by a narrow staircase with pipe railings, or this enormous rickety freight elevator, the kind with a gate and top/bottom doors, exactly the kind of elevator that people get trapped in in horror movies while something claws through the roof. I enjoyed it. The space itself is surprisingly nice - the size of a small apartment, with actual windows. Across from them is a death metal band whose primary strength, like Spinal Tap, is volume. We dismantled the drum kit and mic stands and hauled it all downstairs where the band miraculously crammed it all into two cars in some kind of complicated instrument tetris.

The turnout for the show was slightly disappointing - there were more musicians there than actual bowlers. This wasn't helped by the fact that no one thought to text anyone about the show until we'd unloaded, or that it turned out they wouldn't be playing their set until ten. Which was too bad since the show itself was fantastic - the first band two bands were pretty decent (the highlight was a love ballad about Facebook), and ROMA rocked out much harder than the apathetic, sullen bowling alley owner deserved. I still can't figure out how to describe their music. Alt folk rock? There's kind of a Nick Cave/Tom Waits/garage band vibe to them, they're pretty popular in Richmond but they definitely deserve to be better known.

Packed up and headed to someone's house to drink. Things get a little fuzzy at that point. Fell asleep on the couch watching Waiting (if you work at a restaurant, see this movie. If you enjoy eating at restaurants, don't.) Made pb and banana french toast the next morning, listening to Matt fiddle with the guitar. It was a pretty good way to spend a birthday.

The bus ride deserves its own post.

You know why Greyhound is so cheap?

Because people on it are goddamn crazy.

The gate line for DC was already doubled back on itself when I got there (they'd oversold the previous bus, they are organized like that). I noticed one sketchy guy hovering around the gate - he was this skinny blonde middleaged man who obviously hadn't bathed or changed for a while. Equally obvious was the fact that he was not stable - he kept weaving back and forth and swearing to himself, eyes unfocused. I thought he was some bum who'd wandered in for the AC, but to my surprise he both had a ticket and was allowed onboard. I'd assumed the entire Greyhound company had cracked down on security ever since the beheading, but apparently that's just Canada. I sat as far away as I could.

Things went downhill almost immediately after. The bus driver spent an hour and a half arguing with a woman who had dared to move her bags off the seat onto the ground, which ended with us waiting for the police to come and remove the passenger, who was not violent in any way and could have been handled by actual Greyhound employees. When they finally showed up, people *applauded*. We pulled out, the bus driver gave the mandatory no smoking/thank you for riding spiel, then added a smug "don't try me" at the end, which also got applause. This blew my mind. People were actually impressed by her behaviour? She took an extremely minor incident and blew it way out of proportion. These were grown women behaving like children, but you're congratulating her on what, exactly? Not allowing 'disrespect'? I hate to sound like a judgmental foreigner but...this is the kind of attitude that causes problems for America.

At about 3 am on the interstate out of Clarksville, sketchy guy made his move. He demanded to be let off the bus (we were in the middle of nowhere) and when that didn't work, began screaming and clawing at the bus driver and exit door. The bus swerved around and half the passengers rushed to the front to see what was going on. Luckily, some of them were actually helpful and held the guy down so the driver could find a safe place to pull over and wait for the state troopers. Throughout all this sketchy guy kept shrieking, moaning, and cursing everyone around him. Then he started to have a seizure (the trooper insisted he was faking this, but he sure as hell was not faking the rest of it).

Oh Greyhound. And I get to ride you for another month.

Friday, May 28, 2010


I'd like to say I was sad to leave Memphis but frankly, it couldn't happen soon enough. Nashville was only a few short hours away - getting to the hostel from the station took almost as long as the bus trip, since I had once again forgotten everything I learned and failed to write down the address when I still had wifi. I ducked into the library to use theirs, and also to hide from the guy who'd been following me for six blocks (I used to respond to people when they greeted me on the street. This country has broken me of that habit, because every time I do it never ends well). The hostel is in the west end of Nashville, away from all the tourist hotspots but still full of music and bars. Dropped my stuff off, walked around downtown a bit (highlights include the Charlie Daniels museum, which defies description. If I wasn't in the South I would think someone was parodying it, but they are completely serious. Every kind of confederate flag merch you can think of, a set of furniture made of cow horns and hide, bald eagles and flags and oh god), then came back and ran into Greg which pretty much made my day. Sadly, his next stop was Ashville instead of DC, breaking our trend, but we're almost certain to meet each other again in New York.

Woke up the next day and hit the Country Music Hall of Fame. I had been pretty ambivalent about going, figuring it would be dry and of interest only to diehard country fans, but my roommate Christina talked me into it. And yeah. I have never been so wrong. The third floor alone is worth the cost of admission - it's a history of the evolution of the genre and north american music as a whole. There are old instruments and stage costumes... you know what? I'm going to cheat and just link this, because I keep having to go and name check things and I guarantee I'm going to get it wrong anyhow (I will add that Webb Pierce's car also had horshoes replacing the pedals and a rifle welded to the trunk. The worst part is I think he thought it looked genuinely cool.) In summation : it was fantastic, and most importantly I did not see a single word about Shania Twain anywhere.

Later that evening went out to the bar strip with Greg and Christina to find some free music, which is easy in Nashville. The Broadway strip is mostly cover bands but they are good cover bands. The Flintstones theme, done in bluegrass. Good stuff.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Memphis, and bitching

Greg and I had once again chosen the same departure date - it's nice having someone to chat with and watch your bags while you wander about. We're fairly certain we'll be sharing a bus to Nashville as well.

I am writing this from The Edge - it is a small coffeehouse, with a mic and amp setup, wifi and terminals, an old-school arcade machine with thirty or so games on it (pacman, space invaders, donkey kong, etc), two pool tables, a wall of books, and random murals and drawings taped to the walls. If I ever go insane and decide to open a cafe one day I want it to look exactly like this.

It is raining in Memphis, which makes me happy. A nice respite from the suffocating heat of the last few days. Memphis is not as interesting as you would think...there are lots of bars and crackheads, and not much else. I'm probably being unfair here - there are a few museums and I'm sure if I looked harder I would find a lot of awesome things, but walking around aimlessly has been my exploration strategy for the last month and this is not a good city in which to try that - the area I'm staying in is directly in between old money mansions and cracktown. It's four blocks from the trolley to my hosts' house and they are not a fun four blocks. It is discouraging. Plus, tomorrow will be my third 12+ hour bus trip in the last week, and the novelty has worn off. I'll be glad to get to the northeast, where cities are only a few hours apart. Also, I am allergic to something down here, I haven't stopped sneezing since I got in the city.

Enough complaining. Good things: my cs hosts have a puppy who is weapons-grade adorable, I have a delicious new recipe, Anne drew a picture of my two favourite AIs, and there are both Jules Verne and Clive Barker in the cafe bookshelf.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

New Orleans

Turns out this weekend happens to be the Bayou Boogaloo Midcity Festival, which is about five blocks away from the India House. I found it by accident this morning while looking for the post office, and decided to stay. It's a three-stage music and art/craft/whatnot event, and most importantly, free. And the word Bayou is there for a reason - the park it's in is right alongside the Bayou St. John, which at this point is more like a small manmade lake than a bayou but still has fish in it (I saw them jumping).
Spent about six hours wandering between the stages and craft tents, ate crawfish etouffee and fried eggplant, napped on the grass and refreshed my sunburn. There were probably about fifty different acts over the course of this weekend - everything from brass bands to folk-country to hiphop. Also got to see the youth segment of the Wild Mohicans perform in costume - the youngest was about six or seven, incredibly cute. Sat under a tree and watched people canoe and kayak down the bayou, and thought about how incredibly lucky I am. This is one of the good days.

Friday, May 21, 2010

New Orleans - Cemetaries and swamps

I was told the cemeteries were full of muggers, especially after dark, so I decided to go first thing in the morning on the assumption that muggers probably liked to sleep in after a long night's work. (Lonely Planet guide, you are full of crap, the neighbourhood was fine.) The current site of St Louis #1 was not its original location, and it shows - the monuments are crowded very close together, it feels a bit like the backlot of an abandoned tombstone manufacturing warehouse. But the graves themselves are beautiful. The upkeep of individual tombs is the responsibility of the family who owns it, and when families die out or move away no one is left to look after them. This means they are in various stages of repair- pristine whitewashed and stuccoed tombs are right beside crumbling piles of brick (the local brick is very soft, and if it isn't covered by cement or stucco will just fall apart in a few decades. I eavesdropped on a tour guide). Most people buried there died in the ninteenth century, though a few are recent additions to family tombs - the latest one I saw was 2003.
The star of the cemetery is of course Marie Laveau, the most infamous of New Orleans' voodoo queens. Her tomb is easy to spot; offerings of coins, alcohol, food, jewelry and so on are piled up against the entrance, and it is covered in XXX markings - this is how you ask her spirit to intercede on your behalf. Surprisingly hers is not the only tomb like this - I found two others with similar x's and offerings - one had mostly shells and jewelry, the other had combs and coins and photographs. Both were extremely old and any inscriptions on them had faded completely. I have no idea who is in them and it is driving me nuts.

The cemetery was a short walk from the French Quarter, so I headed back there and decided to hook up with one of the swamp tours. This takes you about an hour out of the city to a huge bayou/cypress swamp, part of which is a nature preserve. This means there are a ton of alligators.

We went out on a small flatbottomed boat for an hour and a half - our tour guide carried a bag of marshmallows with him, which he claimed were for the gators. I thought he was kidding, but no. It turns out alligators love marshmallows - they had learned to recognize the boats as a source of food, and would come swimming up when we approached. This bothered me - was I helping to perpetuate an ecologically damaging tourist trap? Were we endangering the gators by teaching them to view humans as a food source? On the other hand, tourism is one of the only things that keeps protected areas protected. This is not much of an excuse as excuses go. Unfortunately I was already in the boat at this point, so I consoled myself with the knowledge that if anyone got attacked it would probably be the local guides, and retribution would not be visited on the gators. That aside it was pretty awesome. During Katrina the water level in the swamp rose fifteen feet and burst its banks, plowing a hole through the treeline and sweeping any houseboats or houses that hadn't been properly raised (ie on cinderblocks instead of driven piles) downriver - we saw one, four miles from its original site. Most of the others were never found. The area cleared by the hurricane is now a marshy, grassy shallow water habitat, a perfect nursery for wading birds, turtles and baby gators. Circle of life, yo. Also saw feral piglets, which are a nuisance animal and therefore fair game for anyone with a gun. The locals both love and hate them - on the one hand, fresh bacon...on the other, it's like having really smart raccoons that weigh several hundred pounds.

Went for supper at Coop's Place, which despite looking and feeling like a dive bar has an amazing kitchen. I haven't even bothered trying to save money on food here - I think eating ramen in New Orleans is a criminal offense. That said it was still pretty cheap - delicious gumbo, followed by jambalaya, red beans and rice, fried chicken and pepper shrimp. I have never been that full of food before.