Summer in the city

New York is a wonderful place to get lost in. Now I know my way around the metro system, I’ve been exploring further afield, going to Brooklyn and taking a ride on the Staten Island Ferry.

There’s also more cultural activities than you could ever keep up with; I’ve been to a comedy night in Greenwich Village, a fourth – wall – busting play as part of NYC Fringe festival, a free soul concert and a public discussion with the writer of Batman to celebrate the comic’s 75th birthday.

I was introduced to the High Line (perhaps my favourite place in the city so far), and have visited the Botanical Gardens, as well as Union Square Park, Bryant Park and, of course, Central Park, where I had delicious knish for the first time. (Superb word, knish.)

It’s pretty dreamy to look around at all the skyscrapers; to see the statue of liberty for the first time. Today I went to Coney Island and lay in the sun for hours. The ferris wheel was a particular highlight.

I’ve yet to see the most hipster part of Brooklyn, and in the next few weeks I will be going to free outdoor film screenings, a dance show, and a whole host of museums.

Poking my nose into every bookshop I see is also a delightful way to pass the time, and of course, cooking. At the moment I’m revelling in sautéed brocolli.

Thanks again for all the NYC suggestions and recommendations people offered!

The truth about public transport in North America

One of the questions I was always sure to hear when talking about travelling through the states was ‘You’re hiring a car, right?’

Wrong. I have taken a few Megabuses, three or four journeys via Amtrak, one lift from a Couchsurfing friend, and many, many Greyhounds.

There’s a lot I want to say about the entrenched cultural significance of the car in the states, but I think I will talk about that at another time. A two – part series, if you will.

So, public transport. For all those who were horrified on my behalf, it was fun. Sure it was unreliable (although less than everyone assured me it would be) and full of wierdos, but what better way to get to know a place?

Taking the bus was cheap and only slow when I forgot about the vast distances involved (the entire state of New Mexico slipped my mind at one point). Sometimes the departure times were inconvenient, but there was only one occasion where I was waiting in the middle of the night.

You have to be willing to be flexible when travelling this way, and of course to be prepared for the aggressive air conditioning.

But there is usually wifi,  a toilet, multiple stops for breaks and food. Some of the stations are exceptionally well designed and stocked, and there were only a few which were closer to a cupboard with benches in style. There are even plugs to charge your devices, in stations and on board.

I loved looking out at the view, often lined with trees (or cacti). Given my short stature, I was able to curl up and sleep quite comfortably.

A note for anyone deciding between the two bus companies: Megabus is almost always cheaper and has a nice upper level with lots of light, but is far less comfortable,  has fewer destinations and no stations (sometimes it shares other transport hubs, often it’s just a designated spot on the side of the road). Go with Greyhound.

While I took the train for my longer stretches of journey (I think my record was 25 hours, with a couple of hours delay), and it was nice to walk around, stretch out etc, I genuinely prefer the bus. Amtrak staff were markedly rude and the service poor. If I could read on Greyhound that would have been perfect.

But I’m glad I got to try such iconic modes of transport, and am thankful that I made it all the way with only minor mishaps. The hours on the road were wonderful opportunities to think, and I even grew to look forward to my bus trips.

I wouldn’t say no to a more traditional roadtrip in the future, especially to visit more of the countryside, but as a solo budget traveller, this was perfect.

Defining liberty

I’ve been thinking about freedom, these past few days. When I see a reference to the United States as the land of the free, it irks me. This is because many of the freedoms this country seeks to uphold – the ones other freedoms are sacrificed for – seem to me to be insignificant.

But of course liberty is not one single thing. It is a way we can describe a whole range of behaviours and beliefs. You cannot ‘have it all’ with liberty; you must pick and choose, prioritise.

And so I would choose different freedoms. It’s probably why I don’t think that I could live here, no matter how much I love the people, the cities, the view.

My kind of freedom might not look like much to someone else. The pure delight I feel in being alone could be downright miserable to others.

This is the freedom I am celebrating in New York, a city I have yearned to visit. I go anywhere I please, at any time, and do whatever I want. When walking makes me tired, I stop. I cook for myself on the most beautiful little stove I’ve ever seen. I read, and spend a lot of time in bed. I am exploring this island oh so slowly. Each day’s task is never bigger than trying a new subway line, or finding a good restaurant. It is easy and wonderful and free.

City of Brotherly Love

Philadelphia was a fun place to stay; it has good food, interesting things to see and do and is not too big as to be unmanageable.

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This is a view of the rooftops in South Philly,  where I stayed.

Thanks to a great list of recommendations, I explored Chinatown and the Reading Terminal Market (where I had my first Hershey’s Kiss), and got to see some history at Independence Hall.

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I also went on a tour around Eastern State Penitentiary, the first prison to use isolation as a way to help offenders to reflect on their actions and become better people. Obviously that didn’t work – solitary confinement is now considered a firm of punishment -but a lot of other places copied this model.

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It’s also very interesting to learn more about the American prison system. I have Thoughts about this, to say the least. As more and more facilities fill up, it’s going to require change,  of one kind or another.

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I am writing this from New York, where one can’t help but be distracted.  More soon!

Couchsurfing around the world

The idea of extending hospitality to like-minded strangers is brilliant. Couchsurfing can foster tolerance, interest in the world around you; it’s a global community.

For anyone who hasn’t heard of it, it’s basically a group of people who communicate through the website http://www.couchsurfing.org to find places to stay, people to hang out with, and travel advice and recommendations.

When people ask whether Couchsurfing is dangerous, I usually say that its similar to any large network of people. There are people of all types, including some not so nice ones. This means you have to be fairly savvy to use the site, but reading reviews and talking to the person you want to stay with/host can help you establish mutual trust.

To anyone considering trying it, I would heartily recommend it. Sometimes securing a place to stay can be difficult. You might not get on with your host. But Couchsurfing is one of those things where, when it works, it really works, and feels so worthwhile.

If the idea of sleeping in a random house is not your thing, local meet ups and events are also a fun way to get involved.

Although I have surfed a little in England, I feel like travelling internationally has given me a much greater awareness of what it takes to be a good host. That’s something I can use when I get home.

I’ve also refined my behaviour as a guest. This changes depending on the host; how outgoing they are, how they like to spend their time and what they enjoy talking about. My favourite way of thanking hosts is to cook for them – I find it a more personal way of giving back a little something.

During this trip I’ve stayed with hippies and hipsters, revolutionaries and ex army, liberals and musicians and marathon runners. They have shown me amazing things; I’m incredibly grateful.