Life, Liber-dee-dee, And the Parades of Happiness

Trip Start May 05, 2011
Trip End Sep 08, 2011

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What I did
Invaded the US, joined the modern world, rode an antique rollercoaster, became patriotically confused, attended free stuff

Flag of United States  , Pennsylvania
Tuesday, July 5, 2011

'July 4th? Independence Day, you say? Well, hello, I'm British, and I'm here to take this continent back...'

Those of you who have been avidly following my blogs will be happy to know that - yes indeed - I survived my journey throughout South America. I am now firmly ensconced in the States (which feels about as dangerous as Disneyland) and thus there will be many more blog entries yet to come. Huzzah!

(Actually, since I came to the United States via Colombia, it was never really a sure thing. Customs heading towards America was an interesting experience...I don't think I've ever been more exhaustively searched in my life. The good news is, that I was able to smuggle those dinosaur eggs and rare shamanic talismen into the country. Only, don't tell anybody...)

Righto - America - land of the free, home of the brave. I have observed both of these hypotheses in action over the last week or so: in Philadelphia, an irrational (but wonderful) amount of free stuff; in New York, a series of exciting adventures to put one's courage to the test. But in both places, I have found warm, fantastic people - and a marvellous (if at times ridiculous) level of fun, Independence Day spirit!

I got into New York at some ridiculous time in the morning last Wednesday, which very conveniently forced me to have a full day in the city, which I might otherwise perhaps have wasted. First stop: STA Travel and a new (this time flattering) student card to replace the one that was stolen in Peru. Well, that was nearly first stop...You see, on my way to do a series of important things that day, I accidentally ran into a rather delightful artisanal cupcake shop near to my hostel on the Upper East Side. Of course, I felt compelled to financially patronise this establishment, purely to stimulate the US economy. (The gorgeous flavour of this cookie-dough favoured, thickly-frosted, chocolate-filled cullinary creation had nothing to do with it.) As a matter of course, I somehow found myself wandering into that shop again and again in the next few days. Strange, that...

After procuring said student card (and said work-of-art cupcake) I got a new US cellphone number, and then lazed in Central Park with a picnic, in what was perhaps the most ridiculously idyllic day since my departure from Heathrow airport. I am back in the Northern Hemishphere, and I am glad to say that summer is here to stay, so I was able to sunbathe for the first time since Rio - well aware that, for once, I didn't face the danger of an imminent mugging. Life in New York was good, and as I wandered around that evening, simply enjoying the beautiful golden light radiating warmth onto the red brownstone buildings and lush green trees lining every sidewalk, I felt absurdly harmonious. To top off the evening, I browsed The Strand Bookstore downtown - and picked up a copy of three of Shakespeare's plays for 49 cents - and then promptly decided that I could very happily live in this city.

True, I had a fantastic entry into New York. Not only fantastic, but sedate and relaxing. My mettle had yet to be tested, and the opportunity for this came the very next day, when I headed to Coney Island, in the company of two hilarious Scottish girls - Lily and Kirsten. Having already visited New York with the 'rents a few years ago, I had no interest in doing all of the touristy stuff again. HOWEVER, I was very keen to seek a thrill on a local level, and we found it at Coney Island, a boardwalk south of Brooklyn, which working class (and now pretty much all) New Yorkers have been enjoyinging for over a century. For those of you that have no clue what Coney Island is, let me just say this: imagine all of the best aspects of childhood: ice-cream, hot dogs, the beach, fountains, rollercoasters, hook-(OK, grab)-a-duck, and roll them together into one fantastic location with a rickety, antique edge on a sunny day, and you begin to have some idea of wht we faced that day. I'm not going to lie: it was incredible fun. And though it was expensive, the girls and I enjoyed bonding over the rides so much that we ended up hanging out together the rest of the time I was in New York City.

One thing we disagreed on, however,  was 'The Cyclone', Coney Island's antique rollercoaster (built 1927, and still in operation...despite an extremely rickety ride and the odd plank rotting away from the tracks). After one ride, the girls very sensibly refused to go on it ever again. as for me - well, I couldn't resist the urge to tempt fate, and I won out this time, and had a fantastic ride (without any disasters). I even have a 'Cyclone' t-shirt, which is wonderful (alas, too late did I realise the possible connotations of the Cyclone's slogan, printed on the shirt: 'Ride the great American Legend).

We were able to agree, however, on the necessity of seeing a Broadway show, and after a fun-filled day on the boardwalk, we headed back to the City and over to Times Square, where we were lucky enough to pick up standing tickets for 'Chicago' at $25 a pop. It was a fantastic show (well, it would be, it's Broadway) and I went to bed even more impressed by NY: I had felt chilled, then thrilled, and I couldn't wait for my final day.

As it happened, my last full day in Manhattan was surprisingly eventful. Although it took us FOREVER to get going in the morning, we managed to find a famous vintage/thrify shop - by mistake - and we all took advantage of the cavern of wonders therein. I picked up three brillint t-shirts for $3 each - which is pretty obscene, and is cheaper than South America. After another long sunny picnic in the park - this time with my companions - we headed to the Museum of Modern Art for an hour or so to catch the end of their free opening of Friday evenings. And then, after a late supper, events really gathered pace. Once more, I witnessed America, the land of the brave - in hilarious, luried, violent, full definition.

A few guys staying in the hostel decided to head out to a club, and I joined them (it was, after all, my last night in the City). In attendance, there were: two rather immature British 18 year old girls, a nice black guy with extreme short-man-syndrome, the hostel manager, Berkley - a jolley rather large chap, an American girl called Amanda, myself, and a rather overweight Swedish-Chilean-Asian guy staying in my room, who I already knew to be slightly awkward, but who I was willing to give the benefit of the doubt. The Swedish guy (who showed himself to be slightly racist earlier in ther evening, with the assessment that Amanda had 'jungle fever' because she was kissing the black guy (I frankly told him that he was being racist)) was being rather irritating in the taxi. Nonetheless, I don't think any of us suspected that his actions would lead to such a dramatic conclusion...Midway on the road to the club, the Swedish guy (who was taking flash photos in the cab) somehow managed to offend the driver AND Amanda (and by extension, short-man-syndrome, who was defending her honour), and SOMEHOW, a heated argument developed into an all out brawl. Fantastically, dramatically, the Swedish guys was physically THROWN out of the cab (by short man syndrome), they proceded to slug it out on the street, and then, with Swedish guy decisively defeated, the cab carried on - without him - to the club. And the evening was only just beginning! We couldn't get into the club, because the hostel staff had fought with the bouncers a few weeks before, and somehow as a result, the two English girls had a massive falling out, and refused to go home. The situation was only resolved when one of them collapsed, virtually paralytic in an alleyway, and survival instincts overcame immaturity. Myself and a rather drunk Amanda found the whole evening hilarious, and even though there were some rather dangerous bits to the evening, and although we failed to get into a club, and although a passing driver wound down his windows to yell 'low-life' at us, I had a fantastic, unforgettable evening!

Philadelphis was, needless to say, sedate by comparison. I arrived there on Saturday, headed out for an infamous Philly Chessesteak sandwich (exactly what it says on the tin - my brother would love it). And, to my delight, I discovered that, that evening, there was a free concert and fireworks on the riverfront, setting a precedent over over-dramatic celebrations and freestuff that was to continue for the rest of the weekend. God bless America, and god bless freebies! The fireworks were fantastic, in any case - I don't think I've ever seen a bigger display, even at St John's Ball. And the Americans have SOMEHOW perfected the art of producing fireworks that explode in the shape of a smiley face, which - although not the most dramatic of all bangs - is most certainly a bizarre, wonderful invention.

On Sunday, I managed to see it all in Philadelphia. And by 'it all', I mean everything remotely relevant 235 years ago, and of course nothing at all relevant today! I saw the Liberty Bell, that great, but rather pointless symbol of freedom. I went on a guided tour of Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was drafted and where the Continental Congress (ie the rebel American Government) met. I endured dubious patriotic tours around these august institutions by US national park rangers (who seem to think that George III still has it in for them), and I had good old historical banter with the actors hired as historical re-enactors (unfairly marshalling my American Revolutionary History knowledge against them, but all in good fun and with a jokey resolution). And best of all, after attending a costumed reading of the Declaration of Independence, I was one among a huge crowd who heard - cringe - the words 'Happy Birthday America!' swiftly followed by the altogether more welcome words: 'would you all please come in for some birthday cake'. And they had a birthday cake. A BIG, sweet birthday cake. I was muchly pleased.

With a few guys from the hostel, I attended yet another concert that evening, with yet another round of US armed forces theme songs (the coastguard has them all beat, although the airforce wins the campest song contest by a mile), which was great, but the main event was yesterday - July 4th. I arose early to witness a round of justifiably self-congratulatory speeches, as well as a surprisingly socialist speech by Philly's mayor, and then the parade. My. God. I had no idea that Americans loved parades so much. I mean, it was fantastic - there were bikers dressed as Uncle Sam, baton twirlers, Miss America was there on a float (with the US armed forces - they get everywhere). There were marching Baptists, Chinese dragons, kids on high unicycles - and even on a unicycle made up on on wheel atop another atop another - which looks deadly. And there was so much red white and blue, and so many miniature American flags, that the whole thing developed into its own world - like a charismatic, community driven, disneyfied procession! I have certainly never seen anything like it - and I loved it.

After that, our hostel hosted a free tailgate party, with free food and beer (including more gorgeous Philly cheesesteaks). Then we headed up to a HUGE party in Philly's park, where we ran around in a giant fountain, finally fully reverting to the mentality of children, before enjoying an incredible free concert (featuring The Roots, Earth, Wind and Fire, Estelle (of 'American Boy' fame), the girl who sang 'I'm not going to write you a lovesong', and many more). Suffice to say, it was overwhelmingly fantastic. and to top it all off, there was yet ANOTHER fireworks display abover the beautiful neoclassical Philadelphia Museum of Art in the Park. I was exhausted, what with all that patriotism. In fact, I was almost slightly confused. This would NEVER happen in England, and I'm kind of glad, but I'll tell you one thing - the Americans KNOW how to throw a national party.

(Nonetheless - note to America: if I have to hear your national anthem hollered one more time, I shall actually scream...)

And that brings us up to date. I'm actually now in Washington DC, and this evening I managed a sneaky look around town. It's fantastic. Monumental is the word. I look forward to continuing my exploration of this fantastic - and impossible, and absurd - nation, in the weeks to come.
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Rene on

I always find the idea of carnivals kind of peculiar. I just can't picture them actually happening in real life - Leicester had a Caribbean carnival one year, and the town I live in had a 'Braunstone Carnival' which was basically some fat guys drinking stella on the back of a lorry and driving slowly around the ring road.

If I ever have the money to go travelling, I'll definitely remember the American's do things much better. Glad you're having such a nice time!

Rosemary Wells (Rosie) on

Told your Mum on Thursday how much I have enjoyed reading your travel blogs from South America. We were walking the battlefields trail at the time near Edgehill, rain was forecast but we had a lovely day. We envied your exploration of Valparaiso as our guide was overly zealous ensuring our safety. However you didn't mention the underground system they were building when we were there and so we wondered if it had been abandoned? Sorry that you did not get to see more of San Pedro as we loved it and there is quite a lot to see in the area. Enjoy Canada.

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