Archive for USA

My Airbnb stay in Houston

During my last trip, a friend introduced me to Airbnb. An alternative accommodation option somewhere between a hotel and couchsurfing, the basic premise is that people with a spare room in their house rent it out to people looking for accommodation in their city.

With unique options to choose from, a room, an apartment, my friend rented a treehouse in Costa Rica, Airbnb offers a different accommodation experience, sometimes with the help of a local to share their inside knowledge.

As a solo backpacker on a limited budget, hostels were still a far more economical option. But towards the end of my trip travelling in Texas, they were harder to come by than in other places. When I needed somewhere to stay in Houston for a night, I decided it might be finally time to give Airbnb a go. My friend recommended the person she stayed with there, but they had no availability, so I picked another user with a lot of positive reviews that seemed to be in a convenient area. It was a quick stopover, so I needed somewhere close to the Megabus station. After a bit of correspondence about how to get to the house and an easy online payment it was all sorted.

My stay in Houston was one night between an impulsive trip to San Francisco and going back to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. I took an early morning flight from San Francisco to Dallas, then a bus from Dallas to Houston. By the time I arrived there, it was after 7pm and I had spent the whole day travelling. I had a 7am bus the next morning, and feeling pretty exhausted I was planning to have an early night.

My Airbnb host, William, wasn’t home when I arrived but his roommate let me in. I had showered and was starting to think about sleep when he arrived, and threw a curveball to my plans of an early night by asking if I wanted to join them for drinks with some of his family members who were in town for a wedding. It was a nice offer, and I only had one night to see some of Houston, so I pushed my tiredness aside and said yes.

A little while later, we were driving somewhere I couldn’t find on a map if my life depended on it. I’ve always been a fan of the notion that hanging out with locals gives you insight to a city that you can’t get otherwise, and that night was one of the best examples I’ve experienced. I don’t know much about Houston, other than downtown is the business district and not really the place to go at night. We went to a street in a completely different location with a few bars and restaurants.

The place we went was fairly small and not crowded, and had a chilled vibe. William’s family were incredibly welcoming, and not at all phased by having a random Australian traveller along for the ride. We talked about a lot of things, but the one thing that sticks out was Colombia and travel which morphed into a discussion about Pablo Escobar. They were fascinated to hear I had travelled there alone, and that it wasn’t as dangerous as the general perception people have.

It’s common to meet people from different worlds and backgrounds and share stories when travelling, but more often than not they are other travellers in hostels. Meeting locals can be harder, and it occurred to me at some point when we were chatting in that bar that I never would have meet any those people if it wasn’t for Airbnb. I didn’t see much at all of Houston, but it was a better night than I could have ever imagined.

After the bar we got tacos from the restaurant next door, then headed back. I still got a relatively early night, and was up in time for bus the next morning. William drove me to the bus stop and took me for coffee and doughnuts on the the way. I have to admit, I was pretty spoiled!

My friend who recommended that I try Airbnb told me she has had some great experiences and some that were just good. I have only used it that one time, and William set the bar very high. It might not always be at that level, but Airbnb is a good alternative to a hotel if you are looking to meet new people and get some local tips about a city.

Visit www.airbnb.com for more information.

Throw me something, Mister!

But I’m not going to flash you for it.

When I told friends I was going to Mardi Gras this year, the most common question I got asked was if I was going to take my top off for beads. Okay, it was really only the guys who asked me that, but it was still an ongoing theme.

I had no idea what to expect from Mardi Gras. My decision to go was made on a whim when I was visiting who lives there in December and she invited me back for it. I have to admit, I was pretty confused about why her and her roommate were getting so excited about catching cups and frisbees. I had no idea why so many people fought so hard over small, shiny coins. And I definitely didn’t understand why she would have left behind any of the beads she caught. But it made a lot more sense after I experienced it for myself.

I went to parades on the last four days of Mardi Gras. I took home a spear, an umbrella, a coconut, cups, doubloons and endless amounts of beads. More beads that I could ever do anything with. I have beads hanging all around my house, I’ve donated them to friends and family, I left three quarters of the beads I caught at my friend’s house in New Orleans. And I still have a bag full of beads sitting on my floor that I don’t know what to do with. I also had a fun moment trying to explain to the lady at customs in Buenos Aires airport what they were when she saw them on the scanner.

My point is, and I’m sorry if this makes me the bearer of bad news, that it’s not necessary to take your top off to end up with an impressive collection of throws at Mardi Gras. In fact outside of the French Quarter, this common Mardi Gras stereotype is essentially non existent.

Instead, you can enjoy the atmosphere of a community street party, with people coming out for picnics, dancing, dressing up and of course catching beads.

Here are my 10 tips for having a great Mardi Gras:

1. Dress up. The people in the floats love costumes, and are more likely to give throws to people who are wearing a unique outfit.

2. Bring kids. The one thing that is more likely than a cool costume to result in good throws is kids. This strategy will usually see you (or them) end up with lots of stuffed toys.

3. Don’t be fooled by old ladies sitting in their chairs, they will fight you just as hard as anyone for a doubloon.

4. Always look up. Unexpected beads hitting you in the head can be seriously painful.

5. Get a good nights sleep. Catching beads can be surprisingly tiring! Especially if you are doing day and night parades. I can almost guarantee you will be ready to sleep for hours in the afternoon after the final float of the Rex parade disappears from view.

6. Be prepared. Bring food, drinks, picnic blankets, chairs and jackets. It is important to arrive early to get a good spot for the parades, which means you will be there for awhile. New Orleans can get cold at night, so bring warm clothing.

7. Don’t pick up beads off the floor. They are often damaged, and with so many people distracted by the floats passing by, you might have your fingers stepped on. Plus, you will catch so many beads anyway that you don’t need to collect off the ground.

8. Be selective with what you catch. After awhile, the beads you were so excited to catch during your first parade will seem too boring and you will want to aim higher. Remember that you probably can’t everything you catch home with you, so if you end up with something you don’t want give it to someone else (kids are always a good option). I don’t know how more New Orleans locals aren’t bead hoarders!

9. Choose your location wisely! What you are looking for from your Mardi Gras experience will determine whether or not you venture into the French Quarter during the event. Most hotels are in that part of the city, meaning a lot of people visiting New Orleans at that time of year end up there simply based on proximity. Because I was staying with a friend, I didn’t go to the French Quarter at all during Mardi Gras, and it seems that many locals do the same. The best part of the celebration is watching the parades, and there are great places to do that in different parts of the city. Most of the parades go along the beautiful St Charles Avenue, which is a great place to watch. Click here for more information on parade routes.

If you do want to bring out your risque side and flash people for beads, then the French Quarter is your place to go.

10. Have fun! Catching beads is addictive :)

Dancing my way through the Americas

When packing for my trip, one item that I knew was essential was my salsa shoes. A few of my friends couldn’t believe that I was going to carry them around for 7 months, but I was planning to get a lot of use out them. I had taken salsa classes in Guatemala when I was there in 2010, and was looking forward to dancing in a few new places; in particular Cuba and Colombia.

I had only been gone a few days when I first got them out, when my friend Adrienne introduced me to Zanzibar in Santa Monica for Monday night salsa. The night starts at 8pm with a beginner class, and is followed by an intermediate class at 9pm. Both are run by 2 time salsa world champion Christian Oviedo. The social dancing that followed was the highest quality LA style salsa I have encountered since the Sydney Latin Festival. It wasn’t just limited to one style though, and I was happy to get in a few dances with people who preferred Cubana.

Another positive was that not knowing anyone didn’t mean you didn’t get any dances. My trip went full circle when I went back to Zanzibar on my last night in LA before flying home to Sydney. Adrienne had plans so I went alone, and I wasn’t disappointed. For travellers on a budget, Hostelling International has a property in Santa Monica which is only a 5 minute walk from the club.

My next dancing experience is probably my favourite one of the trip; Trinidad, Cuba. LA style was the first type of salsa I learnt, but I always found Cuban interesting and enrolled in a class in Sydney mid way through 2011. It paid for itself when my sister and I went out to the Casa de la Musica in the small city of Trinidad during our week in Cuba.

I arrived expecting to watch the band or the other dancers since I was travelling and didn’t know anyone, and was surprised when I was asked to dance shortly after we got there. The small, outdoor dancefloor, located on what is just an empty set of stairs during the day, was crowded and surrounded by onlookers. I tried to ignore the feeling of intimidation brought on by the high quality of salsa danced by the local girls and was able to hold my own with my partner. While both styles use the same count (breaking on beat 1), the Cuban dance replaces the linear movements of LA style with steps danced in a circular motion. Every time I watch Cuban dancers, I can’t help but be impressed by their ability to feel the music and move their bodies.

It seems like my dancing wasn’t too bad because I was asked to dance again by the same guy. The best part was the next morning when I met some people in the hotel who had seen me dancing and thought I was from Cuba. I’m not sure how they got confused, but it makes for a funny story with my favourite style of salsa.

I didn’t take any classes in Guatemala last year, meaning that the next time I danced after Cuba was in Panama. I had seen salsa classes offered the first time I went to Bocas del Toro in 2009, but it was a different dance that was part of my visit last year. The style of salsa I saw danced in the clubs was a little bit different to both the Cuban and LA styles, and a little difficult for me to follow. After unsuccessfully trying to teach a friend how to dance bachata, it was merengue that I ended up dancing the few times I went out in Panama and Costa Rica. Simpler than salsa, merengue is the easiest and in a lot of ways the most fun Latin dance style I have learnt.

Arriving in Cali, Colombia meant going from the easiest dance I have learnt to the most complicated one I have attempted. Nicknamed “running salsa” by my friend Zoe because of the fast footwork involved, everything about this style of salsa was new to me. New basic steps, a new count, a new turn structure and most importantly a new way to move your feet.

It was a challenging dance to learn, and after a week of classes I only managed to master the basics. I think it would take about a month of daily classes to properly understand the dance, but I think that would be a good reason to return to Cali.

I also incorporated a little bit of bachata into my classes in Cali. Colombia was the only place I went in South America that bachata was popular, it was almost unknown in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil. I wasn’t surprised about Brazil; they have their own style of dances that seem completely unique to Brazil, but I was a bit surprised when the DJ at a club in Cuenca, Ecuador didn’t even have one bachata song in his playlist. Originating in the Dominican Republic, it turns out that it is a lot more popular in Central America than South America.

After I left Colombia I was expecting my next opportunity to dance would be in Brazil, so I was surprised when I arrived in Cuzco, Peru and found that a few of the clubs offered free salsa classes. When I met people from South America at salsa clubs at home in Sydney, they often danced a different style of salsa to what I knew. Anticipating this, I met with a funny look when I was asked to dance in Cuzco and said I only knew LA and Cuban style.

The instructors in Cuzco taught both of these styles, and one of them pushed me to work on styling, something I have always avoided when dancing at home. It is still not my favourite part of salsa, but I did learn a few new things that aren’t too hard to include.

When I arrived in Brazil, I had never danced samba but knew a little bit about the two styles. The samba seen during Carnaval is referred to by the locals I met as “samba drums” and is danced solo usually by women, while the other style is danced with partner.

I left Brazil before Carnaval started, but I did get the chance to go to a party in one of Rio’s favelas, Vidigal. The party had a samba band, and the locals living in the favela tried to teach us the dance. I think it is going to take a lot more classes for me to pick it up!

At the end of the 7 months, my salsa shoes were broken, but definitely worth the valuable space they took up in my backpack.

There is a lot to learn in the world of Latin dance. Next time I go back I want to improve the dances I already know, master Cali salsa and try some of the countless styles that are still relatively new to me; Brazilian zouk, chachacha and cumbia.

My thoughts on NYC

Seeing shots of the Manhattan skyline after the ad breaks in the US open just reminded me I have one more NYC blog I wanted to do. I mentioned earlier that it was my favourite US city, until LA had recently passed it.

I think LA still takes the top spot, but it doesn’t really matter. I loved NYC even more the second time around. It has its drawbacks; it’s crowded, noisy and dirty. There is constantly rubbish on the sidewalks waiting to be collected, and the steam coming up on the road from the subway system is strange at first. But compared to what there is to see and do, these things seem almost insignificant. Out of everywhere in the 11 countries I have visited, nothing beats New York for having the most attractions.  

In a busy 6 days, we went to Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, Battery Park, Brooklyn Bridge, DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), Empire Fulton Ferry Park, Supreme Court, Wall St, NY Stock Exchange, WTC site, Century 21, Times Square, a Broadway show, Fifth Ave, Rockefeller Centre, New York Public Library, Bryant Park, Grand Central Station, the Empire State Building, NYU, Washington Square Park, Greenwich Village, SoHo, Little Italy, Chinatown and walked through Central Park from 86th Street to 5th Ave.  We also explored the restaurants, bars and nightlife around E 53rd Street; I think we were lucky to get such a good location with our apartment.

It is quick to get around Manhattan with subways, even the train to Queens for our unsuccessful trip to Flushing Meadows only took about half an hour. Though it’s too big to see the whole city this way, the grid style layout of the streets and avenues makes it easy to navigate the city on foot.

I liked Vancouver because it didn’t feel like a tourist city; however being a tourist city isn’t automatically a negative. NYC definitely has a lot of tourist attractions, but I don’t believe that is the aspect that defines it. The last two days we were in the city, it rained almost nonstop. When walking through Central Park, there were lots of people not fazed by the weather who were out running. One of the consistent elements of cities I like is the running culture. It was evident in Runyon Canyon Park in LA, the seawall in Vancouver and in Central Park in NYC, and it has renewed my interest in doing a marathon overseas sometime in the near future.

The NYC lifestyle presented on TV and in movies often portrays the glamorous side of the city lifestyle. However I can see how New Yorkers who really love this city view any negatives as part of the charm. After a few days we were trying to figure out how to speak “conductor”, lunch from a street cart was one of my favourite meals and I definitely appreciated the $29 train ticket that lasts a week and lets you travel anywhere.

I’ve also met a few people who feel that the New York lifestyle gets monotonous after awhile. It’s hard to say if the city would wear on me if I spent a lot of time there, but from a travel perspective NYC is on my must visit list.

Finally made it to Miami!

When I first travelled overseas in 2006 with my sister, we did a cruise of the Bahamas. We had arranged a city tour of Miami, but it was cancelled due to lack of numbers and we spent an extra 4 hours in the airport.

Since then, I have flown through Miami once, but didn’t leave the airport. This time, I was determined to see a bit of the city, even though we only had one day. We didn’t get much further than the beach and Ocean Drive, but it was absolutely worth the wait. I don’t think it’s a secret that I love the Caribbean, but the beach here was particularly good. It was more laid back than I was expecting, but it might be because it wasn’t peak season. The water was warm, and we swum for a few hours. Even the rain didn’t make it less enjoyable.

The best part of the afternoon was testing out Megan’s new underwater camera. The photos that were good turned out really well, that ones that got deleted straight away were at least funny. The restaurants along Ocean Drive had a lot of good specials, some offered discounts or $10 deals, and almost all of them offered a free drink. Megan and Christina ordered daiquiris, which were in the biggest cocktail glasses I have ever seen.

It was only a short stop, intended to break up the travel from NYC to Cuba, but I’m glad to have finally made it to Miami.  

Eating in NYC

I’m not a food critic, but because there are a lot of places to eat in New York, I thought I would blog about the ones we tried.

Night 2: Little Thai Kitchen

231 E 53rd St, Manhattan

Only two doors up from our apartment, we started with something close by. The street we are staying on actually has a lot of restaurants, and I think by the end of the week we will try a few of them. There are two Thai restaurants, Italian, Mexican, Tapas, a wine bar and possibly even Hawaiian. Little Thai Kitchen is literal with the “little” part, it has 4 tables and a bar. There was only one couple in the restaurant when we arrived, so we didn’t have to wait long to order or for our food. I ordered garlic chicken, Megan got garlic beef and Christina got pad thai. The food was really good, I will give them the benefit of the doubt that it wasn’t only because of my desire to have a “real” meal.

Price: $13 – $15

Day 3: The River Cafe

1 Water Street, Brooklyn

East River? Check. The Brooklyn Bridge? Check. Floating restaurant? Check. This is a Lonely Planet recommendation that is definitely worth trying. The Brooklyn Bridge is one of my favourite NYC icons, and this restaurant is located right under it, with views of the bridge and the river out the front window. It was definitely on the fancy side. I ordered steak and it was amazing (Megan and Christina both tried it and agreed), but the location is what made this worthwhile.

Price: $23 – $30

Night 4: McGees Pub

240 W 55th St, Manhattan

The “Challenge Accepted” and “Robin Sparkles” cocktails that Megan and I ordered were a bit disappointing, but I can see how this pub was the inspiration for McClaren’s in How I Met Your Mother. For the second day in a row, I ordered steak (think I needed the iron!), and while it was always going to be hard to top the one from the River Cafe, this was still pretty good. I’m not sure this is any more special than any of the other Irish pubs in NYC, but I think that is kind of the point. As Megan said, McClaren’s might not be the coolest place in the city, but I can see why they like it.

Day 5: TGI Fridays

5th Ave, Manhattan

There is nothing special or unique to New York about this place, but my chicken bruschetta pasta deserves a mention.

Price: $18 – $25

Day 6: Novella

After walking around in the pouring rain looking for Katz’s Deli, we decided to eat lunch in Little Italy. The place we chose had a $10 special for pizza or pasta and a glass of wine, which is what originally drew us in. None of us ended up picking that though, we got Chicken Masala (which Megan tells me is actually an Indian dish), because the option of chicken and spaghetti in the same meal was too good too pass up.

Price: $10 – $18

Day 7: Rafiqi’s Cart

W 43rd Street, near the NY Public Library

One thing I wanted to do in New York was eat lunch from a street cart. On our first day, we saw people lined up all over the place for them, so I knew it had to be good. Rafiqi’s Cart didn’t disappoint. We got chicken on pita bread and ate it on the run while walking to Grand Central Station, which was surprisingly not very messy. I think this is a must while in NYC.  

Price: $5

Night 7: Obao Noodles and BBQ

On our last night, we opted for going to a restaurant across the street from our apartment. Our block had a diverse range of restaurants, we only ate at two of them (and visited the wine bar). This one was Vietnamese and Thai food, and had 2 for 1 cocktails. Megan picked one called “Good Morning Vietnam”, which had Riesling, apple schnapps and grenadine. It only took one sip of Megan’s to convince Christina and I to order them as well, and I don’t really drink cocktails. It was a great way to spend out last night in NYC.

Price: $10 – $15

Our TV and movie tour of NYC

It’s common knowledge that the climactic final scene of Sleepless In Seattle was filmed on the observation deck of the Empire State Building. This might be one of the most famous, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to movies filmed and set in New York.  

When walking around the city in the last few days, a number of our conversations have gone like this:

“Do you remember in <insert show/movie> when they went to <insert place>?”

If we were talking about a TV show, it was more than likely Friends or How I Met Your Mother. Both are filmed in LA, meaning the actors were actually on a set on the other side of the country. But we did get to see some of the places were filming was done on location in NYC.

Glee

The girls dance on the steps in Times Square

What Happens in Vegas

Ashton Kutcher plays golf in Empire Fulton Ferry Park, Brooklyn

Ashton Kutcher and Cameron Diaz talk on the Supreme Court steps

Hitch

Will Smith and Kevin James talk on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Eva Mendes talks to one of Hitch’s clients in the Financial District

Friends With Benefits

Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis walk in The Mall, Central Park

And probably my personal favourite in terms of NYC locations, The Day After Tomorrow

Jake Gyllenhaal in front of the New York Public Library

There are other iconic locations in NYC where movies that I like have been filmed, but I would be here forever if I tried to includes pictures of them all. 

Friends With Benefits filmed a flash mob dance routine in Grand Central Station. Sweet Home Alabama had scenes at Tiffany’s on Fifth Ave and the Lincoln Centre. In Sex and the City, Miranda and Steve met half way across the Brooklyn Bridge. When In Rome featured Kristen Bell running across the Bow Bridge and through the Bethesda Terrace in Central Park. And in 27 Dresses, Katherine Hiegl’s sister plans to get married at the Boathouse, also in Central Park. We found out today that the Boathouse workers are on strike, and protesting in the park because of poor working conditions and health violations. I wouldn’t recommend visiting anytime soon!

Other movies, such as Suddenly 30 (or 13 Going On 30 in the US) and New York Minute filmed in SoHo and Chinatown.

If you are a TV or movie buff, there are famous film locations all over the city. Obviously I like my “romcoms”, and despite the cliche of finding romance in the city, that is not the only genre that films here.

www.onthesetofnewyork.com has a full list of locations.

I know Ted Mosby is looking for a girl with a yellow umbrella..

..but I saw one with a pink umbrella all over NYC today, which I think is a lot more interesting. Maybe she could be ”the mother”?

Fifth Ave

SoHo

Little Italy

By the way, I’ve been told I’m a mean sister! I couldn’t resist, she looked cute with a bright pink umbrella, it’s so Meggie. And I needed something to entertain me that would take away the disappointment of the US Open being cancelled tonight because it rained ALL DAY! The best part? The USTA thinks I should just come next year. (Hmm.. maybe I should come next year!)

Somewhere in another part of the city..

Wall Street

Statue of Liberty

Central Park

New York Stock Exchange

Lunch in Brooklyn

Manhattan skyline

9/11 ten years on

When I first visited New York in late 2006, the World Trade Centre site looked like this:

(Source: http://www.delawareonline.com/blogs/2006/09/breaking-news-from-onion.html)

We won’t be in the city on the ten year anniversary of 9/11, however we caught the subway to the site and saw the new One World Trade Centre building. It’s not completed, but has changed a lot since 2006.

The One WTC building is currently at 80 floors, and the 9/11 memorial at the base of the tower has been completed. The memorial includes two pools situated where the original World Trade Centre buildings previously stood. The offical opening hasn’t happened yet, but we could see the trees that surrounding the pools amidst the construction.

More information on the progress and artist images of the completed building can be seen here.

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