Monday, 29 March 2004

Adventures in Ann Arbor


Welcome to Ann Arbor in Michigan, USA.

I flew into Detroit, Michigan's capital city, on Friday afternoon after leaving behind the awe inspiring metropolis that is New York City.

On my last morning in the Big Apple I managed to visit the American Museum of Natural History - though I only had about half an hour there - and then I rushed like crazy to get to the airport on time.

Sadly, I never did make it to the Bronx, though I did pass through Harlem on my way to LaGuardia.

Harlem is an interesting place and it looks exactly as I thought it would. It's quite rundown and the streets are full of young black men all wearing sunglasses, baseball caps and jewellery. It's certainly a place worth exploring and I hope to return there soon.

But now I'm in Michigan. I can't tell you how nervous I was about coming here. I haven't written about this before, but I came here to meet someone.

For the past twelve years I've had a friend in Ann Arbor. Her name is Amy Visel. Over the years, Amy and I have got to know each other well - I've told her things I've never told anyone. I've shared some of my deepest and darkest secrets with Amy, things I would never dare mention in this blog, things I may tell never anyone again.

Amy is one of the least judgemental people I have known and I think it's fair to say that I grew very fond of her over the years. And yet, until last Friday, Amy and I had never met...

Amy and I started out as pen pals, regularly sending each other twenty page letters about everything from politics to The Wonder Years, and then as technology moved on we moved on too and we started exchanging emails and then meeting online in chat rooms.

Then last Friday, after twelve years, hundreds of pieces of paper, litres of ink and oodles of electronic space, Amy and I finally met when I arrived at Detroit airport. And boy was I nervous!

If Amy and I hadn't known each other so well, if we hadn't shared so many secrets, then I don't think I would have been so anxious, although I do often tend to get nervous around girls anyway. But it was because I knew so much about this girl and yet at the same time knew nothing about this girl that made me so nervous.

Now, four years after meeting Amy, I can reveal the truth about the few days that I stayed with her. As much as I hate to say it, we didn't get on at all. In fact, I really didn't like her and we never felt comfortable together. The reason for this was quite simple: She just wasn't a very nice person.

She never took me out, never showed me around her town. She complained about little things that I did. She never offered me a thing to eat or drink, even though I was a guest in her home. After I left Michigan, I wrote to her one last time, and then never wrote to her again. We really were best of friends...until the day that we met.

In fact the only good thing about visiting her town was that I found a store selling Garbage Pail Kids. You're probably wondering what Garbage Pail Kids are. Well, they're trading stickers that were first issued in the mid-1980s. I collected them obsessively, they were a huge part of my childhood, but I lost all of them when I had a fire one night in my flat sixteen years ago.

I always regretted losing my Garbage Pail Kids. It was almost like I lost a part of my childhood that night. I really believed I would never see them again and yet here they were, a brand new series, on sale in a little shop in Ann Arbor. I bought boxes of the stickers and I was so happy to have found them again. My childhood was restored!

I'm glad I got the chance to see Ann Arbor. It's a nice college town - the kind of place that you could come to if you wanted to escape from the world and lead a safe, anonymous life. It's weird to compare some of the people of Michigan, with their funny accents, lumberjack shirts and hats, with the people of New York and Miami. America is most certainly a country of contrasts.

Tomorrow morning I leave Ann Arbor and fly via Chicago to Miami before heading back to London on Wednesday. I'm taking a break for a week - I plan to become the laziest person in Britain - before heading to Eastern Europe to begin the second part of my travels.

I return to England with a new collection of precious moments to add to my bulging bag of special memories. When I look back at these days spent travelling around America and the Caribbean I will remember many things.

I will remember jumping into the crystal clear waters of the Bahamas as a group of black tip reef sharks swam silently below me. I will remember finding my own private little beach on Blue Lagoon island. I will remember walking around the Art Deco District of Miami and feeling like I was in an episode of Happy Days. I will remember thinking how all of the beautiful people looked exactly the same.

I will remember running around New York City and being bowled over by everything I saw. I will remember ice skating on a warm night in Central Park. And I will try to forget a girl called Amy Visel.

This hasn't been a great visit, but it's been interesting. My three days in New York were the highlight of my visit. Miami was awful awful awful. After Wednesday I will never again holiday in Miami.

While this trip has not banished the negative view of America and the American people that I had before I came here (in fact it has only served to reinforce it) I have at least found one American city that I like and would like to visit again.

And that's it for this slice of American pie.

Take care and look after yourself. And each other.

From the memory box of a Professional Englishman.

Thursday, 25 March 2004

Englishman in New York


This entry comes to you from the world's biggest Internet cafe in Times Square in New York.

What I'm about to write will probably sound a little geeky, but ever since I wrote my first blog entry, I've wanted to write an entry with the subject title 'Englishman in New York.' And now that I've done it, it actually feels quite good! Another ambition achieved! Two to go!

I arrived in the capital of the world on Tuesday after a two hour flight from South Beach in Miami. Miami is the worst place I have ever visited - it must surely be the place that devils go to when they die. A plastic place full of beautiful, awful, rude, plastic people.

I was forced to endure three days in the sunshine state after flying in from the Bahamas. I must have been on coke when I decided to include Miami in my travels. And it's not over yet - I have to spend one more day there before I fly home. Aaaargh!

But enough about Miami. What I want to write about is New York City. It's funny, but the strangest thing has happened. I've realised something, something that I could never have predicted or expected. What I've realised, simply, is that I love New York.

Yes - me! Mr. Anti-American.

This is my first visit and I never expected it to affect me in such a way. I understand now why New York has been the inspiration for so many films and musicals and why so many artists have been able to harness the almost tangible energy that runs through these dimly lit streets. I've never experienced anything like it before.

Within just a few hours of flying into LaGuardia airport I knew that this city was going to have a profound affect on me. I was like a kid in a candy store, running through the streets, marvelling at everything around me.

My tour of New York City began yesterday with a trip to the Empire State Building in Manhattan. My hotel is nearby and so it seemed like a logical place to start. I took the audio tour and learnt a little bit about the history of New York. It also gave me the chance to see the entire city spread out before me and to marvel at the scale and the scope of this vast metropolis.

I liked the view so much that I returned to the Empire State Building and looked upon the city by night. It was a beautiful sight, a million lights stretching out before me, seeming to go on forever.

After visiting the Empire State Building I made my way down Fifth Avenue. As I did so I listened to the song by Sting that was the inspiration for this entry - another ambition achieved! (One to go).

While on Fifth Avenue I did something that every visitor to New York should do - I bought a hot dog. And it was pretty darn good! I haven't travelled in a yellow taxi cab yet, but the night is still young!

After devouring another 2 hot dogs I made my way to the ice skating rink at the Rockefeller Center. I stood there and watched a few dozen people skating and I wanted, more than anything, to join them. Yet I lacked the confidence to do so.

That sounds strange, I know. I can travel halfway across the world, I can swim with sharks, I can go paragliding, I can eat in restaurants alone and yet I can't bring myself to go ice skating alone?

Even with all these thoughts going through my head I still couldn't bring myself to step onto that ice rink. The head said yes but the feet said no. The truth is I'm a shy person, I lack confidence and there are just some things I find it difficult. I guess that ice skating alone is one of them.

So I left the Rockefeller Center behind and made my way to St Patrick's Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in New York. It was okay, though my eyes were drawn to the gigantic American flag hanging from the ceiling. The stars and stripes inside a church? Ugh.

After leaving the cathedral and the flag behind, I made my way to Central Park where I found another ice rink. This time I was determined to let my feet do the talking and before I could doubt the wisdom of my thinking I paid $13 and made my way on to the ice.

And it was all okay. The world didn't melt, Michael Jackson didn't turn black again. Skyscrapers didn't fall. I didn't even get laughed at. And I didn't fall over once!

True, I went went round slower than almost everybody else and I did knock a few kids over, but I didn't fall over once!

It turned out to be one of the most enjoyable times I've had during the past 16 days and it was quite magical, skating in Central Park at night, surrounded by skyscrapers. Quite magical.

And that was my first night in New York City. After stopping by Grand Central Station and New York Public Library, I returned to my hostel and was soon sleeping soundly in the city that never sleeps.

Earlier today I took a short helicopter flight around Manhattan. It was fun, a little scarier than I imagined, almost like floating.

Afterwards I made my way to the site where the World Trade Center stood. It was a sombre moment, standing in the spot where, two and a half years ago, nearly three thousand people lost their lives.

September 11th was a chance for America to change. Unfortunately, under the leadership of George W. Bush, America was transformed that day into something awful.

Monsters created more of a monster. And now, sadly, because of this Government's appalling foreign policy, what happened on September 11th was just a taster of what is to come.

After leaving Ground Zero I took a ramble down Wall Street and soon found that Battery Park and the ferry terminal to Liberty Island were nearby. I couldn't resist going to see the Tall Lady so I paid my ten bucks and headed out to see the french visitor.

And she was kinda small...!

After the Statue of Liberty I made my way here to Times Square - and boy what a sight to behold. Piccadilly Circus eat your heart out! I think that the first time you see Times Square you are either amazed or appalled. Or, like me, both.

Times Square is a mesmerising combination of skyscrapers, advertisements, flashing lights, TV screens, crowds of people and yellow taxi cabs. It's hypnotising, impressive - and probably quite evil!

A few hours ago I was standing in Times Square, wearing my Versace coat and taking photographs with my mobile phone, when a photographer doing a photo shoot started taking photos of me! Really!

A child of capitalism in the capital of capitalism.

And that's just about it for New York City.

I leave this great city behind tomorrow afternoon and board a flight that will take me to Detroit. Hopefully I'll be able to squeeze in a quick visit to the American Museum of Natural History before I leave. I also want to visit the Bronx.

But for this entry, and for this night, this is an Englishman in New York signing off and wishing you well. It's after eleven and I'm miles away from home.

I'll write to you again from Michigan.

Until then, take care.

New York, New York.

From the memory box of a Professional Englishman.

Saturday, 20 March 2004

Diving into Danger


So, it's time for me to say goodbye to the Bahamas.

Time to say goodbye to the people and the palm trees, the colourful buildings and the conch, the seagulls, the starfish...and the sharks.

It was not my fate to die in the Bahamas. I'm leaving here with all my limbs and without a scratch on me. I do have a tan, a few mosquito bites, I'm dehydrated and for the first time in my life I am badly sunburned, but otherwise I am fine.

Last Sunday, two days after arriving in Nassau, I went snorkeling. I didn't enjoy it - the boat ride out to the reef had me feeling sick - but I found out later that I simply chose the wrong tour company.

On Monday I went paragliding. I was attached to a parachute-type-thingy and pulled across the sea by speedboat. Up there, hundreds of feet above the ocean, the same thought replayed itself over and over in my head: "I'm insane. Yup. Totally insane."

I came down with a bump and was "dipped" - I fell into the sea and was pulled across the surface of the water as the man steering the boat shouted: "Here sharky sharky!" It was a lot of fun.

Afterwards I hired a jet-ski and roared across the ocean for twenty minutes. That was great too. On Tuesday I arranged to go scuba-diving. It was my intention to have an introductory lesson and then to go and meet the sharks on Thursday.

Unfortunately, when I arrived at the dive area I discovered that it wasn't possible for me to take part because I suffer from asthma. It was the same with every other dive company on the island. My dream of scuba-diving with sharks ended then and there.

However, I came to the Bahamas to swim with sharks and I was determined it would happen. I had heard of a company that offered snorkelling with sharks. So I contacted them and on Wednesday morning I finally climbed into the sea and came face to face (or face to teeth) with a multitude of black tip reef sharks.

After boarding the boat and heading out to sea, a dive instructor dropped a basket of fish remains into the water. Within minutes the sharks had arrived.

It was fantastic. Incredible. Definitely the highlight of my visit. I floated on the surface of the water as these beautiful, graceful creatures swam just twenty feet below me.

It wasn't really scary - black tips are shy, timid creatures and they are only about five feet long. There was only one mildly frightening moment when one of the sharks broke away from the group and started swimming towards me, but I splashed around a bit and he soon decided that I wasn't on the menu.

Later that I day I boarded a sea-taxi and headed out to Paradise Island. Once there I visited the Atlantis Hotel - it's huge, grand, incredibly expensive and really quite sickening - and paid $25 to see some more sharks in their aquarium, which is supposedly the biggest in the Western world. It was crap!

On Thursday I paid another $25 - the Bahamas is an expensive place - to take a ferry out to the Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon is a private island with a stingray sanctuary, a dolphin park, lots of hammocks, kayaks and countless American tourists.

I did a spot of kayaking which was about as exciting as reading this entry. Later, when I was sure nobody was watching, I slipped under a fence and went to explore some more of the island by myself.

I found a wonderful, little cove with just enough golden sand for me to stretch out and relax. I lay there for an hour or two. It was lovely. There is a lot to be said for just lying on the beach. It's funny, but it was something I had never done until I came to the Bahamas. I lay there with only the ocean, the sand, a couple of conch and a giant starfish to keep me company. It was perfect.

Yesterday afternoon I took part in a guided tour of Downtown Nassau. I was keen to learn more about the history of these islands. The tour was interesting enough but now, a day later, I've forgotten almost everything that charming black lady told me.

And that's just about everything that I've done during the past eight days. To be honest, now that my time in the Bahamas is coming to an end, I can't help but feel a little disappointed.

I first came to this country for just a few hours in 1998 - I was on a cruise from Orlando - and I promised myself that one day I would come back here. I've done that now, but I'm not sure if I will ever return to these islands again.

The Bahamas is a really beautiful place, and I've done some interesting things, but I would really rather be in Belarus, sharing a conversation with Emily or Katja or taking in a ballet.

These islands are too commercialised and there are too many tourists. I'm a shy person, I hate being in big groups of people, yet for this past week I've done nothing but try to avoid the crowds. And is there really anything worse than an American tourist?

Some days ago I watched a ragtag of black children playing in the sand as a cruise ship sailed by. During the past eight days I've seen more more yachts, more big houses and more limousines than I've ever seen before. It's grotesque. Okay, these people are rich, but do they have to flaunt it when so many Bahamians live in decaying wooden shacks?

The fear of crime is also something that has been on my mind a lot. I haven't been able to walk the streets of Downtown Nassau at night without being approached by guys offering me "powder".

It really is quite intimidating when a car screeches to a stop beside you and a black man with dreadlocks pops his head out and says, in a deep Caribbean accent: "Hey Mon, you want a taxi?"

Most Bahamians are nice though. They're sweet. I met two lovely girls who work at a nearby hotel and strangers are always saying hi to me and calling me "sir". I think that the Bahamians are acutely aware that tourism is the biggest industry here.

Though having said that, it's been difficult for me to form an accurate opinion of the Bahamian people as most of my conversations in the past week have been nothing more than "Can I have my room key please?" or "How much is the snapper fish?" and "Can you please remove the dead cockroaches from my room?"

I don't think that I will return to these islands. I think that next time I head to the Caribbean I will find another place to explore, somewhere off the beaten track, free of tourists.

And next time I will find somebody to go with me - the Caribbean is not the kind of place to explore alone. Some nights, as I lay on my bed in my hotel room, the corpses of cockroaches littering the floor around me, I listened as the world went by and I couldn't help but feel a little lonely and a little lost.

But anyway. You probably have people to do and things to see so I'll start to bring this entry to an end. Later tonight I head to Miami and then it's on to New York, Michigan, back to Miami, the UK and then on to Poland and Belarus.

But it's time now to say goodbye to the Bahamas and goodbye to the beautiful and misunderstood sharks that inhabit the waters around these islands.

Until my next entry, which should come to you from New York, it's time for this wandering Englishman to say goodbye.

Now it's back to yucky Miami.


From the memory box of a Professional Englishman.

Monday, 15 March 2004

Swimming with Sharks


I know that they are out there.

I've been thinking about them almost constantly for the past few weeks. Whether I'm walking the streets of Downtown Nassau, or lying on my bed in my hotel room, they are always in my thoughts. And when I sleep, they even find their way into my dreams, slipping in and out of my consciousness like guilty thoughts.

When I look at the waters that surround these islands, I can almost feel them...out there, just below the surface, waiting for me, my destiny. And now it's time for us to meet...

This coming Thursday I go swimming with sharks.

It's the reason I came here, to the Bahamas, and though I don't feel nervous yet, on Thursday afternoon when I board that boat and sail a few miles out to sea and ease myself into that crystal clear water and the multitude of fins come ever closer, that's when I'll start to feel, well, more than a little nervous.

And if the sharks don't kill me, then American Airlines might.

I hate flying, more than I can say, yet these 3 weeks have included ten flights crossing numerous oceans, cities and time zones, flying with the terrorists' favourite airline.

Actually, it's not so much the flying that frightens me - more the crashing, the burning and the being smashed up into a million little pieces. (Three flights down, seven to go).

Then there's the helicopter ride around New York City to worry about. I arrive in New York on March 23rd after spending 3 days in Miami. I'll be an Englishman walking the streets of the Bronx wearing a Versace jacket which says: "Mug me, I have no fashion sense."

Then there's always crime-ridden Miami to worry about and four days I'll be spending in Michigan - perhaps I'll be shot dead by Robocop when I fly into Detroit...

And if this all doesn't kill me, I'm also having a go at paragliding, which involves being attached to a parachute-type-thingy and then pulled across the sea by speedboat.

So lots of opportunities for a grisly and painful death.

For as long as I can remember, I've felt that I have a self-destruct button, and these 3 weeks are about pressing that button...again and again and again. So these could well be the last entries made by this Professional Englishman...lucky you!

This entry comes to you from a little Internet cafe, with three computers, in Downtown Nassau. I'm staying here in Nassau until Saturday when, sharks permitting, I fly to Miami for a few days.

I don't like Miami. I was there for a day and a half last week. As you know, I've written some negative things about America in the past. I had hoped this visit would banish some of those prejudices, but my time in Miami has served only to reinforce them. I will, however, reserve my final judgement until the last days of my visit.

So where was I? Oh yeah: I don't like Miami. I arrived in the sunshine state last Wednesday after a ten hour flight from London via New York. I checked into an awful hotel full of awful college kids.

On Thursday I met a nice Russian boy called Gerasin - as you know people from Eastern Europe are my favourite people - and we drove together to Key West. Key West is nice - it's small and it has a lot of character. Gerasin and I visited a seafood restaurant together and I sampled everything from their buffet.

I made a point, however, of avoiding the shark meat on offer. I didn't want to tempt fate - if I eat sharks then it's only fair they should eat me!

The following day I left Florida and boarded a flight to the Bahamas. The Bahamas is an interesting and exotic country. Palm trees line every street in Nassau and the colourful, colonial buildings are a reminder of the country's imperial past.

The Bahamas was a British colony until 1973 - the year of my birth - and today the islands are a curious mixture of British, American and Caribbean culture.

The people here seem nice, although having said that I did meet an asshole yesterday. I was walking through a nearby shanty town - a hundred black men watched my every move - when a guy called Troy approached me and offered to be my bodyguard.

He took me around the city, introducing me to his friend who tried to sell me some "powder". After a while Troy started to bark orders at me and became quite obnoxious. He followed me for an hour until I eventually told him to get lost.

Today I feel quite angry at myself. I should have been more assertive. Instead I tolerated this guy. He was an asshole. Hopefully today he's gone to play basketball with some bull sharks.

And that's it for this Bahamian entry!

Providing I survive my shark encounter, I will add another entry on Friday before I leave the Bahamas and head to Miami. So long as I don't come across any bull or tiger sharks then I should be okay...maybe. If you don't hear from me on Friday, then worry!

Before I conclude this entry, I would like to give a mention to everybody I left behind in Exeter in England: Ben, Tim, Sylvia, Craig, Jenni, Karl, Reza and Lakshmi - I miss you all and I hope that we will meet again in Exeter one day soon.

And that's it.

From the memory box of a Professional Englishman.

About Me

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London, ENGLAND, United Kingdom
This is me. Read a few entries and they will tell you more about me than I can fit into these few paragraphs. Many of these entries started their lives as mass emails. That was before I discovered blogs. Thanks for stopping by and thanks for visiting my blog and reading about my life. Both a work in progress.