North Carolina!

North Carolina was the first real southern state I would be visiting on my travels through the country. I was going to be arriving in the capital Charlotte and staying in a small town half an hour’s drive away. I was told to expect ‘southern hospitality’, lots of Chic Fillet’ (a southern food chain) and the streets to be empty on a Sunday as everyone would be at church. Many people also asked why I was going to Charlotte – ‘Eugh, why are you going to Charlotte?’ was the common question. The simple answer was that Kyle, Marc and I were travelling to North Carolina to visit our best friend from over the summer – Sasha, and it turned out to be one of our most enjoyable destinations yet!

We arrived in Charlotte on the trusty Megabus to find a beaming Sasha excited to pick us up! It was late in the afternoon and we had agreed to get food when we met, so we put our bags in Sasha’s car and drove straight to a Mexican restaurant. Here we had the biggest cocktails that I’ve ever had; they were large on the menu and they meant it! We also nearly got in an argument with a grumpy old man sitting behind us because we were apparently moving around too much on our bench. Knowing this was the south I pretended to be gay in order to piss him off that little bit more (you can see his head in the photo below). I ordered the meatiest food I could find on the menu which included shrimps, steak and chicken which was duley devoured.

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HUGE cocktails!

After the Mexican restaurant we popped into a bar for a drink then headed back to Sasha’s apartment where we would be crashing for two nights. Sasha’s apartment was lovely and cosy with 2 sofas to crash on and a blow up bed for the lucky one of us. Sasha had bought a small brown dog just before we had arrived and it was instantly petrified of us when we entered the apartment! The Dog was running around barking and growling at us and i didn’t trust it from the start! I think she was a rescue dog and had a chequered past which made her this way. Never the less she seemed to have calmed down a bit after we had settled in. Or so we thought. There we were engaging in the classic Netflix and chill on the sofas while Kyle was on the floor next to the dogs bed trying to make a friend. All of a sudden when Kyle got too close the dog started growling an went for his finger! We were all pretty shocked then Kyle showed us his cut and bleeding finger! Sasha tended to it so the bleeding stopped and then told her dog off. I made sure not to go near the dog again – crazy bitch. We watched Netflix for the rest of the night then hit the hay.

The next morning I was up at 7.30 am while Kyle and Marc were still asleep as I was going with Sasha to her high school swim team practice. I was going to help coach the 1 ½ hour session with her as we had been the camps swim coaches over summer where she had always talked about her high school swim team and how proud of it she was! We arrived at the pool and I was amazed at how good it was! 3 high schools shared this pool and it had TWO 10 lane 25m swimming pools all prepped and ready for competing! Back home it is unheard of to have secondary schools with swimming pools like this unless they’re the top private ones! Even community pools in London only usually have 1 25m pool! You can really see why the Americans dominate swimming on the international stage! The session was good fun, there were about 20 kids ranging in ability and they listened well and enjoyed the new things they tried out!

After the session we grabbed a coffee to stay awake then headed back to the apartment to pick up Kyle and Marc as it was time to go to work at a car wash! The car wash was Sasha’s high school drama departments fund raising event to raise money for the department play. We had a space in the local Chic Fillet’ parking lot to wash the cars and had kids standing by the main road with car wash signs and donation boxes. The community in the local area really support the high school.  A fair amount of people come through to get their car washed and people even pulled up just to donate without getting their car washed. We 3 guys got stuck in and I took responsibility for making the wheels and hub caps extra shiny while the other people were in control of the hose and washing the body! It was a fun time but the kids were going to be there for a few more hours and we had a big last night ahead of us so we headed back to the apartment to have showers and chill. That night we headed out to the outskirts of Charlotte to a bar with giant Jenga and Battleships. Once we had played enough games we then headed to a Brewery bar. I forget the name of the brewery bar but my god it was amazing! We arrived at around 10.30 and it was packed with people having a merry good time. We found a high table with some stools and promptly ordered a tray each of 5 small glasses of different beers brewed in the local area. They ranged from pale ales to stouts and all tasted great! Kyle then ordered some bread sticks with a pot of cheese to dunk them in and my word the cheese tasted amazing, i couldn’t get enough of it! Impressed by the quality and taste of the food I expectantly ordered steak tips. I wasn’t disappointed- the steak was magnificent and I would have ordered more if I knew I could eat it! Truly blown away by the food we had eaten and the drinks we consumed we left the brewery happy bunnies and headed home for the night.

MY next stop was going to be Atlanta which was to be my final stop on this trip before heading back to New York to fly home. I had planned to make it as far south as Florida but without realising it I had pretty much spent all my money that camp had payed me and I wanted to have some dollar left over when I returned home. As a result I brought my flight home a week early. I dint really mind though, I had seen so much of the states so far and 1 week less wasn’t a killer. Plus, I had already made my mind i was coming back to the states one day.

North Carolina and Sasha were great to us. When people ask again; ‘Eugh, why would you want to go to Charlotte?’ I’ll tell them; ‘Because it’s a bloody cool town, with amazing people, amazing food and that all important southern hospitality’.

DC Stands For Delicious Chicken!

Stepping off the Coach in Washington DC at midday I was greeted with a wall of heat and humidity that that made you feel like you were in the Mediterranean – minus the sea breeze! We arrived at our hostel slightly sweaty and dropped off our bags as check wasn’t for a couple of hours. There was no sign of Kieran at the hostel but we had more pressing matters on our hands – food.  This was not just any old food though. Back home in London I often visit the church of the chicken gods, i.e. Nando’s, and devour their scrumptious meals. I had no idea Nando’s was even a thing in the USA, but Dan said there were actually 4 in the USA and he was planning to visit all of them on his travels. Even better, there was a one in DC!

A short walk from our hostel was this rare American Nando’s. Inside it felt like home, the set up was the same and I ordered my usual; a whole chicken and 2 small sides of chips and macho peas – gotta have the greens! I liked the fact that on their menu Nando’s called slices of cooked potato by their proper name of chips, and then put fries in brackets next to it.

The Church of Chicken
The Church of Chicken
They Know.
They Know.

Back home I usually just about manage to finish the whole chicken and two small sides. However, when my food came out they had given me two large sides! I knew it would be a tough ask to finish it! I munched my way through it but no amount of breaks or sips of water could help me finish the monster meal. I was defeated for the first time by a Nando’s meal. At the end of the meal I was deep in a food coma and we sat there for a while mustering the will to get up and leave.

The Victor.
The Victor.

Eventually we gained the strength to leave and we went back to check into our hostel where we were reunited with Kieran. There he informed us that the Rocky steps were still closed the previous night where he left us at the karaoke bar and he didn’t get to run up them! I guess It just wasn’t meant to be! We settled in, chilled out in the communal sitting room then had a few drinks in the back garden.

The hostel we had checked into was called Duo Hostel – everyone I knew who was in DC (Dan, Kieran, Raska, Marc and Kyle) had all booked here as it had the best ratings out of all the hostels in DC. The hostel itself was great with great facilities, but the staff, my god the staff were annoying. I don’t often have a bad word to say about hostels but two of the staff just didn’t have a clue how to talk to customers and blamed you if something went wrong. For instance; upon arrival I wanted to book an extra night at the hostel so I did this with the lady at reception. She then told me after i had payed that i would have to check out at 11am then check back in at 3pm as I was moving rooms. I told her she should of told me this before I had paid and she said I should have assumed that was going to happen and she didn’t understand what my problem was. I asked her to keep me in the same room but she said that she couldn’t change it without a manger. A few minutes after this she decided to have little moan to the manager about what had happened, she done this in front of me and my friends! Luckily the manger saw the light and told her what she had done was wrong and he corrected the booking so i wouldn’t have to check out and back in. Justice served, but man she shouldn’t be working in a hostel! Anyway that’s my little rant over with. Had to get that off my chest. That night we had a few drinks and met some really cool people in the hostel who we chatted to for a long time before hitting the hay.

Keeping up the tradition of having one good tourist day in each city, the next day I visited the multiple monuments and museums in DC. The great thing about DC is that all the museums and interesting sites are concentrated in a region of the city that has all been planned out and is called The National Mall. Everything is within walking distance which is great because you don’t have to spend money on transport but it was also a killer walking in the heat. This was the furthest south I’ve been so far; the heat was unbearable and there were no clouds to give you rest from the sun. Due to this I found myself walking into buildings I didn’t intend to visit just so I could have a minute of air conditioning!

First on the list was the White House. This was disappointing and smelly. Disappointing because you can’t see the building that well; it is so far away it looks like a tiny model house. The area where I viewed it from was also reeking of sewage so the whole White House thing was a let-down. Plus, I dint see Obama shooting some hoops. Anyway, on-wards and upwards. The Washington monument was built to commemorate the first American President – George Washington. The structure took 40 years to complete (1848-1888), is in the middle of The National Mall and is the world’s tallest stone structure standing at 169.4m tall. You have the option of going to the top but I’d done the empire state building before so I’ve had my fill of being overcharged to see something from a different angle. A picture in passing was sufficient and I moved onto what I actually came for; the Smithsonian Museums.

The Smithsonian Museums are part of the USA’s Smithsonian institution. 17 of these museums are in Washington DC and 11 of them are in the area of The National Mall. 11 museums in walking distance? That’s a lot to visit! In order to get the most out of the day I whipped out a map and chose the 3 museums that I would enjoy the most. These were the museums of American history, Natural History and Air and Space. If these aren’t your scene the other museums in The National Mall include the museums of Asian art, Arts and Industries, Contemporary and Modern Art, African American History and Art, African Art and Native American History and Art. Other than being really interesting they’re also free!

The Museum of American History was really insightful; it started right at the beginning with the War of Independence and has the huge original star spangled banner that was raised above Fort McHenry during the battle of 1812. It’s in a darkened room and photos aren’t allowed as its slowly disintegrating and light can damage it further. The rest of the museum is also really insightful and has pieces up until the modern era including helicopters from the Vietnam War and steel work from the Twin Towers. The Natural History museum was also great but very similar to the Natural History Museum in London so I’d seen most of it before. My favorite out of the 3 was the Museum of Air and Space. The museum has a large collection of air and space history including rockets and satellites and also has tonnes of interactive pieces that kept my inner child entertained for a couple of hours.

After the Smithsonian’s I was pretty exhausted and walked back to the hostel popping into a few banks along the way to use their air conditioning! That night we went out with the hostel to a dive bar up the road it wasn’t really anyone’s scene but there was a courtyard out back where everyone ended up and had a good chat!

All in all DC was great but probably my least favorite destination so far on my travels. Even though the hostel we stayed at was one of the best rated in DC, the staff often left you disappointed and could really work on their customer service. The nightlife we saw was also a bit dull. Maybe I’ve done too much touristy stuff or the heat got to me but the White House and Washington Monument are just not worth a visit. However, the Smithsonian Museums are great as is the Lincoln memorial and the pristine parks in The National Mall and surrounding areas. Up next was South Carolina where we were to be visiting one of our best friends over the summer and my fellow swim coach – Sasha!

Philadelphia Part 2.

It was 5.45am and I was being woken up by my iPhone alarm.

I had set the alarm the previous night with all the intention in the world of waking up and joining my roommate Kieran on his 2.5 mile run to the Rocky steps. However, it appeared that drunk Michael had been slightly too optimistic about how he would feel in the morning. It turned out I felt like crap. The $1.50 beers and 4 hours sleep had taken its toll on my body and all I wanted to do was curl up in my bed and stay there for the foreseeable future. However, Kieran didn’t have an alarm and I knew how much this run meant to him, so I woke him up to get ready and informed him that I was in no fit state to join him. He said it was fine, got dressed and left the hostel for his run. He was a man possessed. I gulped down a pint of water then fell back to sleep…..this time with no alarm set.

The Famous Steps.
The Famous Steps.

I re-awoke at about 9am to find Kieran waking up on the other side of the room, he had obviously gone back to sleep after his Rocky Run.

“How’d it go mate?” I asked

“Ermm, well I got within 600m of the steps, they were still setting down the stage and stopped me going up them!….I’m pretty devastated if i’m being honest….”

Other than feeling even better about my decision not to join him, I felt so sorry for the guy. He had drunk a fair bit the night before and probably didn’t feel great on the run. Also one of the main reasons he came to Philadelphia was to run up the Rocky steps and catch the sunrise but now he couldn’t; he was leaving at 3am the next morning on a bus to Washington DC so this morning was his last chance. This was going to play on his mind for a while.

That day was a pretty chilled one as I had done all the touristy stuff I wanted to do the day before. The hostel we were in has loads of things to keep you entertained so I played a few game of FIFA with Kieran on their Xbox and got some food from the trusted 7.11 down the road. I came across a bunch of 7.11’s in SE Asia and they always had what you needed from mosquito repellent to cheap food. The ones in America were also good with cheap food that kept you going throughout the day without breaking the bank! Kieran went out for some more sightseeing and I met him and Dan later that night in a pub on South Street.

South Street was recommended to us by the hostel staff as the other go to place other than Market Street. It was about 9pm and I was walking there on my own from the hostel. Arriving on South Street you can definitely say it has a different vibe to Market Street; let’s just say you didn’t walk around with your phone on display. I met up with Dan and Kieran in this little pub where we had a couple of pints and got talking to a middle aged guy about the differences between England and America, namely our lack of guns. He eventually left us to go home, smoke some weed and ‘get some’ from his wife…fair play.

We decided South Street wasn’t really our scene so we popped back up to our trusted market street. And went into a karaoke bar where we met Kyle, Marc, Raska and a friend from camp who was living in Philadelphia, Heather. We sung many karaoke songs between us. Then suddenly at about 1am Kieran said to us “I’m doing the rocky steps now!”

“Kieran, you have a coach to DC to catch in 2 hours!”

It didn’t matter what we said to him, he was going to do it.  After a weekend of not being able to do the one thing he came to Philadelphia for, he saw this as his last chance, 2 hours before he left the city. His plan was to go back to the hostel, pick up his backpack, run with his backpack to the Rocky steps and then run and meet his coach to DC. He said goodbye and we wished him well not knowing if he was going to make it to the steps or his coach for that matter as he had consumed a few beers! We stayed at the Karaoke bar for a while then headed back to the hostel. Dan and I had booked a coach for 10am the next day to take us to DC. There we would meet Kieran and we would find out if he finally managed to make his Rocky run.

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Did he make it?

Philadelphia Part 1.

Over the years I’ve found that wherever you’re travelling, there’s always one or two main travel companies that are relatively cheap which you turn to in order to get from place to place. America was no different…… All hail the Megabus!

 Booking a Megabus is a great way to get from city to city in the USA and is far cheaper in most cases than a trip on the railway or a budget flight. They’re even pretty comfortable; with air con, Wi-Fi, power outlets and enough legroom in some seats for someone as tall as me (6ft 4). Knowing this, I booked a Megabus from New York to my next stop Philadelphia where I was going to be spending 3 nights. I arrived in the early hours of Friday afternoon, in the centre of a city steeped in American history and basking in glorious sunshine.

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The hostel I was staying at was called Apple Hostel and was about a 10 minute walk from where I was dropped off. Having a large backpack and satchel was tough work in the blazing heat, but once I arrived I was welcomed by some great staff, checked in and met my dorm mates; Dan and Kieran from England and Kyle from Detroit, Michigan. After introductions I soon realised I had somehow developed a layer of sweat and dirt from my short foray from the bus to the hostel. A shower was needed and taken.

Once settled in I learnt that every night the hostel puts on a different themed night to get people to mingle. Tonight was wine and cheese night! Safe to say myself, Dan, Kieran and Kyle drunk the majority of the wine and ate most of the cheese. I don’t know what it was, maybe it was the fact I’d been living on camp food for 8 weeks, but the cheese and wine tasted so good! That night we headed out our hostel, walked for about 20 seconds, and were on Market Street; pretty much the go to place of a night time in Philadelphia with plenty of bars, restaurants and pizza joints. We saw a bar with a sign advertising $2 beers; we were straight in there and didn’t leave till the early hours of the morning. The night was actually one of the best I have had so far in the states. You know that saying it’s not where you go, it’s who you’re with? Well the group of guys I was with were awesome and we chatted all night about various things from Kyle applying to be in the CIA to Kieran driving tanks in the army.

The Wine and Cheese destroyers minus Dan.

The next day Kieran and I decided to be proper tourists and take in the historical sights on offer in Philadelphia. Firstly we visited the Ben Franklin buildings. These showed how during his time in Philadelphia Ben Franklin used giant printing presses to publish newspapers critical of the British policies in America. You were able to see the whole process from creating the print design to pressing to producing the paper – very interesting, free and well worth a visit. The Ben Franklin Museum displays many of his inventions, travels and philosophical thinking; although not free it is still interesting and has many interactive pieces which probably entertained me more than they should have. After I was done playing we headed to the liberty bell exhibition and I kind of think you can skip this because, well, it’s a bell. It’s really historical and all, but you just walk up to it, say something like ‘yep, that’s a big bell’, take a photo, then leave. There are windows that allow you to view the bell from the outside which I think is a much better option as it will save you time and disappointment. The final stop on our ‘let’s be a good tourist day’ was Independence Hall where the declaration of independence was signed. There are tours of the hall every half hour and although free, you need to collect tickets from the visitor centre across the road as numbers are limited. I suggest doing this early as we had to wait 3 hours for our tour and had a lot of time to kill.

The weekend I was in Philadelphia was also the weekend of the Made in America concert where artists like Beyoncé were performing. During the 3 hour wait we had until our Independence Hall tour we wondered over to the concert following the huge crowds. The concert stage was on top of the legendary Rocky steps, which Sylvester Stallone famously ran up in one of his Rocky films. The concert and stage prevented people from running up the steps and taking that classic photo with your arms up in the air. Kieran was rather annoyed about this; one of the main reasons he came to Philadelphia was to run up those steps. We got talking to some police officers at the concert who said that the stage would be taken down over night and people could run up the steps from the early hours of tomorrow morning. Kieran was ecstatic and planned to go up the steps to catch the sunrise the following morning. In a moment of madness, fully knowing I’m by no means a morning person, I agreed to join him. 

That short wonder killed enough time and it was time for our Independence Hall tour. 

Above everything else, this was the highlight of my day. This was down to two reasons; number 1 the building itself was bloody awesome and pretty much untouched from the days it was used. But the main reason for my love of the tour was the tour guide. Each tour group is sat in this little room to start with and our tour guide introduced himself and gave a brief but enthralling history of Independence Hall and Philadelphia, which was previously the capital of the USA. He interacted with the group extremely well and asked questions such as ‘put your hand up if you would of signed the declaration of independence’ ………Kieran and I kept our hands firmly down, common, we’re British! We were then taken through Independence Hall and the Senate and at the end I was looking for an opportunity to tip as I was so impressed by the tour we were given. But nope, the guide just said thank you for coming, showed us the exit and waked straight out! 

Are you kidding me?! In a country where everyone just expects a tip for something as little as giving you directions, the one guy I met on my whole travels who I genuinely wanted to tip just walks out on me before I had the chance?! I was baffled!!

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George Washington sat in the big one.
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Original 13 States emblems in the Senate.
Once I had gotten over my confusion we headed back to the hostel which was having a movie night later. That night the same group form the night before went out just off Market Street to a cool bar (link) that had giant Jenga, $1.50 beers and $4 cheese steaks, what more could you want? Another great night was had and we headed back to the hostel to sleep with an alarm set for 5.45am for our Rocky Run.