After four days in Swansea, with exceptionally charmed weather, we packed our unwashed belongings up and headed North in search of new territory and a laundry machine. The sun had gone into hiding again and the skies muddied with grey as we hiked several miles from the coast to the Swansea national rail station. All aboard! Headed to Liverpool!

Three trains and several hours later, we arrived at Liverpool station. Without cell service, I was desperately connecting to any Wifi source in an attempt to find out where our home for the next few days was located. Behold, our host, Diane, was graciously waiting for us outside of the station in her dark-blue manual Audi. “Hello! So glad you found me! Welcome to Liverpool!” Her accent was thick, her voice raspy and it took a few minutes of listening to get accustomed to her enthusiastic speech.

On our drive through traffic, you could tell Diane loved to host, and she loved her city, pointing out hot spots, what to avoid, bus routes, ect. Diane had visited America several times before– one of her best friends married an American and had spent time camping out with them in Wyoming and hitting the casinos of Las Vegas in years past. 

Pulling into a neighborhood 15 minutes from the station, Diane parks the whole passenger side of the car unto the curb – the streets being much more narrow than in America. Diane, still telling tales, takes a breath and proceeds to describe the layout of her home. The bottom floor is our rental, her son lives in the middle floor and she resides on the upmost level. She guides us into her home, mentioning repeatedly that if there’s anything we need to let her know. She then headed out in fabulous attire for drinks and dinner with her girl friends.

We unwind. Smelly, stuffed backpacks can finally breath, along with our wet feet. Diane had filled the fridge with beers and a bottle of Prosecco– quite a thoughtful touch after a long day of travel. We ended our night with a larger than necessary pizza from a corner pizzeria nearby.

The remaining three days, we walked and traveled by bus around Liverpool. Although it was quite windy and storm Dennis was approaching, we managed to move around well enough. We stood with the legendary Beatles statues on the bank of the river Mersey and indulged in Fish and Chips (again). In search of some nightlife, we bought cheap tickets to an indie-pop/rock group show featuring the band Sorry, playing at EBGB in downtown Liverpool. We put on clothes that had finally been through the washing machine, indulged in tapas and headed to the Heebie Jeebie’s bar, located on top of the underground EBGB venue. Live music was playing and a special above the bar read “2 for 1 Gin and Tonics”. After several doubles each, we were ready for a show and headed downstairs for the concert. Arriving early lead to securing spots in the front row and meeting Shannon and Josh. 

With inhibitions low and no itinerary for the rest of the night, we tagged along with Shannon and Josh, winding freely through the clammy streets, to the Zodiac Lounge– a hidden rooftop spot with hookah and drinks. We mingled over a few more beers and shared our backgrounds with each other. As it was time to head home, we said goodbye and swapped contact information. A wonderful relationship formed there, and we continue to keep in touch. 

We had been in the UK for a little over a month now. Between London, Wales, and now Liverpool, the grey skies, the cold and rain, was growing weary. Storms were only predicted to get worse and train cancellations had already been affecting service in the North. On a whim, we decided to go somewhere warm. Asia didn’t seem like the smartest option, and we didn’t want to start our Schengen Visa yet. (Thankfully we decided against heading to European countries like Spain and Italy. Little did we know those would be the worse affected countries by COVID-19 in the upcoming weeks).

South America was still experiencing summer and we wanted a little slice of that. Sitting at a bar, with gin and tonics in hand (again), we booked tickets 7 days out for Santiago, Chile. Now, we just had to get back to London for the flight. We folded our belongings back up, and strapped on our packs, headed to the train station. Needing to head south to eventually get to London, we decided to stop in Birmingham for a few days. 

We stayed at the nicest hostel we’ve ever been in, Selina Birmingham, located in the old Jewellery Quarter. Private bathroom, queen bed, clean with modern decor for $25 a night. We spent our time in Birmingham walking around, catching up on blog posts, extreme mini golf and predictably, eating.

 

Some of our favorite recommendations include:

The Meat Shack

This burger joint is amazing, messy and oh so worth it. Located in the Chinese Quarter of Birmingham, hand battered onion rings with the cheesiest, sauciest burgers we could find made for an amazing meal. I opted for the spicy Hell Shack glorious mess of a burger, Julius had the Dutch Piggy.

 

Saint’s Kitchen

We loved this place so much we went there for breakfast two days in a row. The eggs Benedict on homemade english muffins is a must; topped with spiced ham hock, hollandaise & poached Egg.

Ghetto Golf

Needing an activity indoors, we set out for Ghetto Golf– an indoor, adult only putt putt golf course with a bar, wild course designs, black light interiors, neon lights, and an 80s-00s hiphop playlist. Themes changed with each hole. From the interior of a Blockbuster, to an actual school bus in the middle of the building, it was a great way to spend the afternoon for only $12, with the student discount. 

40 St. Pauls

A green light visible from the outside is the only indication this hidden gem is open. 40 St. James is a speakeasy gin-only bar. With over 200 different types of gin, a book explaining every gin’s flavor profile and recommended pairings, this spot is a real knockout. Our server knew every gin they had there and would rattle off the history of the gin, details of the land the juniper berries were grown on and recommendations based on our preferences. We both discovered we throughly enjoy floral gins, most specifically the Stratford Gin from the Shakespeare distillery in England; described as having “rich juniper combined with a savory depth and a floral note.”

On the 15th of February, we continued our trek to just outside of London to settle and prepare for our long-haul flight to Santiago. The night of the 15th and the entirety of the 16th were everything short of great. After taking a National Express bus from the drizzly Birmingham to the Heathrow airport, I had booked two nights in a rental property that had the feng-shui of a mental institution. Kitchen was stocked with only soap and salt. Our room was all white, with one small piece of art on the wall. While it was a clean place to stay, it was not the most comforting nor convenient. I had put us in a place with almost no nearby food, grocery stores– anything. Our first night we trotted through the dark and rain, and eventually found a pub combined with a quaint Indian eatery. The cuisine had a yummy homemade quality and this was the highlight of our last two days there. The next day we survived off of gas station goods and the spiciest packaged ramen I’ve ever eaten. I’ll admit, booking this property was my biggest blunder of our trip so far. 

The day had finally come. February 17th we packed up and ordered an Uber to Heathrow airport to begin our journey to Santiago. With just under 24 hours of traveling, we flew from London to Houston, Texas, then to Santiago. Delirious and jet lagged, we had now arrived in a completely different part of the world, in a different season, in a different language. It was time for a new leg of our adventure to begin!

Reading: Ulysses (James Joyce) [Forever…]

Listening: Yeezus (Kanye West)

London, its manifold structures, its frantic medley of sound and sight, gave way to a long, pure note of grayish green as our train rolled further from the metropolis. By way of the Great Western Rail, and eventually a bus ride, our destination promised a complete one-eighty in terms of setting. A farmstead, deep within Wales’s Brecon Beacons National Park, would be our new home for the next few days. The lack of urban comforts wasn’t the problem, in fact I welcomed the prospect of a quiet, more introspective pace of life. No, as we would soon find out, the real challenge would be getting there in the first place.

After a train delay, a frantic dash for cash from what must be Abergavenny’s only ATM, and a recuperative pint amongst friendly but slightly concerned Welsh folk at a neighborhood pub, we boarded the night bus for the mountain village of Tal-y-bont. Well past sundown, the dim lights of local towns grew yet dimmer and less frequent. Finally we arrived at our stop, marked by a single bench under a single amber-hued street lamp. To our right: the village, dormant. To our left: a solitary road, narrow, lightless, and hemmed on both sides with tall hedges.

Shouldering our packs, we turned towards the road, laughing and joking nervously as the  streetlamp gave way to the blackness of the road’s mouth. It felt as though we were entering a fairytale, not the modern g-rated kind, but the kind in which the path before you ends up being the esophagus of some hungry Welsh giant.

I held a cheap flashlight, Sarah her phone. All was quiet but for the occasional chirp of insects and the tramping of our advancing feet. That was until we turned off the road, up a steep dirt path still shrouded in darkness. The hedges continued up, but now they rustled occasionally; not softly with the breeze, but suddenly and fiercely, willed by some unknown force. “What was that?!” “I don’t know!” Terror gripped us for a moment. “Uh… Hello?” To my surprise… a response was issued. “Baaaaaaahhhhhh.” Sheep! The bleating of sheep all around us! Just beyond the hedges! Relieved, we giggled the paranoia away and continued. Still, the scene reminded me a little too much of Hannibal Lector (thankfully, the sheep were somewhat conversational) and we got a move on. Though the climb was tough, we finally found our little red cottage near the top of the hill. It wouldn’t be until morning that we’d discover our new home was shared by other furry (and gaudily feathered) inhabitants.

Brecon Beacons

A breathtaking land in the heart of South Wales, Brecon Beacons National park is home to the “central beacons” range and the “Black Mountains,” including South Wale’s highest peak “Pen-y-Fan.” The area feels relatively untouched by modern civilization, as glistening moss blankets the ancient limbs of Oak, Ash, and Yew. Dense woodlands are fractured by precipitous hills and rolling fields dotted with the cumulus outlines of sheep. In lieu of steel or iron, the grazing animals are enclosed by dense hedges, adding to the sense of pastoral tranquility. Due to inconsistent weather caused by the approach of Winter Storm Ciara in the UK, we did not get to explore as much as we’d liked to. In fact, on our way back from a brief hike, we found ourselves assailed by a torrential downpour without shelter. To my dismay, the compact camera in my jacket pocket was drenched, and I felt terrible after we discovered the power button was unresponsive (though miraculously, weeks later, the camera had a Lazarus moment and resumed full functionality!!). Due to the inclement weather, we spent a lot of time on the farmstead. Sheep, a cantankerous old goat, a flock of peacocks (who took cover from the rain on our porch, using our chairs as toilets), and two lovely Newfoundlands became our constant companions. The Newfoundlands, with their initially alarming size and strength (I’m glad we hadn’t bumped into them on our nighttime ascent), were in fact totally chill and left quite the impression on me. I love those fluffy beasts!

 

 

Cardiff

While Wales is largely known for its natural beauty, its unofficial capital, Cardiff, offers a great deal in terms of nightlife and urban living. Again, getting here wasn’t as easy as planned. We learned a valuable lesson about buses in the UK: if you don’t wave them down, they’re likely to just roll on past the bus stop (even in the middle of nowhere!). This particular bus driver even waved back as we chased after him, which struck me as pretty cheeky. A few hours later, we caught the next bus with prompt, extended arms. It was on this particular ride that we met a kindly gentleman named Alan, who gave us an impromptu guide on the various natural landmarks and towns we passed through. He expressed his fascination for American mafiosos, and told us how he frequented Brecon Beacons to visit a family grave (and to go on scenic walks). He was very helpful in directing us to Cardiff, and a testament to Welsh hospitality. Thanks Alan!

Downtown Cardiff sports innumerable restaurants, cafes, pubs, and “arcades” which are mall-like shopping centers akin to outlets in the US. I particularly enjoyed the central pedestrian street, lined with Welsh flags sporting the iconic red dragon of St. George and leading towards the walls of Cardiff Castle. I highly recommend checking out the castle grounds (discounted entry with a student ID + having a baby face in my case), as it includes an opportunity to explore medieval battlements (the top offering a great view of the city), as well as a gorgeous and remarkably intricate gothic-revival style mansion renovated by the illustrious William Burges. The ceilings of the mansion are especially stunning.

Finally, if you happen to be in Cardiff during the Six Nations Rugby Cup, prepare yourself for a wild time. I felt right at home amidst the flurry of red and white (Wales’s team colors), public intoxication, and hearty banter. Think Lincoln, NE on game day hosting Wisconsin (hard to say which is crazier!). Also, the best fish and chips I had in the UK were consumed during this match, though that may have been due to an appetite worked up by zealous day drinking (for cultural immersion, obviously…).


 

Swansea

Even in Swansea, people asked “Why Swansea?” And for a few rainy days, with few options for dining or nightlife, I too began asking myself, “why Swansea?”. But then it happened: radiant sunshine stretching out over the sea , beckoning us out from our shoddy apartment and towards the shore. We strolled along the coast to the “Mumbles” area, around the pier, and up and up and up upon absolutely stunning cliffside trails. For two blessed days the sun shone, and we walked miles along the ocean cliffs, from Langland Bay to Caswell Bay. Shocks of samphire plants and yellow wild flowers fringed our path as ocean waves spit white froth, lapping at the cliffs below us. We ended the second night with wine and sandwiches snuggled within a small alcove overlooking the sea. We watched the setting sun. Blushing, sleepy sky. It felt like a dream.

Reading: Ulysses (James Joyce) [Why am I putting myself through this?]

Listening: TOTAL (New Order)

Poet, playwright, and tragic figure Oscar Wilde once wrote of his love for the city of London, remarking “it is entirely composed now of beautiful idiots and brilliant lunatics.” Over a century later, I wonder to which camp our descent into Heathrow bolsters. Marrakesh had been fun at first, yet as sickness gripped our lungs, the packed markets and enterprising merchants had grown stifling. Haggling can be a joy, but a fever under the Moroccan sun makes for a poor business associate. London, cool and damp, sounded a relief to our sweat-slicked brows. Plus, Sarah needed to get her drone back from the authorities!

Directly after our arrival, we took “the tube” for first time. Our public transport repertoire growing, we were awed by just how subterranean the tube actually was. We dove deeper and deeper into the earth’s crust, marveling at the extent and depth of earth displaced. After a few transfers, we arrived at our Airbnb in North Lambeth. Every floor of the flat was distorted and slanted in one way or another, owing to a sensation of having entered an M.C. Escher painting. The bed, however, was quite comfortable.

Highlights:

Kennington Park:

A lovely swathe of green on our walk from Lambeth to Chelsea. Moss-gowned trees and wagging puppy-dog tails abound. Would highly recommend when seeking a place to stretch your legs and enrich your lungs.

 

Natural History Museum London:

The structure itself is nearly as interesting as the exhibits it holds; weathered busts of lions, goats, and even pteranodons glean from various precipices overhead. A cavernous central hall makes for a unique, waterless aquarium in which a massive whale skeleton crashes towards the entrance. The various halls that offshoot from the central one can be a tad restrictive at times (depending on the crowd) but all promise something remarkable (i.e. DINOS!). Even better, it’s completely free.

 

The Walrus:

A place we ventured frequently, The Walrus was doubtless our favorite pub in North Lambeth. Being a pub/hostel hybrid, a revolving door of new faces inhabits the cozy interior. Drinks are cheap and the people watching is priceless. (Or you could be a normal person and actually socialize, yikes!)

 

Pétrus:

Sarah and I absolutely adore Gordon Ramsay, though “adore” may be an understatement. Does calling yourself “Gordy’s Boy” for nearly five years sound like adoration? Fanatical derangement? You decide. Anyways, Sarah and I were determined to eat at one of his many restaurants here in London. Though the flagship The Gordon Ramsay was tempting, it was also very difficult to get a reservation. We settled on Pétrus, and by settling I mean enjoyed the most delicious five-star meal of our young, impressionable lives. Order the Orkney scallop, then contemplate the gods of Olympus and pity they’ve only tasted ambrosia. Apparently, according to our dashing French waiter, we’d missed Gordon himself by a mere week. And so the quest of Gordy’s Boy continues…

 

Leake Street Tunnel/Bahn Bao Brothers:

The Leake Street Tunnel is a graffiti artists dream for two reasons: a.) the amazing range of styles and images literally coating the expanse from top to bottom, b.) tagging here is completely legal! Underground art is thriving in London, and there’s no better gallery than these public tunnels in North Lambeth. Sarah and I also encountered a troupe of bongo drummers (numbering around 15), which frankly scared the crap out of us due to the thunderous acoustics of the place. Adjoining the tunnel resides a real stylish gem of a joint, Bahn Bao Brothers. Curving brick interior meets hip contemporary asian aesthetic (complete with perennially blooming cherry blossoms). The modern Vietnamese cuisine is top-notch.

 

Soho:

Grey days in London can make for dreary streets after a time. Where’s the color? The vivaciousness? Well, if anywhere, it’s in a bumping area dubbed “Soho” of London’s West End. Pubs, restaurants, theaters, and jubilant shouts of “cheers!” coax a twinkle of gaiety (or even mischief) from the downcast eye. Though we only experienced a fraction of the nightlife Soho has to offer, our favorite spot was a little cocktail bar called Jimi Loves Gloria. If RuPaul’s face is part of the wallpaper pattern it has to be good, and the stream of Bowie from the stereo lifted us from London gutter to glam-rock heaven.

 

Unfortunately, Big Ben was feeling a little camera shy and covered himself in scaffolding. Still, such a gorgeous face!

Next, the majestic wilderness of central Wales!

Cheers,

Julius

Morocco was our first international stop on our grand world tour. I found economy flights from New York’s JFK airport to Marrakesh for only $250 each, with only one short layover in London’s Gatwick airport. What a steal! 

Upon arriving in Morocco, I knew that flying the drone wasn’t a possibility, but I didn’t know that it was completely illegal to even have a drone while entering the country. My drone was confiscated at the Moroccan airports by authorities while going through the exit security. I was told that I could get it back when exiting the country. This made us change our travel plans. We were planning on heading to Casablanca after our stay in Marrakesh, but with worry that the drone would be discarded after a certain period of time, (and how long we could leave it there was not clear,) we booked flights to London so I could get my drone back and reconfigure our plans. When we were leaving Marrakesh, I went through the process of retrieving my drone. It was locked in a closet with what looked like at least a hundred other drones that had been taken, which makes me think they weren’t really going to ever throw it away, but I didn’t want to take that chance. After paying a 200 dirham ($20) storage tax, we rushed through security and customs to make it to our flight back to London.

The evening we got to Morocco I had a slightly sore throat. I thought it could be due to the dry weather change or just dehydration. After 2 more days of getting worse and feeling terrible, our host Walid told me to go to the International hospital located outside of the old city walls. I’m glad my stubborn self listened to him– I had a very nasty case of tonsillitis. (I looked like I had no neck.) After getting an IV of antibiotics and a list of medication to buy at the pharmacy, we got a taxi back to our riad. I was pleasantly surprised at the care I received at the hospital. $60 for my treatment at the ER and another $20 for all of my necessary medications.

I was feeling so much better than I had the last 3 days. Unfortunately that wasn’t the end of our sicknesses. Not sure if it was a bad cold or a flu strain, we were both pretty much stuck resting, forcing ourselves to get out at least once or twice a day to get bottled water and something in our stomachs. 

We stayed at Riad Assalam, inside the old city, and had the most gracious host ever, Walid. A riad is a traditional Moroccan house with an interior garden or courtyard, but mainly they are used as small hotels for accommodation now. With an open air center, the sounds of birds and fresh breeze make for a lovely morning wake up call.  

We were within a 10 minute walk of the Jemaa el-Fnaa square & market. Lots to look at in every direction, everything imaginable trying to be sold to you. Walid said that years ago, it used to be filled more genuine trading, such as books, than it is now. Today, it is geared toward attracting tourists. I did love the extremely cheap fresh juices, however. We walked past the Koutoubia mosque nearly every day, located just outside of the market center. 

Visting Le Jardin Secret was a nice break from the hustle and bustle of the winding maze of souqs. Beautiful intricate tile work and bustling plant life was soothing to unwind in.

We weren’t going to let our sicknesses keep us from having any fun. Going quad biking on our last full day was definitely the highlight of Morocco in the Palm Grove & Rock Desert. I did feel sorry for the girl who fell off while wearing a tube top. We were picked up near our Riad, dropped off at the desert quad center, rode for 2 hours, stopped for tea in a Berber village and shuttled back to our riad for only $40 a person. I would definitely recommend the experience!

I think that 8 days in Marrakesh is a few too many, especially if you are only staying in the old city. Our host, Walid, suggested 2-3 days for most people in the old city. Walid, being from a traditional Berber village, suggested on our next visit, to do a multiple day trip desert excursion to the Atlas mountains. I am glad we did not book that intensive of an excursion this time around due to being so ill.

We will be back to Morocco at some point down the road. The Atlas mountains are definitely calling our names. 

 

Reading: Ulysses (James Joyce)

Listening: “She Like I’m Like” -Young M.A.

Now I’m reclining in a small, red leather couch. A small, red leather couch in a small cottage in a large farm within Brecon Beacons National Park, Wales to be precise. A massive Newfoundland is keeping vigil on the front porch as I type. I don’t know his name, so I’ve resorted to calling him “Doggo Jones.” He’s a very stoic, very good boy. I must admit I’ve been remiss in my blogging duties as of late. Between a bout of chest sickness and the day to day logistics of traveling (primarily walking) all over the place, the tank has been hovering around ‘E’ by nightfall for the last week or so. Though today, surrounded by green pastures and fastidious farm animals, I feel recharged. So now, if you’ll pardon the hiatus, allow me to recount our last days in the Big Apple!

The eighth day of our journey was without doubt the least compelling thus far. Unfortunately, it was spent sorting out a technical issue with our main external hard drive. Whenever plugged in, the damned thing would fry the computer and force a shutdown. This was bad news, as this particular hard drive was (and still is, thankfully) the depot for nearly all of the images we’d collected between Omaha and NYC. Plus, it was brand new and pricey. Sarah and I spent hours trying to figure out the issue. Our only respite was a visit to an anonymous deli down the street. I say anonymous because I can’t remember the name nor can I find it on Google maps. Just one of those days! Eventually we discovered the root of the problem: a faulty lightning cable. Luckily we could still connect through your run-of-the-mill micro-usb. Crisis averted. The only excitement occurred later that night. The shriek of the fire alarm sent Sarah and I out of our bed and into a scramble. I grabbed my laptop and my passport and we filed into a narrow staircase with the rest of hotel guests. Apparently, it was a false alarm. I asked a little girl outside if her stuffed animal dragon was the one responsible. She giggled and shook her head no. I reckon a different magic dragon may have been the culprit… 

With technology placated, the ninth day was spent reattaining a more human connection. An advertisement reading “The Best Damn Chicken Fingers You’ve Ever Had” caught our eye. It belonged to Sticky’s Finger Joint, and the bold proclamation won our patronage. Perhaps it was my empty stomach, perhaps the remarkable variety of sauces paired with tender, crispy chicken, but at the time I couldn’t recall having better. Talk is cheap, but so were the chicken fingers, and they were damn good. After lunch we head to Sarah’s go-to photography equipment purveyor, B & H. She’d seen the value of my backpack’s hip strap and found B & H carried one for her pack. Despite the many shiny temptations the store offered, I convinced her the only technology we needed concerned weight displacement. We left with a new strap and a weight off Sarah’s back. Across the street and over a pint at yet another Irish pub, McGarry’s, we discussed our next move. Another recommendation had been to catch a concert at the historic Bowery Ball Room in the Lower East Side. I checked online, and sure enough there was a booking for that night. Though I’d never heard of Mark Guiliana before, once we’d seen he’d preformed with Bowie regularly, we were sold.

Back in the Lower East Side, we stopped at a moody hipster haven called the Home Sweet Home. A spectacled cobra and a mongoose wage perpetual war in a taxidermy display near the entrance. Candles and a single shimmering disco ball provide the only light sources. I felt quite at home sipping suds there. Finally, we hit the venue. The interior bar is warm and venerable. Upstairs, the concert hall. Ringed by a dark-wood balcony with yet another bar looming center, the ballroom is spacious yet intimate, dark and inviting. We walk in half way through the opener’s set, a frenetic and unique ensemble of instruments with equally unique performers at the helm. I’ve never seen a violin chopped so violently, or cello sawed with such fervor, yet the sound produced by yMusic was an enchanting cacophony. Next, the soulful Taylor McFerrin, who even had his sister offer a rapturous R&B hook over silky smooth beats. At last, Mark took the stage, along with a troupe in matching construction-orange hoodies. Their outfits enhanced the industrial flavor of the set, and Mark’s almost machine-like precision on the drums made for some pulse-pounding vibrations on the floor. We left the Bowery a little deafer, but satisfied.

Our final day in NYC was spent doing laundry. This meant I was out in the streets wearing shorts, a coat with nothing under, and some purple knee-high socks. I felt like a true blue New York trendsetter. Before the airport, we got our last little taste of Mexican food at Taqueria Diana– delicious traditional tacos and quesadillas. Highly recommend!

Next, our first international destination, Marrakesh!

Cheers,

Julius

The home I was raised and born in faced East with a large backyard facing West. It was located in the Millard neighborhood off of 144th and Giles street in Omaha. Vivid memories flood back to me; watching the sunset with my father, eating newly ripened raspberries, cautious of the bush’s thorns. My dad loved the sun, but warned not to look directly at it. Sensitive eyes yet developing. He soaked it up, the sun rising and setting– a therapeutic meditation of gratitude. As Julius and I glide on the Amtrak, New York City bound along the Hudson river, I cannot help but reflect on those simpler times with my dad. The view before us, I can assure you, he would have enjoyed.

Reading: Ulysses (James Joyce)

Listening: To Pimp a Butterfly (Kendrick Lamar)

Sarah and I arrive at New York City’s Penn Station after nightfall. Foggy from the hours in the cramped train car, yet giddy at the prospect of reaching another itinerary destination, we squirm our way through the busy platform and find our way to the streets. Emerging from underground, we take our first gulp of New York City air; dense, a little smoggy, yet sizzling with gritty energy. We marvel at the great swathes of people, their multitude looks and languages and accents blending and crashing around us. Shouldering our packs, we descend further into the concrete jungle. Beneath the canopy of skyscrapers and high-rise apartments, through thickets of food stands and merchant carts, upon cigarette-butt and candy-wrapper speckled trails, we trek. The great starry gaze of American deities follows our progress through Time Square; even the illustrious Michael Phelps, illuminated and thousands of feet tall, smiles down on us (advertising dog food, of all things). Finally, to the delight of our weary calves, we reach the Pod Hotel in the Hell’s Kitchen area of Manhattan.

For $100 a night, the Pod Hotel is definitely one of your best bets if you’re looking for something even remotely affordable in Manhattan (if you want your own room, anyways). The place is modern, in a convenient/fun part of town, and sports fantastic showers (two faucets; one on the wall, one ‘rain style’ above). There’s even a Polynesian themed bar connected to the lobby, though we never ventured in ourselves. No, our favorite haunt, and most visited on account of being across the street from our hotel, was Dave’s Tavern. We stopped in for the first time after dropping off our packs, and were delighted by the grungy dive interior and the cheap beers on tap. A snarling boar’s head overlooks the scene, thousands of stickers (including one our own) forming a colorful and eclectic mane around the bar itself. Though there’s only one pool table, it seemed a popular spot for the game. On that first night, Sarah and I witnessed a “duel” between two rival pool squads. A young woman squared off against a stocky fellow in the first round, and the match was heated. Between shots, teammates would whisper into the players’ ears, offering tactical advice and encouragement. Their level of skill was astounding. A tough looking guy approached us and asked if I was taking a picture of his ass. “Not intentionally, sorry.” Oops. Luckily he laughed it off and we enjoyed more sharp-shooting games of pool before heading out. Next door is a small establishment called FOODY’S DUMPLINGS. Delicious fried dumplings for anyone seeking a quick snack!

Craving some live music, we wandered into a cute little jazz club called SWING 46. As it so happened, we were just in time for dance lessons. Sarah (and our instructor) graciously endured my second left foot as I attempted to learn some formal dance technique (I’m usually more of a ‘free-form’ dancer, for lack of a better term.) After the lesson, a fully loaded swing band took the stage and thrummed up some classics, though shamefully I only recognized the Frank Sinatra (Fly Me to the Moon). Sarah and I cut a rug, which I’m sure pleased the band since we were the only ones to do so. Next, we headed to a quaint little gay bar and joined the locals in mocking an introductory episode of The Bachelor airing at the time. Tired and little drunk, we ended the night with some 99 Cent Pizza. I could hardly mask my joy at the size and cheesiness of such a cheap slice! (Pizza Boy 4 Life!!!)

Our first full day began with coffee (of course) at the unassuming Empire Coffee and Tea Company. Next, lunch at Nizza, where the $10 home-made pasta lunch special was too good to pass up. It was here that Sarah and I cast out our narrow lines of communication, each knowing an Omaha to NYC transplant apiece and hoping for recommendations. Both came through, and we set our sights on a change of scenery for later that night. Taking the subway from Time Square, we cut through The Village and arrived in the Lower East Side. A place that both of our contacts had recommended was Ippudo, an upscale ramen place with rave reviews. Though we had to linger at the bar for about an hour, the wait was well worth it. Froth from our Asahi beers complimented the broth of our premium ramen. For Sarah, the Karaka Spicy: “Pork tonkotsu broth, thin noodles, pork belly, chashu, sesame kikurage mushrooms, scallions, cabbage, fragrant garlic oil, topped with Ippudo’s special blend of hot spices.” For me, the special: “tonkotsu pork soup mixed with 3 kinds of Japanese miso for a mild and rich flavor, sliced pork chashu, sansho minced pork, scallion, shiraganegi, miso paste, and fragrant garlic oil.” I can say with confidence that the ramen here rivaled the quality we’d experienced last year in Japan. Simply delicious.

Invigorated by our outstanding meal, Sarah and I took to the streets in search of a local nightclub called the Kind Regards. Hip, youthful, and low-key, we met with Sarah’s contact Dalton. A fellow Westside graduate, Dalton is a fashion designer, DJ, and all around cool dude. Between chopping up some mesmerizing beats on the turntable, he issued us free drink tickets and we enjoyed some tantalizing craft cocktails and unrelenting good vibes. Thanks again Dalton! After a couple hours, flushed with drink and smiling like buffoons, we head for the hotel… And take the train the wrong way. Luckily, our midnight visit to Brooklyn was brief and we quickly sort out how to get back. Returning to Hell’s Kitchen, four bucks means four slices of pizza in our stomachs. The perfect midnight snack before bed!

 

 

 

Stay tuned for more.

Cheers,

Julius