Posts Tagged ‘united states of america’

During the first half of my trip to the USA, I had seen the northern and southern ends of the sunny West Coast, and received some typical Southern hospitality. The next stop on my journey would see me travel to the north of the country, and to the state of Ohio, only a two-hour drive from the Canadian border. But the way things could’ve gone, I might have ended up further south in Texas.

I had another South African friend based with his family in Ohio, and in the weeks prior to my arrival in his state, we had debated meeting up with his older sister in Houston, Texas and road-tripping to Austin & other nearby cities. Closer to the time, we settled on the more-economical Ohio, which suited me fine as I had yet to visit either state. Columbus is Ohio’s state capital, and my friend’s family lived in the small town of Lima, about an hour’s drive from the city. The area is known for farming and agriculture, and the hustle-and-bustle of city life gave way to tranquil, open fields very quickly.

The last time I’d seen my friend was almost two years prior, when he and his girlfriend had visited me in Cape Town, and we could still barely believe that I’d returned the favour. For the five or six days I was there, I slowed things down a notch and enjoyed the everyday activities of a South African-American family. I arrived just before the weekend of Cinco De Mayo, which is Mexico’s independence day. It’s become an unofficial American holiday though, and an excuse to drink tequila & margaritas, eat tacos, and salsa-dance; all of which I thoroughly approved. Thus, he had planned for us to spend the weekend at a university friend of his’ apartment in Columbus itself, where we could do some sightseeing and partying.

 

Before the weekend of Cinco, the South Africans gave me quite an American experience. For example, on the Friday, I:

a) fired a .22 rifle and shotgun on a farm

b) drove a left-hand-drive car for the first time

c) filled up a car’s tank by myself at a gas station

d) shopped at Walmart

e) enjoyed an all-American barbeque

 

The first two events were rather interesting and unexpected. Whilst doing some errands around town, we had to pass by my friend’s sister’s house, which is on a small farm. We had barely left the main roads before this pastoral scene appeared before us: a lone farm-house, surrounded by acres of grassy land. After dropping off the requested potted plants, my friend turned to me and asked “Do you wanna shoot a gun?”. We went into his brother-in-law’s garage, and peered into the arsenal of rifles, shotguns and ammunition, meticulously collected over the years. My friend had grown up learning how to use them responsibly, which I kept in mind as we stepped out back with the rifle and shotgun in tow.

 

Firing a .22 rifle on a farm in Lima, Ohio

Firing a .22 rifle on a farm in Lima, Ohio

 

The last time I’d fired a real gun was on a camping trip back in Grade 7, so I was aware of the inevitable kick, etc, which wasn’t a concern for the .22 rifle. My aim was a little shaky, and I took a few shots to hit the line of empty beer bottles propped up in the distance. The 12-gauge, however, gave me a huge fright when I fired my lone shot. Since we weren’t wearing earplugs, the gun blast discombobulated me in a hilarious fashion (apparently), as I dropped the gun and nervously staggered away like a person who’d seen a ghost. Back in the car, and back to my normal self, I took the opportunity to put myself behind the wheel of the SUV for a very quiet 3-mile stretch of road around the farmlands. Thankfully, almost all cars in the States are automatic transmission, so driving was a breeze and there were no ‘spooky’ moments.

We headed into Columbus on the Saturday to meet up with our host. She stays in an off-campus university-owned apartment complex near to Ohio State University, and for the first time whilst in the USA, I was able to see what a ‘college town’ looks like. Before meeting up with her, my friend and his girlfriend took me the Short North district, which is lined with restaurants, bars, clubs, art galleries, and any store that caters to a predominately student population. Since my alma mater in South Africa (University of Cape Town) is located in a suburban area, I was not used to seeing such a vibrant, student-focused commerical area, and even ‘college towns’ in SA such as Stellenbosch or Grahamstown could learn a thing or two from the Short North. After dinner at a Greek restaurant, we walked the main street on the day of a ‘Gallery Hop’, which occurs on the first Saturday of each month. Over 40 galleries and non-traditional art venues (such as restaurants, boutiques, and salons) showcase art collections and new exhibits, opening their doors till late at night. Out on the streets, you can see saxophonists, singers, improvisational dance troupes and an assortment of performers entertaining the crowds, so I was fortunate to be in town not only for Cinco De Mayo, but also to see the Short North at its most lively and creative.

 

The Short North district in Columbus, Ohio on the evening of a Gallery Hop

The Short North district in Columbus, Ohio on the evening of a Gallery Hop

 

Our sassy host had just run a charity half-marathon, and was nursing a knee injury from the race earlier in the day. Needing some rest and relaxation, we visited an authentic Egyptian hookah lounge called Sahara Cafe to share a hookah and drink some chai tea. The place was dimly lit with fairy lights, and the walls were beautifully adorned with a dazzling array of Middle Eastern patterns. I’m definitely no expert on hookah (or ‘hubbly-bubbly’ as we call it in South Africa, much to the amusement of the Americans in attendance), but I was guaranteed that the blends available were particularly good. Soon it was back to her apartment in University Village, where a few glasses of wine were shared in the kitchen – a perfectly relatable introduction to an overseas student experience.

The next day, our group paid a visit to The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, and without really planning to, I managed to tick off quite a number of animals from my personal ‘must-see’ bucket list. The zoo is massive, and has an esteemed national and international reputation thanks to the efforts of director ‘Jungle Jack’ Hanna. Our host wasn’t up for long walks just yet, so she received the royal treatment as I pushed her in a hired wheelchair (!) around most of the eight world regions which the zoo is divided into. First, we went on the Asia Quest, which included stunning close-up views of an Asian elephant, tigers, lions, and a reticulated python. Photographing animals in captivity is far easier than trying to track a rock star onstage, and I relished the opportunity to patiently capture these creatures on camera. Next was a quick detour through Shores, an indoor aquarium region (FYI: manatees are adorable but ugly) before we came to Voyage to Australia and The Islands, which ended up being one of the more interactive regions. The kangaroo and wombat section was mostly uncaged, with a only a few zookeepers keeping watch, and that implicit trust resulted in a very natural setting for a zoo exhibition. This was taken even further for the lorikeet aviary, where the resplendent birds flew about their habitat, climbing onto your hands and arms, completely comfortable with human interaction. For 50 cents, you could feed the cocky little things nectar, and they weren’t shy to squawk & demand more!

 

 

The rest of the Islands and African Forest regions saw some close encounters with a variety of apes, including chimpanzees, gibbons and black & white colobusses. Even though I come from Africa, the only apes I have personally witnessed are vervet monkeys in my childhood gardens growing up, and the occasional baboon. To see how human-like these animals are was a little unnerving at first, but soon gave way to a unconscious connection that is shared by the high-percentage similarity to each other’s DNA. Expectation was building for the gorilla enclosure, but unfortunately, it was too late in the day, and we had to settle for a pose or two with a life-size statue. On our way out of the African Forest, we caught a lazy leopard relaxing on a log, right on the other side of the grass screen. Chances like that barely come around on an African safari, and it was another reason why our afternoon spent traversing the world’s wildlife was a special one.

 

 

Even though Cinco De Mayo fell on a Sunday (‘5th of May’), there were still a number of places hosting Mexican-themed parties and specials. Our Columbus Crew rolled out to the Short North, in search of cheap margaritas and salsa music. We found sanctuary at Cazuelas Grill on North High Street, whose outside balcony was a hive of activity. Margaritas were served by the jugful, Corona beers were on ice, and the DJ allowed the music to wander to a more commercial region when revellers needed some variety. The night was young, and we moved onto a few more establishments, trading dancing for hookah bars, and generally tried to make the most of a holiday that awkwardly fell on a night not known for big partying. The Short North district delivered, and closed off a fun weekend in the city.

Out of the USA’s 50 states, Ohio had been one that I wasn’t expecting to visit anytime soon, and only during my Coachella trip did it become a real possibility. The USA is such a large country, and you can find eye-opening sightseeing opportunities and warm hospitality wherever you go. But sometimes you get that personal nudge in the right direction, and I’m glad that my route diverted north towards the Buckeye State. Within those borders, I made &  left behind some great new friends, and caught up with two old ones. So when you’re next passing through the north, try stop on your way to say hi to Ohio.

Almost a decade ago, I was a nervous 15-year-old boy, faced with a life-changing overseas trip. I was to trade my home in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa (and my high school) with Nashville, Tennessee, and embark on a three-month academic exchange at an all-boys private school there.

It wasn’t the first time that I had travelled overseas, but it was definitely the first time that I had undergone that sort of trip alone. From September to December 2004, I lived with two host families, and had the honour of attending Montgomery Bell Academy, whom my school had partnered with the previous year. During your mid-teens, you’re already going through so many physical, emotional and hormonal changes, so why not undergo a massive locational one?

Needless to say, my time at MBA was a watershed moment in my life, and aided in an emotional, and also musical, maturity that I am deeply grateful for. Nashville bears the nickname of ‘Music City’, as it is a major recording and performance centre. Although the country music industry is strongly associated with the city and makes its home there, Nashville’s music scene appreciates a variety of genres (such as classic rock, blues, jazz, and hip hop), and that can be seen in the people living there. When I first visited the city as a relatively undereducated teenager, I was taken aback by my hosts’ eclectic tastes in music, spanning decades and genres that my adolescent mind was barely even aware of. And it wasn’t just the people I was living with; other friends and classmates showed a marked maturity in their musical palette that surely could not just be chalked up to having musically-minded parents or siblings with a large collection of old records.

With that in mind, returning to Nashville in the position I’m in now as a music journalist was particularly poignant. It was a place that had shaped my appreciation of music, steering me towards artists I had not necessarily grown up with, and encouraging me to think outside of what was being presented to me as an angsty teen via MTV. I had had limited interaction with my two hosts in the intervening years, but thanks to the wonders of social media, I found out that the first family that I had stayed with would be in town during my recent trip, and as well as my host. Back in our teens, we had struggled to relate to each other, our cultures clashing at a very turbulent time in our lives. Now, with us both having finished high school and university, we had matured and developed into assured young men, discovering that we actually have a lot in common. That reconciliation gave a heartwarming tone to the few days I was there, akin to visiting your childhood home or neighbourhood as an adult.

Three months back in 2004 allowed for a significant amount of sightseeing in and around the city, and I was fortunate back then to tick off many of the major attractions in Nashville. These included attending three American football games at the Tennessee Titans homeground (The Coliseum), two visits to my one host’s lake house just out of town, the Country Music Hall of Fame, Vanderbilt University, and the Parthenon. My host was aware of this, and specially tailored an itinerary that would help show me the parts of Nashville that I might not have seen before, or appreciated a decade ago.

After a joyful reunion with his parents (“My South African son!”, “My American mother!”), my host and I headed off to Downtown Nashville to spend the afternoon walking the streets. Visiting the USA as an adult means that we could now legally share a beer together, and he took me to one of the city’s finest microbreweries, Yazoo, for a liquid lunch. We took the chance to catch up on all the news in our lives, and of those that I knew in Nashville.  Although he is a local, he had yet to visit the Country Music Hall of Fame, and I was open to visiting the museum again with a fresh perspective.

The Country Music Hall of Fame is a unparalleled monument to the institution that is country music, and even if you’re not a fan of the genre, the experience is very enlightening and informative. Upon my first visit to the museum, I barely had a working knowledge of rock ‘n roll history, so it was all rather perplexing, and the significance was lost on me. Armed with a better understanding of popular music history, I was more receptive to the place, and the museum revealed the carefully interwoven relationship between country, blues, folk and rock. However, despite its popularity and illustrious history, country music is still seen as a quintessentially American phenomenon, and I think that that is a sticking point to the appreciation of the genre world-wide. Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, crossover success has mostly been the way country has achieved a level of prominence outside of the USA, right from Elvis Presley in the 50’s, to Johnny Cash’s swan-song ‘American’ albums in the 90’s, to the current crop of country-pop perpetuated by Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood and Lady Antebellum. This is frequently acknowledged in the museum, as an increasingly globalised world grows smaller and smaller, meshing influences together and facilitating the spread of information.

 

 

But all in all, I enjoyed the passion showed in preserving the history of an art form, and honouring those who have represented it best. Within the exhibits, there were famous personal items, such as Carl Perkins’ original ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, Elvis Presley’s beautifully-maintained ‘Solid Gold’ Cadillac’, and a dapper black suit worn by the ‘Man In Black’, Johnny Cash. The most interesting thing I learnt from my second visit to the CMHF was that there was a branch of country that found roots in Bakersfield, California in 1950’s, known as the ‘Bakersfield Sound’. This style came into being as a reaction against the slickly produced, string orchestra-laden ‘Nashville Sound’, proving that not all country music came from ‘The South’! 

My host did a great job of being a tour guide, pointing us towards other music sanctuaries, such as a newly-opened Johnny Cash museum (where video screens projected a variety of performances and documentaries of the man and his work), the Music City Walk of Fame Park (opened in 2006, drawing inspiration from the one in Hollywood), and the massive new Nashvile Convention Center (whose architecture evokes the look of a guitar). Lower Broadway in Downtown is the city’s entertainment district, packed with numerous music clubs and honky-tonk bars, which, despite it being mid-afternoon, had people up onstage performing.

 

 

I’m quite a big Jack White fan, and one of our scheduled stops whilst in Downtown was Third Man Records, the Grammy-Award-winning independent record label, studio and store owned by the man himself. Unfortunately Mr White was not there to greet us in person, but his output of music in vinyl form was an appropriate compromise. The store only sells music produced by artists on the record label, such as his solo work, The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, and The Dead Weather (to name a few). It has a basic, yet chic feel to it (probably because the store itself was built in 2009), and with me having never grown up with vinyl records, I was intrigued by the steadfast commitment by the label to keep the format alive, issuing limited-edition live LP’s and tiny 7-inch singles. Although I didn’t get a chance to use it, the in-store personal recording booth, a refurbished 1947 Voice-o-Graph machine, is a novel concept, allowing you to record up to two minutes of audio and receive a one-of-a-kind vinyl pressing right there and then. Apparently the concept has fallen out of fashion, and this booth is now the only machine of its kind in the world that is both operational and open to the public.

 

 

You can’t visit the Music City without going to a gig, and on my second night in Nashville, my host took me to The Stone Fox, a small restaurant/bar that also has a bandstand for live music. The headliners that night were a New York-based punk band called The Men, but the main reason that we were there was to see a local punk band by the name of Diarrhea Planet. Yes, Diarrhea Planet. He had played me a few songs of theirs in the car, and the wall of noise was rather overpowering. But it didn’t prepare me for what was to appear onstage. There was not one, not two, not three, but FOUR GUITARISTS, along with a bassist and drummer. The band, barely able to all fit on the stage, roared into life, rationing out sub-2-minute riff-fests to a crowd the size of a small house party. It was one of the most fascinating and thrilling gigs I’ve ever been to, and I was so close to the action that the one guitarist almost whacked me on the head with his aural axe of awesomeness. Their sound, as described by the band themselves, is “The Ramones holding Van Halen hostage with an arsenal of fireworks and explosives”, and they brought a huge amount of energy to the proceedings. Fortunately, I got the opportunity to have a chat with the lead singer Hodan and the enigmatic drummer Casey after the show, the latter of whom received the compliment “John Bonham from Led Zeppelin called. He asked you to stop hitting the drums so hard”.

On my final day in Nashville, we paid a visit to my alma mater (even if it was only for a few months), and got to see how little and how much had changed in the interim years. As always, there would be new buildings, such as a grand dining hall that replaced the old cafeteria, an English block, and a soccer field on top of a parking garage. But stepping into the admin block, and seeing the face of Ms Warner, Director of Counseling Services, took me right back to my awkward teenage years. She was the lady responsible for making sure that I got over to the States in 2004, and helping me settle into the MBA way of life. She has continued to do that for many others since then, and the school receives dozens of exchange students from all over the world every year, and sends many young MBA men overseas in return. We posed for a photo outside her office, and only afterwards did I realise how similar it was to a photo I’d taken the last time I was there.

 

Posing with Ms Warner, Director of Counseling Services at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, 9 years apart on the same spot

Posing with Ms Warner, Director of Counseling Services at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, 9 years apart on the same spot

 

In a city that breathes music, there are just so many places to see, but my host had one last stop for me before I left: Nashville’s premier independent record store, Grimey’s New & Preloved Music. Nowadays we consume music through different mediums compared to how our parents and grandparents did in the past, be it via CD’s or more likely, digital downloads onto MP3 players. Holding an actual vinyl record in your hands, admiring the original large album artwork, reading the liner notes; those tangible moments interacting with the music and the artist’s vision have now gradually become an online experience, as we stream an album through Spotify, or purchase a song through the iTunes Store. I tried to put myself in the shoes of a young man in the 60’s or 70’s, standing in an old face-brick building like this one, with wooden racks of records set out before him, holding the latest LP from The Who in his hands. It’s from a bygone era, but thankfully we have the choice to keep the spirit alive, and a move towards purity and authenticity has made the purchase of vinyl records a niche market amongst audiophiles and DJ’s.

 

 

Grimey’s doesn’t just sell new records, but also preserves the love of vinyl by selling and trading ‘preloved’ (second-hand) items. One of the rooms is a listening booth, consisting of two turntables and sets of headphones, and stocked with obscure, lesser-known records that are available to listen to at your leisure. I picked an old blues record from one of the racks, pulled out a foreign-looking black disc, and placed it gently on the turntable. To be honest, I can count the number of times I’ve used one of those things on my left hand, but the ritual was oddly satisfying. A few crackles and pops preceded the opening chords from an acoustic guitar, and then I was immediately transported into a timeless place where all music listeners have been before. A place where it’s just you and the music, and the rest of the world ceases to exist. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in Nashville or Naples, or whether it’s from a record player or your iPod: music is a universal experience that can be enjoyed whichever way you choose.

Jigsaw Falling Into Place

Once Coachella was done and dusted, I still had three weeks left before hopping on a plane in New York City to return to my homeland. I have my family’s longtime travel agent to thank for that; she said that if I stayed in the States for just under a month, I’d get a ridiculously cheap deal for my inbound and outbound flights from the country. In between: it was up to me how and where I went.

As stated in my San Francisco post, I had the good fortune of having a place to stay for every leg of my trip, whether it was with friends or with ‘connections’. Before my departure from South Africa, my intended route for my month-long meander had been mapped out, with a friend waiting for me in each city. Los Angeles was still the missing piece in the puzzle, and continued to be right up until I packed my bags to leave San Fran. I had exhausted my list of whatever contacts I had built up in these 24 years of existence, and on a very limited budget, I didn’t have many options. Then I turned to a man who’s been around the block a little longer than me: my father back in SA.

Exasperated, I asked my dad over Skype if he knew of anyone in LA that I could stay with just for a weekend. Finally, we had a breakthrough, and his considerably-longer list of contacts proved far more useful in this accommodation crisis. A friend of his had emigrated from South Africa over a decade ago to start a church in the Los Angeles area, and word was put out through the congregation that I was in need of help. It arrived in the form of Chris, an incredibly kind and hospitable 20-something guy that offered me his couch in his small one-bedroom apartment in Brea. Even though it was at least an hour away from the Greyhound Bus Station in Downtown LA, he also offered to fetch me on the Friday morning, after my overnight bus trip. The puzzle had been solved.

Although accommodation was sorted, the battle of Los Angeles had only just begun. To put it quite simply: the city is GIGANTIC, or more specifically, the county. It’s an interesting bit of nomenclature: Los Angeles the city is actually quite modest in geographical size, but when you look at the greater LA metropolitan region, it sprawls out like roots from an giant redwood tree. People often use the term ‘LA’ interchangeably, and it’s deceptive. Chris’ apartment in Brea wasn’t just down the road from Hollywood; it was pretty much on the other side of this jungle, requiring at least three different forms of public transport to get there. And once I was in Tinseltown, my goal for the weekend could be put into action: see the major sights of Los Angeles from an open-top, hop-on-hop-off sightseeing bus over just two days.

Thankfully, I had a chance to rest up in suburbia on Friday afternoon and evening. Chris took me to an authentic Italian market and deli named Claro’s for lunch, and as a big fan of Italian food, I was in awe at the range of products on offer. From fresh Italian sausage, to cheeses, to pasta, and all sorts of other groceries, the place was an ode to Italia, filled with varieties that I had never seen or heard of. Eveningtime saw me pay a visit to a Five Guys Burgers And Fries, home to one of the best burgers I’d ever had the privilege of eating. I had heard of the award-winning eatery through a documentary I’d seen of a typical day in the White House of Barack Obama’s administration, where the president specially ordered from a Washington D.C. branch and went to pick up the burgers himself. If it was good enough for the US president, it was good enough for me, and the In-And-Out Burger I’d tried on the Coachella road trip needed a challenger. It was plain to see how the chain had received so many awards, as there is a strong emphasis on simplicity and freshness. The unlimited free peanuts to snack on whilst waiting for your meal was also an interesting touch.

 

Five Guys Burgers And Fries in Brea, California

Five Guys Burgers And Fries in Brea, California

 

Saturday

The sightseeing bus that I was to take on my tour of LA was the same company that operates in Cape Town, and around the world. In November last year, a group of friends and I spent a day on one of Cape Town routes, and I was excited to see how the hop-on hop-off approach would work in a foreign city. Chris prepped me well and sent me on my way early on Saturday morning. For the first time on my trip, I was actually really nervous about the amount of responsibility resting on my shoulders transport-wise, knowing that if I screwed up just one part, I could be stranded very far from home. But that butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling fueled my desire to explore, and after hopping from bus, to Amtrak train, to subway, I emerged from the Hollywood Highland station onto what felt like a movie set – the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

 

The Hollywood Walk Of Fame

The Hollywood Walk Of Fame

 

Starline Tours has 3 major routes that encompass the touristy parts of LA, and at the time, they were planning to roll out two more in May 2013. The first one I went on, the Red route, comprised of the glitzy and glamourous Hollywood and Beverly Hills. A transfer to the Yellow route was available in Beverly Hills, which takes you down through the beachfront city of Santa Monica to the Pacific Ocean and the famous Santa Monica Pier, before turning back inland and passing through the lavish Brentwood and Westwood. Finally, the Purple route was within Downtown LA to the east of Hollywood, connected by a short transfer through Koreatown.

Wherever you are in the world: if you’re in town for a very short amount of time and you need a superficial yet informative way of seeing a new place, I’d highly recommend a tour of this nature. It ticked off so many places on my sightseeing to-do list, and because you can freely hop on and off busses, you can spend more time investigating a landmark on foot if you wish. This is what I did almost straight away, as I began the Red route’s run through Sunset Boulevard. One of the first stops was at Guitar Center, the world’s largest musical instrument retailer, and the branch on Sunset Boulevard was known for its size and its many famous clients. It was staggering to see the variety of instruments on offer, and how many sections were devoted to each type. As a drummer, I had never seen an entire floor devoted to drums, and upstairs had all sorts of drum equipment, with a wall of signed snares as you wind your way up the staircase. Elsewhere, guitars adorned the walls of room upon room, and acoustic as well as vintage instruments got their own shrines (the latter decorated like a barn, with a man playing an old amp and guitar in the middle of it). Glancing at some of the price tags wasn’t for the faint-hearted (spotted one guitar going for $24 000, yikes). As with any store of this stature, they’ve collected a sizeable amount of rock star memorabilia, including signed portraits, equipment, clothes and concert tickets, and this location also hosts its own hall of fame, known as RockWalk, where I spotted some of my heroes on the plaques.

 

 

Whilst LA, and particularly Hollywood, is known for its world-renowned film industry, the tour I was on was quick to point out music landmarks and highlight the strong influence of music on the area. Other sights along the Sunset Strip included The Viper Room (infamous nightclub previously owned by actor Johnny Depp, and the site where actor Joaquin Phoenix’s brother River died of a drug overdose in 1993), House Of Blues (a chain of live music venues/restaurants) and Whiskey A Go-Go (which started out as a nightclub that popularised the term “go-go dancers”, and soon became the launchpad for the rock ‘n roll scene in LA). After grabbing a quick bite to eat at Saddle Ranch Chop House, I was back on the bus and passing through the retreat of many a silver-screen icon, Beverly Hills. The fashion mecca of Rodeo Drive had many tourists on the bus gawking at the glamour on show, and I took the opportunity to transfer to the Yellow route so I could feel the sea breeze.

 

 

The Beach Boys began blaring through our tour-issued earphones as we cruised down Pico Boulevard through Santa Monica, before I stopped off to browse the end of America’s Route 66 – Santa Monica Pier. On such a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, the pier and its surrounding beaches were a hive of activity. Venice Beach was about 5 miles further south, and unfortunately the Green Route there was only rolling out in the next few weeks. But I made a mental note of making a visit there the following day, and caught another bus from the Ocean Avenue (my reference being the Yellowcard song of the same name). When I asked a passerby to take a photo of me below the street sign, it turned out that he was also a tourist (from Australia), and wore a shirt from the entertainment website theCHIVE. Unfortunately our pic together did not make the Daily Afternoon Randomness page!

The rest of the first afternoon was spent finishing off the Yellow route, and catching the second half of the Red route back to where I started – the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The iconic stretch of road has almost 2500 stars over its 2 kilometres (with another 700 metres perpindicular to it), celebrating not only stars of the film industry, but musicians and other entertainers too. Being in the mood for grand ideas, I made it my mission to see every single star on the Walk of Fame, traipsing up and down Hollywood Boulevard obsessively, but it paid off. As I ventured up the quieter Vine Street section, I noticed not one but all four Beatles’ stars in a row. Looking up, I saw that they were outside the landmark Capital Records building (their American record label), with its distinctive circular shape and tall spike on top that makes it resemble a pile of records. With me wearing my Beatles’ “Hard Day’s Night” shirt, it was an unintended musical pilgrimage for this Stage 5 Beatlemaniac.

 

 

It had been a very long day, exacerbated by me missing my Amtrak train home by just two minutes, leaving me waiting two-and-a-half hours for the last train east for the night. Sometimes you just can’t sync it all up, but thankfully Downtown LA’s Union Station was surprisingly plush and welcoming for this weary traveller. By the time I eventually walked through Chris’s front door at 11:30pm, I realised that I was badly sunburnt from the day’s sightseeing, with my face and arms looking dangerously red. Knowing that it would be much the same setup for the next day, I asked him if he had any sun cream for me. “Hey man, I’m black. I don’t need sun cream!” was his response, and we couldn’t help but laugh at my misfortune.

 

Sunday

With me having booked a flight out of LAX Airport that evening, Sunday was to run on quite a tight schedule, but still allow for me to fill in the gaps of what I didn’t see the day before, and enjoy the places that I had liked. Venice Beach was my main port-of-call, with its interesting and quirky boardwalk, but it required planning an extra bus ride or two. It was well worth the trek though, as it was full of food stalls, art vendors and people just chilling out. Compared to the somewhat ‘plastic’ feel of Hollywood, Venice Beach felt more homely and relaxed, and I enjoyed eating a Greek gyros (a form of wrap) under a palm tree next to the beach, watching the many walks of life parade past me. As a huge fan of the TV series ‘Californication’, I definitely recognized this place as a filming site for the show, and it felt good to see things from the anti-hero Hank Moody’s perspective.

 

 

On the Starline busses, prerecorded audio takes place of an actual tour guide, and I become quite fond of the British man’s voice and his overtly posh-sounding accent. He was a constant companion over the two days; his little anecdotes and facts perfectly timed with each passing landmark. Although I was repeating certain routes, I conveniently managed to be on the bus over sections where I had chosen to walk the previous day, and thus received the best of both worlds, and an encyclopedia-worth of facts about the City of Angels. Music-related sights were less forecoming on Sunday, as I received a thorough education on the film industry, passing Paramount Studios, 20th Century Fox Studios, and a plethora of places devoted to the arts.

 

One of the Starline hop-on hop-off sightseeing busses

One of the Starline hop-on hop-off sightseeing busses

 

Choosing to head to Venice Beach meant that some sacrifices were made, and that was half of the Purple route through Downtown LA. Since I needed to end up at Union Station to catch a bus to the airport, the half that I missed seemed to be the most interesting (at least from a music point-of-view). These included L.A. Live, the Staples Center, and the Grammy Museum, so if I’m in LA again, I know where to go first! It was still an absolute privilege to wind my way through the skyscrapers of LA’s Financial District around sunset, and to see the pecularities of Chinatown to the north.

The whirlwind weekend wound down to a close as I stepped off my last Starline bus at El Pueblo De Los Angeles, home of LA’s historic district. It had been such a humbling experience to witness the grandeur of one of the biggest cities in the world, and I felt like a 21st century explorer hacking his way through the dense urban jungle. But standing on the old plaza (which is the city’s birthplace) and walking the colourful marketplace of Olvera Street, where families gathered together and children played, I realised that there is a lot more to Los Angeles’ history than what is produced in its more famous neighbourhoods of Hollywood and Beverly Hills. You just have to trek through the jungle to find the river’s source.

Despite three previous visits to the USA as a tween and teenager, I had yet to experience the West Coast of the country. California had a sort-of magical quality for me growing up, as the home of Hollywood and a perfect climate, and I knew that at some point in my life I would visit there, but I just needed a reason to.

 

 San Francisco 2013 - USA & California Flags

 

Although Coachella provided that reason, I know that I owe a great deal of the success of my trip to being able to stay with friends and connections whilst I was in the States. Almost immediately after purchasing my festival ticket, I got in touch with a good South African friend based in San Francisco who’d also got a Coachella ticket, and fortunately, for the same weekend. Not long after, it was confirmed that I could crash on his couch for however long it was necessary, as well as join him and his friends on an epic road-trip to the festival, where the five of us would camp together. It was a fairytale beginning to the trip, and set the tone for my first overseas odyssey as an adult.

I arrived in San Francisco a couple of days before the festival weekend, and oddly enough, a day after the terrible Boston Marathon bombings. Emerging from the 18-hour cocoon of international flight to customs in Washington, D.C., it was quite a shock to see the first piece of news on an airport TV being a CNN headline of “BOSTON TERROR ATTACK”. Knowing that I was to be in some major cities over the following month gave me a twinge of anxiety, but whilst the tragedy dominated the news cycles, my fears were fortunately unfounded.

The Coachella weekend divided my time in San Fran in two, and the first few days allowed for some sightseeing of the city and catching up with my friend, who’d recently emigrated from South Africa for an amazing job opportunity at Facebook. His apartment was in Lower Haight Street, just east of the famous Haight-Ashbury district, known as the birthplace of the hippie subculture and the bohemian musical and social revolution known as the ‘Summer of Love’. San Fran feels small for a major city, and even with taking into account its hills, I still found it relatively easy to traverse on foot, in combination with its excellent, but at times conflicting, public transport system (the main service is affectionately called “The Muni”). Haight Street is also walking distance from a lot of cosy bars, so evening sojourns to places like The Page (on my first night there, jetlagged to oblivion) and Smuggler’s Cove (a shrine to rum) are safely navigable after a few drinks.

 

 

I was left to my own devices most days, and although at first I got caught up with some tech admin for my new phone and SIM card, there were still opportunities to leave the apartment and wander, with a vague notion of where to go, and what to do. Taking the self-reliant, touristy approach, I tried to see as much of the surrounding streets and neighbourhoods on foot as possible, which saved me money and facilitated interaction with medicinal marjiuana shop owners, bike rental employees, music store patrons, homeless street preachers, and local jam bands in the park, to name a few. The city is incredibly friendly, laid-back and inviting, offering an eclectic mix of cultures and expression, and as a Cape Townian, I felt very much at home in the environment.

 

 

My second afternoon highlighted this spirit in action, as I headed west along Haight Street to the aforementioned Haight-Ashbury for some lunch. The array of colourful shops could’ve kept me there the whole day, but I had made up my mind that I needed to see the landmark Golden Gate Bridge up close. A helpful bike rental employee gleefully handed me a map of the city, pointing out tourist landmarks along the way, suggesting transport options back home, as well as giving me a brief rundown on life as a San Franciscan – not once suggesting that I should hire a bike. Dumbfounded and grateful, I followed her route through San Francisco National Park, soaking in the gorgeous expanse of green. At one point, I made a pit stop by a local jam band, semi-acoustically strumming away some tunes for a gathered crowd on the grass.

 

 

“Sorry friends, I need to be off. Gotta go stare at a big red bridge” were my parting words to a few of the local listeners I’d sat with, and vaguely heading north out of the park, I eventually made it to the entrance of Golden Gate National Park (San Francisco is just full of them). With rolling hills, countless trees, and many strategic lookout points (one of which gave a view of what I suddenly realised was Alcatraz Island, site of the former maximum security prison), it was a nature-lover’s paradise. Weirdly enough, the park is also part of the Presidio, a former military base. I was still not entirely sure in which direction to go, but thankfully a local hiker pointed me towards nearby Baker Beach (on the western, Pacific Ocean side of the park), and instructed me to follow the coastal trail till I found that big red bridge. Passing through old concrete beachfront batteries, feeling sand itching in my socks, watching the sun drop into the Pacific Ocean; this was not how I had envisioned my afternoon to be, and I loved every serendipitious twist of it.

 

 

The Coachella road-trip began on Thursday afternoon and our crew returned late on Monday afternoon, thoroughly exhausted from the long weekend. Proof of this came after Red Hot Chili Peppers closed off the festival on Sunday night, and the hours and hours I spent on my feet in the baking sun finally took its toll on me. I made my way back to our campsite, collapsed inside my tent, and began faintly weeping. The friend that I was sharing the tent with was concerned, and asked me if I was okay. Half-laughing, I requested a double-foot amputation, as it seemed to be the only solution in my sunstroked mind!  The trip was 15 hours there and back, and the return leg was mostly during the day, allowing me to appreciate the transition from the hazy desert views of Palm Springs and its otherworldly collection of wind turbines, to the leafy suburbs of Palo Alto and Mountain View along the way. Our crew was really international: two South Africans, one Australian, one German, and a lone American!

The Bay Area in Northern California is home to a sizeable eagle population, and when planning my trip, I knew that I had to take the opportunity to see a Golden Eagle up close, as they are not found in the Southern Hemisphere. A few phone calls and emails led me to the Lindsay Wildlife Museum in Walnut Creek, across the bay from San Francisco (one of the oldest wildlife rehab centers in the USA). The volunteers there reassured me that I’d be able to see a bird in rehabilitation at one of their twice-weekly shows. Fortunately, I had some time after the festival to pay a visit to the centre, and tied it up with a lunch meeting with the US Branch chairman of my high school’s alumni society, who conveniently lives in Walnut Creek.

In its own way, getting to see Topaz (a 19-year-old female Golden Eagle) was a rather emotional experience, and one that fulfilled a burning desire of mine to witness the majesty of these birds first-hand. Although it wasn’t a full-on meltdown (a la Kristen Bell and a sloth), I’d be lying if I said that there wasn’t a tear or two in my eye when the presentation began, and Topaz rested on her trainer’s arm about five to six metres away from me. It was surreal to watch her movements and interactions with him right up close, and I was desperate to at least be able to pet her, but unfortunately she was very skittish and nervous that day, and it would’ve been unsafe for strangers to get any closer than we did. A compromise was made for a photo opportunity though: she was to be fed and bathed in a see-through enclosure in the middle of the museum hall, and her trainer would be able to bring her right up to the glass. I gladly accepted, and The Eagle finally got to meet an actual Golden Eagle

 

It’s been almost six weeks since I arrived back on South African shores, and yet the memories from my American adventure have not faded in the slightest.

 

The Eagle himself, standing on the hallowed ground of Coachella

The Eagle himself, standing on the hallowed ground of Coachella

 

For those who followed my trip on Facebook and Twitter, you were fortunate enough to be kept up-to-date on my comings and goings across the United States, and although I’ve updated other parts of the site (such as Portfolio and Coachella) with my professional output, I’ve yet to do a personal blog post on this wondrous journey that I embarked on.

 

As a music journalist, I believe you have to be objective yet passionate about what you’re reporting on, and I guess that attending the 2013 Coachella Music Festival under the circumstances I did was a true test of whether I was going to be able to mix business and pleasure. When you’ve thrown everything you have into pursuing a dream – time, effort, money, sanity – and it finally comes true, you’re usually ready to carry that weight of responsibility. It’s sort of like how pregnant mothers are physically prepared for childbirth, their bodies slowly readying themselves over the trimesters. Back on that Tuesday night in late January, when through a click of a button, I became the holder of a ticket to a massive festival on the other side of the world, I had next to no idea how I was going to follow through with this bizarre plan. Fast-forward almost three months later, and I found myself on that Californian field of dreams, watching some of my favourite artists playing right in front of me. Although I had the time of my life over the weekend of the 19th to the 21st of April, I never forgot why I was really there, and what my duty was as a journalist and as a South African one.

 

I actually found that I appreciated the experience of the festival probably a lot more as a reporter than if I had attended just as a fan. It’s in my nature to swim in the intimate details, to analyse and dissect the moment, and through taking comprehensive handwritten notes and capturing hundreds of photos, I solidified my memories of Coachella better than any other music event I’ve been to. Yes, I had put a lot into the trip, and knew that I had to make the most of it, but that synthesis of evidence continues to fulfil me personally, as well as make my job of reporting back on the festival a hell of a lot easier.

 

Upon my return to South Africa roughly three weeks after the festival, I began sorting through all the photos from my trip (which included many other stops along the way – more info to follow in another post) and making sense of these furiously scribbled notes. I had made sure to take down every set list and leave enough lyrical clues to work out the missing pieces, which proved to be a quite a wild goose chase, especially for some of the artists whom I had never listened to before! It was a lot of fun transporting back to that weekend through those anecdotes, trying to remember the sound-bites that I’d picked up onstage (FYI: the Palma Violets bassist really loves to exchange banter with the crowd). After doing some background research, I realized that there is a dearth of information relating to Weekend 2 of Coachella this year, with most articles and reviews focusing on Weekend 1’s antics. This makes the anecdotes found in these pages all the more useful and special. With there being no official live video feed of Weekend 2 , it is up to people like me who were there to inform readers about what went down in the desert.

 

These handwritten notes really helped the writing process of my reports on the festival

These handwritten notes really helped the writing process of my reports on the festival

 

Although I wasn’t able to put an entirely full-time effort into writing over the past few weeks (on the account of me starting to help out with the family business), I steadily finished each festival day’s report, and last Friday, wrapped up my five-article series with a final summary of the Coachella experience. All these articles are now on this site, and any further coverage that I’ll be receiving for my trip can be found on the Coverage page (which will be updated as it comes in). Part of this coverage offered up a new experience for me: radio interviews. Dylan Culhane and Ace Swart, hosts of the Rock ‘n Rollercoaster Show on Assembly Radio, invited me onto their show once before my trip (8th April), and once after my return (10th June), and I was incredibly grateful to be exposed to the world of radio in just a small way. I’ve received copies of those appearances, so if you didn’t catch it all live, they’ve been posted on that page to be enjoyed in your own time. I’ve also made my Coachella photos publically available on my Facebook page here, here, and here.

 

Moving forward from an experience like this is probably going to be as bewildering as going into it. The Eagle’s Flight To Coachella was such an important milestone in my life, and proved to me that if you work smart, you can also play hard. I’ve learnt a lot from the planning and organization of this trip, and know how to approach things for future festivals and events. It can be done, and by a relative small-fry too.

 

I’ll delve into the rest of my trip in a later post, which included some musical pilgrimages, meeting an actual Golden Eagle, and visits to big American cities. But for now, The Eagle has returned to normal life, forever changed by his American adventure.

 

Onwards and upwards to the next one,

 

Kurt
 

Good day everyone,

 

Firstly, in terms of my trip to the USA in April, I won a major victory yesterday – I got a United States visa! The interview went really smoothly, and it’s another step towards fulfilling the dream.

 

Land of the free, home of the brave

Land of the free, home of the brave

 

Secondly, I’m going to post my personal lineup for the Coachella Music Festival this year, and I’d like to hear your feedback on whether you think I’m focusing on the right artists, or what your ideal lineup would be. Right now, individual stages and set-times haven’t been announced, just on which days the artists will be performing. So at the moment, my lineup is very much a wishlist, and I’m hoping that I’ll physically be able to see who I want to see live and in the flesh! Check it out under the Coachella page, or download the MS Excel document on my campaign site

 

Thirdly, although a victory was gained in the Cape Town US Consulate, I’m still struggling with an issue on my site with regard to posting articles under the Portfolio page. As stated in my first blog post, I have about three articles in the mix, and although my efforts have primarily been focused on my fundraising campaign, I would like to get them onto the site as soon as possible for your nourishment. On that topic, if you have any feedback on the design and layout of the site, I’d love to hear it. Comment, email, Twitter – you take your pick, readers.

 

Cheers,

 

Kurt