Clairvoyants in New Orleans & Pastel Cars in Cuba

Arriving in New Orleans was like driving into a bubble. That first night, we didn’t even go into the heart of the place, but we knew it was vastly different from anywhere we’d been and special beyond words. I suppose I can compare it in the way I did with New York City and Nashville— how neither of these places are alike in any way, except for their contagious, atomic energy.

As we often do, we began searching on the app iOverlander for free, overnight parking places in the city. This app usually helps us, but not every place has locations that previous travellers have “checked-in” on. New Orleans had quite a few, most of them situated in the City Park. I guess you could kind of liken it to Central Park based on its enormity and the array of things that sit within it: botanical gardens, a Storyland world, mini-golf courses, roadways, a Catholic Boys’ school, etc.

We set up camp in an open carpark, situated between grass fields, shaded with low-hanging branches. It was close to the edge of the park, surrounded by well-lit areas, yet managed to stay quiet throughout the evening— about a 10 minute drive from the heart of the city. Perfect and a tad nicer than being parked alongside the road.

That first evening we were pretty tickled with the botanical gardens being nearby so we made our way through them—lush and tranquil. Being submerged in that much flora just makes you want to take deep, yogic breaths. Oxygen rich and dense.

The gardens contained lots of artwork, mainly progressive sculptures of humans. My favourite was of a woman, standing straight and strong, looking into the distance, breast-feeding her baby under one arm. Powerful stuff.

The next day was our main exploring day. We ventured along St. Charles street, where the infamous Mardi Gras operates each year. This boulevard is littered with cafes and bars ordained with 24-hour signs. A party place for sure— not certain if there’s anywhere back in Aus that serves alcohol around the clock, but I know they’d make a killing.

It was convenient for us when the time hit midday and we indulged in a guilt-free cocktail: the New Orleans Hurricane. Two different types of rum, orange juice and grenadine. That one rocked me a little bit to be honest, so we walked a great deal and took in the grand southern houses. Tall, quirky, with chairs rocking on every front porch.

As always, parking is a nightmare in the more populated cities. The two hours was up and we wanted to make our way to where the action was: Bourbon Street.

I  didn’t know a lot about New Orleans but I had a lot of expectations. Music being played on the streets, strong southern accents ringing on every corner. Knowing where to find this was the issue, but luckily Abel knew where we needed to go. As we turned the corner, the live street music danced directly into the car and people swarmed around. For once, I felt like the ambulance fit right in. We did one of those slow drives down the street, both turning our heads, pointing our fingers at different shops, people, signs, everything. Nightmare parking again— $18 for 30 mins, 1 or 2 hours. We settled in for a few, there was lots to see.

There were heaps of daiquiri shops, with spinning mixtures of various flavours and everyone was drinking them out of enormous cups as they swayed in and out of bars. There were clubs functioning as if it was 2 am on a Sunday morning. The huge Saints game contributed to how busy it was that weekend, but we were told its not much different the rest of the time.

Slurping on our green apple daiquiris and taking in the scene, we came across an open courtyard with tourist market stalls and various tarot card readers, palm readers, psychics. This type of thing has always intrigued me and while I’ve wanted to have my future told, or something like that, many times, I’ve been scared of what they’ll tell me. I spoke to one woman wearing an emerald, fish net scarf tied around her hair, purple drapes and epic eyeliner— your typical Esmerelda. She was frank and honest with me, she told me that her skillset was very fine, purely based off the readings of the cards and how she learned to do that. All fortunes were “donation based”, yet they still manage to give you a ballpark range. She didn’t do a great job of selling herself to me, but let me know that each and every one of them working this spot had different skills and I was welcome to chat around to find my perfect match.

A few tables up was a set of sisters, beckoning us over. “I can see your interested darling, let me explain to you what I do.” Tarot cards, palm and crystal readings: one of the above or a combination. She knew I was nervous. “I think you would benefit best from a card reading,” she nodded at me. For the lot, it was an average of “$65”, I told her I’d give her $50. I got one sister and Abel had the other— his was supposed to be a palm reading, but halfway through she suggested the cards so his reading would have more accuracy (Scam, scam, scam. His was meant to be $35, but she finished and claimed it would be $65). We ended up paying $100 for the lot and left.

It wasn’t the best timing to spend such a hefty fee for a short, somewhat average, fortune telling. Abel was not impressed whatsoever with his reading— he said it was all basic and merely guessing. I felt a little different. Sure, there were moments where I kind of shrugged along with what she said and didn’t always agree, but for the most part, she said some very accurate things about me. I’m indecisive, drawn to water, I have a churning belly and get goosebumps often (apparently this is my paternal Grandfather who makes that happen— Thanks Grandad) among other stuff. I enjoyed it, mainly because it was something I always wanted to do, but otherwise, probably not worth the expensive donation.

We spent one more night in New Orleans and played mini-golf at the nearby course in the park. The following day was spent running errands, packing and organising for Cuba. Our flight left at 6 am on the Sunday morning so it meant an early night for us. There was a brief moment of terror when I finally decided I better check out the whole visa situation. Very silly and irresponsible of me to leave it to the last minute, and certainly on a weekend. Everywhere I googled, you applied online and it got sent to you in the mail… not an option for us. I had a panic/tantrum thing and thought, “Guess we ain’t going to Cuba!”, but after calling a woman who worked at a Cuban Travel Centre (about 5 minutes from where we were— convenient right?), she informed me that I could buy the visa at the airport prior to boarding the plane in Miami. I took a deep breath and hoped with all my might that she wasn’t fooling me.

The journey to Cuba was time-consuming and treacherous. Both flights were short and sweet— under two hours each. But, we had a 9 hour 50 minute layover in Miami. To be honest, it wasn’t all that bad, the day moved along fairly quick. I basically just read all day. The last two hours or so were the longest, as the plane continued to get delayed for 15 minutes about five or six times. Then we landed in Cuba, and had to wait a good half hour to park due to our delayed take off. We were exhausted and feeling pretty anxious that our taxi driver may have just up and left.

He gave a little laugh when he saw us— he’d been waiting a while.

We spent our first three nights in a hotel/apartment that I booked on airbnb in Old Havana. We had a private bed and bathroom and there was a little kitchen where they served a $5 per person breakfast each morning. The room was clean, but bare. It didn’t matter too much as we knew we’d be out exploring most of the time. We lucked out on the location of the place, only about a block back from The Capitol and right near plenty of restaurants and tourist strips with shops.

The first day we ventured out, around three or four different Cubans said hello to us, went out of their way to strike up a conversation. Asking where we were from, what our plans were, offering suggestions on things to do and places to eat. Everyone had told us that Cubans were friendly as anything and this certainly proved it. After that first day, however, I found most people stared and didn’t offer a warm smile. Western tourists are new to Cuba, so I suppose that’s fair enough.

We ate a restaurant recommended by our host, Los Nardos at least twice. The food was exceptional, enormous servings and plates cost about $5-$10 each. Apart from doing the Havana Bus tour to see all around the city, we basically roamed, frequented shops and filled time between meals and beverages— dining on jade-tiled patios, with overhanging grape vines and deep-bellied female Cuban singers.

I’ve never known a city to be so beautiful and dirty at once. Huge, amazing pieces of architecture (like The Capitol) flanked alongside crumbling buildings, apartments with bundles of laundry hanging from balconies; plastic bottles, bags and other rubbish crammed along every gutter of every street. Sidewalks with chunks of cement disheveled and protruding. Brightly coloured 60’s and 70’s-styled cars speeding around every corner, tall palms billowing in the city breeze. Beautiful. Dirty.

Horse and buggies are used for tourism AND practical use– it’s like being back in time.

After three nights in the city, we had the next six booked in a little old fishing town called, Cojimar, about 20 minutes outside of Havana  The place where Ernest Hemingway got most of his inspiration for The Old Man and the Sea— there’s a bust of him sitting tall and proud, overlooking the harbour.

Upon checkout in our Old Havana airbnb, I noticed something fairly disturbing. I had packed jewellery with me, most of in an old Mimco pouch apart from my 21st birthday necklace, which I had in a separate box— so it wouldn’t get tangled. Rummaging through my suitcase, trying to organise, I noticed this weird white, square-shaped thing. What the dickens is this? Then I noticed the necklace box—open, empty. The white square thing was the backing that belonged inside the box. My heart sank and my hands frantically pulled every item from my bag. The necklace was nowhere and more importantly, I hadn’t opened that box once since being here. It had sat on the bottom of my suitcase, untouched, at least, by me.

Of course, I freak out and cried and had no idea what to do. The host wasn’t at the apartment, only one of her workers who didn’t utter a word of english. She knew we were about to leave and could see I was distressed, she phoned the host and let me have a word with her.

I felt awful accusing her or anyone of something like this, but I had to mention it.

“No one has a key to that room except for you,” she reassured me.

“Yes,” I told her, “but someone must… because someone changed the roll of toilet paper.”

“That was me… but I changed the paper and went straight back out. I did not go up the stairs to your room.”

There was not a lot else I could say or do. Besides, Abel and I had started thinking about the night we packed our things. I held the box in my hand, unsure what to do with the necklace. I didn’t want to leave it in the car incase it was broken into, especially not in the box— it’s kind of asking for it, I now realise. Plus, I knew I’d want to wear it. During this time, I was going through other jewellery, moving some from one pouch to the next. Abel and I both agreed that perhaps I had removed the necklace from the box and put it in my other jewellery pouch that I’d left in the ambulance and, silly me who didn’t realise, packed the box anyway.

The lingering question though… who opened the box from my suitcase? The springs on it were too tight for it to have accidentally opened while sorting through my things.

I messaged my host just asking to let me know if it turned up. She replied saying they’d cleaned the room and found nothing,”I think you must have lost it on the street.” Well I didn’t, but whatever for now.

Our taxi over to Cojimar

The airbnb we stayed at in Cojimar was beautiful. A renovated garage into a perfect little apartment suite. It was clean, private and our hosts Rossana and Felipe were just the sweetest people I’ve ever met. They went above and beyond to make sure we were comfortable and felt at home.

Rossana greeted us with a big kiss and fresh cups of espresso. We sat on their patio, enjoying the sun, the mango tree rustling in the breeze, and having a conversation in broken English about life in Australia and Cuba. It wasn’t that broken though, Rossana and Felipe continued to apologise for their “terrible English”, to which Abel and I would shake our heads furiously, telling them how good their language skills were, to stop apologising, we could barely offer any Spanish, for God’s sake! I haven’t studied the language since 2011 and before that, not since 2006— all at a minor level too, so my skills were limited. After conversing with French guests at our other airbnb— mainly broken English and some French on my part— I kept confusing myself and often saying “excusez-moi” on the streets. Fool.

We’d decided we wanted to stay in Cojimar for a more quiet and relaxing experience. The location was ideal, it was close to the city and the beach, an easy bus ride either way. Rossana drew maps and assisted us with directions to get anywhere we wanted to go. The town was walking distance, right by the water. Rossana and Felipe gave us a 10% discount card for a really high-quality, reasonably priced restaurant just two blocks down from the apartment. We ate there many times, the house mojitos were the best I’d drank the whole time in Cuba.

They also provided the same $5 per person breakfast service: eggs, bread, ham, cheese, fresh fruit, juice and coffee. Waking up each morning and walking out to their polished-stone patio, with the table set waiting for us, hot fresh food and coffee, was everything we needed and more. While I’m a creature of habit and eat the same breakfast every morning, we may have tired of this one a little bit. The service and quality made it worthwhile however. Not having to prepare and do dishes was precisely the kind of break we were after.

 

On two different days we took the bus to the beach— the kind where you can rent lounge chairs, umbrellas and get drinks service. We did this the first time, had a few cocktails and enjoyed the luxury beach outing. Then we got the bill and saw how much they overcharged for the drinks and service. On our next visit, we packed water and primitively lay with our towels on the sand (even though that’s how us Aussies prefer it).

The water here was aqua and crystal clear— postcard-like. Abel and I laughed with each other about the people who obviously don’t frequent the beach. I saw at least four different girls, laying or kneeling near the edge of the sea, posing for a photo, as a wave clapped down and catapulted them a few feet in the air. It was hilarious. Many of them barely walked out into the water, they kept their sunglasses on and didn’t wet their heads. For someone who needs to be submerged in the ocean for long periods of time, this was difficult to watch.

There was a sandbank a little ways out on our second visit, and as Abel and I swam to it, standing up to catch waves, I saw people on the shoreline staring and pointing at us. Then two dudes swam out, “Wait, you can stand out here?” You sure can. People amaze me. But I guess I’ve been lucky enough to grow up alongside the sea and never know any different— being too far inland kind of freaks me out.

We spent one day back in Old Havana. Abel and I both had to connect to the wifi, even though being disconnected for a little while was nice and ensured that we had more conversation and reading time. The internet situation is old school— you have to lineup at certain technological shops, buy a wifi card for 1-5 hours and then you can only use it in specific parks that have a tower for that particular service.

We used this day to go see Hemingway’s mansion outside of the city. The visit was quick, as you pretty much just walk around the house and peer inside. It was stunning— vast and open, lots of natural light, hanging plants, half-filled bottles of booze, tons of books— a real writer’s haven.

 

The cigar factory was the next thing to tick off on the list this day, but unfortunately the tour service had been relocated from where we thought it was, plus they had finished for the day. We bought four different random cigars and made our way back to Cojimar. We haven’t smoked one yet and I don’t really have much interest to, but hey, when in Cuba.

The weather overall was really pleasant, there was only one cloudy day until our third last evening. A storm hit not long before we fell asleep and the power went out. Rossana came knocking our door about 10 minutes later with a battery-powered LED lamp, bless her. In the morning, she told us how a tornado had hit another town just outside Havana. Nowhere nearby had power. A bus had tipped on its side. 175 people were injured. 3 dead. It was horrific and she explained how this is not common for Cuba. Had we heard the winds in the night? No… but we’re from Gerringong, so we didn’t notice anything radically different.

The power was out until our departure. It didn’t affect us all that much, most of our things were charged and we could handle some darkness. Felipe and Rossana kept apologising for that too, like they had any control over the weather. The nicest people in the world, honestly.

I think if we’d booked a tour and travelled across the country more, we wouldn’t have felt as ready to be back “home” (ambulance). Not that we didn’t enjoy our time at all, we loved it and desperately needed the solace, but by the end, we couldn’t help but think about our cosy little bed back in our home-on-wheels, ready to hit the road again.

Since arriving back, we’ve been cooking non-stop. We indulged in meals out and endless cocktails while away, mainly because we had no other option and they were so cheap— but I really love to cook and missed it a lot. We spent the first few nights back in New Orleans, but felt we’d seen everything we needed to.

From there, we camped in an open field in the middle of farmland in southern Louisiana. Free, and there were other campers there too. Abel had a look on his Alltrails app to see if there were any nice walks/hikes nearby. He found one called “jungle gardens” on Avery Island, about 45 minutes from where we were— gators and plants. As we pulled in to buy our entry tickets, we discovered this island is actually where Tabasco sauce was founded, invented and the main factory still operates today. Avery Island is a salt dome and one of the few hilly areas in an otherwise flat Louisiana. We did a 4-5 kilometre walk around the gardens, no gators to be seen, then we did a tour of the Tabasco factory, complimentary with lots of tastings. Shipments from this small little part of America go out to 185 countries each day. Literally, most of the world (bar North Korea and a few African and Middle-Eastern countries) buys and consumes Tabasco sauce. And we just happened upon the factory by accident. Little did we know that every single bottle says “Avery Island, LA” on it, but still.

Now, we’re still in Louisiana, but very close to the Texas border. We drove a secluded highway that snaked in and around swamps/bayous, and we saw an otter in the wild (!!!!!!!!!!!!). The cutest little darling, lobbing over reeds and swimming in the dirty, shallow water. By dirty, I don’t just mean brown— loads of plastic. Disgraceful.

We’re parked on a beach (yep, actually on the sand) and relaxing before we head to Houston to see Fleetwood Mac on Tuesday. Excited is more than an understatement.

’Til next time.

A

PS. The necklace was not back in the ambulance. It was stolen, somehow. I’ve had a back and forth with the host and she is just as confused as I am— she’s confronted her staff more than once, and says she trusts them like family as they’ve been working together for three years. She also got a bit upset with me and said how Cubans might not have much, but they earn their living through hard work. I had to be clear with her, I am not blaming this on Cuban people… there are thieves all over the world. And clearly there was one there, guest or worker, I have no idea. But I’m pretty devastated about it.

CATCHING UP ON THE JOURNEY

I figured I should catch you guys up, so to speak, on the chronology of our trip. I’ll skip over what you know.

After Thanksgiving, we made our way up through North Carolina into Virginia, where we spent a few nights at a campground in a state park. That was a really nice few days– it felt like we had time to relax and not rush. There wasn’t anything particular we wanted to see in Virginia Beach and the weather was pretty crappy. I remember that night was probably the first really cold night we’d spent in the van. I reckon it got down to maybe 1 degree C (the coldest we’ve done was -8 C in Salem). We made a fire and sat pressed up against it, layered in our new hats, gloves and scarves. I wrote, drank tea, and we made our first dinner over an open fire (our new favourite thing to do). I ran (!!!!!) two days in a row (this is a seriously big deal for me– I have despised running for most of my life, and now, I almost kind of like it. Who am I?), but yeah, we pretty much chillaxed there, and that was great.

We drove over the Delmarva Peninsula to go through Maryland on our way to Washington DC. The bridges over here tend to be really big, very high and for people who know me well, heights are not my friend. For some funny reason, I always seem to be driving whenever we have to go over one of these monsters. I know, I know, they’re, for the most part, totally safe. But, I’d almost rather be a passenger while travelling across a huge bridge. I feel as though I’m too in control. Like, if I wasn’t paying attention, or being too careful, or something happened and my arms spasmed and went crazy and we just steered a little to the right, and then BOOM we’re flying off the bridge and into the water. I know that sounds a little paranoid and crazy, but my Aunt Melissa actually feels very similar about this– so I am definitely not alone.

On this leg of the journey we had to drive over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. It’s 23 miles long (37 km). There are two structures, one for each direction and they both have double lanes. There’s no shoulder though, hardly any space either side of the lanes between your moving vehicle and the tiny little fence. There were about 2x 1 mile long tunnels that broke up the journey. I was in a sweat most of the time.

We made it across in one piece and headed for Crisfield, MD… I don’t know how to describe it. I’ll just say, often when we have made the decision to drive a few hours in the direction we plan to head, it’s difficult deciding where we should go. There’s times where the destination is obvious, well-known cities or highly-populated areas. Other times, though, we just have to wing it and we tend to choose somewhere on the coast (if that’s an option based on our current location) and generally about 2-3 hours from where we currently are. Crisfield, MD. We drove secluded highways to get out to this town. Winding roads with beautiful, emerald yards planked along the sides. I expected something really stunning, and naturally, we got that. I mean to say, it was spectacular in its natural debut, but not much the township itself. We drove through the flat, desolate main street and, as we often do in the more interesting towns, Abel and I shared a glance that said it all. Crowned the “crab capital of the world”, Crisfield sat right on the edge of the water– flat, sprawling, endless, reflective, breath-taking.

But we struggled to find a place that we felt safe in. We drove around trying to find an area to park near the water, and after getting bogged and having to shove rocks on either side of the tires, we came to a small parking lot situated at a tiny little beach. There were toilets, a tap– neither in operation “CLOSED FOR THE WINTER”. A playground on the sand, picnic tables. Very nice. A few suss looking dudes drove down, sat in their running cars for 15 minutes, left… came back again half an hour later. Amongst other visitors. Abel was uneasy. Once it got well and truly dark, there were no more visitors. But you know how it is, once someone is nervous about something and you can feel it, then you start feeling it to. We made it through the night and woke up to one of our best views yet, and then we got the hell outta that place.

Washington DC was really great to go back to. I’ve only been once and was aged 8 or 9, so was keen to check out some of the museums with my newfound wisdom that comes from the gradual ageing process (just being older and appreciating things more). After taking some time to figure out the whole van-city situation, we ended up spending one night in a Lowe’s carpark and the next three at a campground just outside the city. It was getting rather cold when we were there so the wandering and exploring was kept to a minimum. We got to see and do what we wanted though. The National Museum of Natural History, The Holocaust Museum, we walked alongside the Washington Monument, Reflection Pool and The Lincoln Memorial. The basics. Christmas markets were also in full swing at this point (our real first taste of that) which was exciting, and we ate some really amazing Cuban food there.

 

Post-D.C. was really lovely, I made a call to my Mum’s good friend, and our long-time family friends, Val and Mike. They lived in Fairfield while I was growing up and my family spent a lot of time with them and their three boys. West Chester, Pennsylvania is where they live now and Abel and I were welcomed into their home for a night. We were totally spoilt, taken into town to watch the enormous, festive Christmas Parade and we ate dinner at a restaurant that overlooked all of the activity. The township was beautiful, lots of brick buildings dressed in white lights. It’s always nice when you end up in a sweet place, somewhere you probably never would’ve gone to had it not been for some friends.

From there we went to the Amish Market and Philadelphia, where the incident from my last post occurred. So I’ll move right along.

We stopped in briefly for two nights back in Fairfield at my aunt and uncle’s place. Always nice to feel “at home” and be able to relax. We’d left some suitcases there before heading to Florida, so we collected our things, cleaned out and reorganised the ambulance. My aunt and uncle have a beach house out at Cape Cod (we used to go out there twice every summer, my Nan and Grandad had a place there too) and were kind enough to let us stay there. We stopped in Newport, RI for a night to break up the drive and it was a really quaint, little, upmarket beach town– but in winter.

The beach house became our little refuge for the next five days. I don’t think I’ve ever played so many games, condensed into such a small period of time, in my whole life. Kirstie, you would’ve been proud. We tackled one of the puzzles, a decadent fish scene titled “the underwater mardi gras”. You know how when you’re doing a big jigsaw with lots of pieces and you can never seem to find the piece you’re looking for, so naturally you are convinced it’s been lost? I thought I was going crazy. Abel was losing his mind. For a few hours in the afternoon on our fourth day, we sat intent on finishing this damn puzzle. And we did. With 27 missing pieces. Our minds weren’t lost, just those fucking pieces.

It was kind of hilarious to see Cape Cod in the dead of winter. For those who don’t know, this place is a little arm off of Massachusetts– you have the bay side and the ocean side, not too far from each other. It’s a summer haven, where most North-easterners escape to during the humid, sticky months of June-August. Majority of the restaurants along the main road that connects all the little towns have been there since I was a small child. You pull in, see “The Lobster Shanty” with it’s row boat, buoys and nets on the roof and know that you’re kind of in a little time capsule, and you wouldn’t want it any other way. Unfortunately, much of the cape closes down for the winter season, each restaurant bearing signs “THANKS FOR ANOTHER GREAT SEASON! SEE YOU IN APRIL!”.

Apart from a Sunday trip out to Provincetown (the funkiest little place ever and again, very, very different in winter than summer) we pretty much reclused (yes, I just used recluse as a verb) indoors. Scrabble, Rummikub, and our new game Jaipur (we bought this in P-town from a game shop called “Puzzle Me This”, a store that’s been around nearly as long as I have) were being played on rotate.

Eventually we moved on. Boston next– we only stayed one night here. It was cold and parking wasn’t plentiful. We found an open lot with paid parking but for the one night and most of the next day, it was $60. We’d explored and seen what we wanted, so we made our way to Salem. Which you’ve already read lots about.

 

From Salem we went to Burlington, Vermont. My cousin Zach went to university here and we’d been told it was a very cute little town. We weren’t lied to, it was lively and filled with young students, and more Christmas lights.

Next stop: Montreal, Canada!!! My dear friend Sarah is living there with her boyfriend, Antoine and it’s just crazy how close it was to where we were, yet a totally different country. It seemed silly not to pay them a visit. Of course, we thought entry into Canada would be a piece of cake! Aren’t all Canadians soft and squishy and just always nice? Kind of forgot about the fact that Quebec is French-Canadian territory and uh, Frenchies can be funny about things. The officer at border security totally grilled us. From the minute we pulled up to his window, he was shaking his head at us and instantly frustrated with our presence. He asked question after question about things we were bringing in (normal, totally normal). He asked if we had any firewood, I glanced at Abel and he nodded, “Yeah, we have a few pieces”. The officer shook his head more. Sighed a couple of times, rubbed his beard and forehead all in one big movement.

“Why do you have firewood?” Why does anyone have firewood? Usually to burn. In a fire of some sort.

“How many pieces do you have?” I looked at Abel and he shrugged, “Ten?”

The head shaking continued, layered with beard-stroking, brow-furrowing and a couple more sighs for good measure.

“Now,” he began, “I could let you into the country with the firewood. And do you know what you’d have to do with it?” I stared. “You would need to dispose of the wood in a metal container.” Ok then.

“Can we burn it?” I asked. Sigh. Head-shake.

“You know what, no. No, I can’t do it. Ten pieces is just too much. How would I know that you would dispose of it properly? You’re gonna have to go back to US soil, do what you will with the wood and come back. I’ll give you a form to pick up around the corner and you’ll need to re-enter the United States.”

We did as we were told. Upon re-entry to the US, I of course had to explain what had just transpired.

“We’re just coming back because we were denied entry into Canada,” I told him. He looked us up and down, “Why were you denied entry?” I told him about the firewood, he asked us some more questions and we left. We headed for the woods, ditched the beautiful chopped wood my uncle had given us and headed back for Canada.

He asked us what we did with the wood and I told him. “So if I look back there, I won’t find so much as a twig?” Jesus Christ. “I hope not”, “Go on in then”.

Three nights were spent at Sarah and Antoine’s apartment in Montreal. I hadn’t seen Sarah since November of 2017, just before she embarked on her journey to live and work in Canada. Seeing her again was something I anticipated and yearned for– we text nearly every day. Meeting her boyfriend Antione for the first time was really lovely and I’ve never seen her so happy.

The temperature was low and there were scattered flurries passing through Montreal, so we pretty much stayed in doors, drank and ate lots and watched movies. We were more than happy to do this; it was nice to be in the company of others, in a cozy space. We did get out to Mont Royal, an incredible natural beauty in the middle of the city, overlooking it all. Being outside the US for a little stint was special too– different sites, different shops and a different language. A bit of a treat for us.

 

From there we pretty much hustled back to Fairfield, CT for Christmas, via New York, a quick sleep in Wilmington, Vermont and down on through Massachusetts.

The Christmas period was a bit of a whirlwind, as it is for everyone, each and every year, all around the world. I guess that’s why it’s so magical– lots of energy and Christmas spirit pulsating from every corner of the globe (or whatever holiday people are celebrating at that time to bring their families close). Getting back to the Finzi’s was exciting because I hadn’t seen my cousins Elise or Nathalie yet, nor had Abel met them. My Mum and Dad were also coming to town over the next few days and while I’d seen Dad a few months back, I hadn’t seen my Mum since April, along with my brother Marcus and his girlfriend Nicole, so the weekend was filled with all kinds of reunions.

Another important one being on the 23rd, Abel and I drove into the city to pick up his cousin Kelsey from the airport. She’d had a pretty hectic long flight, with three different legs on her journey, but we were all buzzed to be with each other, knowing we were going to be having a real winter Christmas in a few days time. We spent that day in the city, window shopping and braving the crowds to experience Rockefeller’s Christmas tree. My dear friend Tenaya was housesitting an apartment in Brooklyn, so we were able to park our car near her place for the day. We met back up with her later that evening for a drink in Times Square and hot meal at the markets in Union Square before heading back out to Connecticut.

 

The lead up to the big day consisted of shopping, visiting family and friends, drinking, cooking and eating– in no specific order.

 

Christmas came and went, same as it does every year. Kelsey’s flight left NYC on the 28th to take her home to Australia, so we had one last hurrah in the city before she departed. Tenaya let us bring our mattress from the van up to her apartment. We had a lovely evening out, drinking cocktails at a rooftop bar that overlooked all of Manhattan. If anyone read or heard about the electrical explosion that happened in Queens and made the sky turn blue… yep, we witnessed that from the rooftop bar. I mean it when I say the whole sky went bright blue, turned purple, grey, black, back to blue. Each wall of this bar was made of glass, it was quite the spectacle.

 

 

The next morning Tenaya took us to the best little coffee and breaky spot in Williamsburg, which we pretty much discovered to be an Aussie café. A jar of Vegemite was spotted on a shelf behind the coffee machine, the barista spoke with an Aussie accent and not to mention the coffee and smashed avo was well and truly, soaring above average.

A quick drop off for Kels at the airport, as Abel and I headed due South, into Asbury Park, NJ. Apparently where Bruce Springsteen got his big name, but apart from a meal out, we just spent the night and headed West.

Stopped in Lancaster, PA for an evening, then down into West Virginia where we spent the few days over the New Year at a campground. The actual site where we stayed was extremely primitive– only pit toilets, no showers, no running water. This was the longest we went without showering, I believe we made it five days strong. If a Planet Fitness had been close by, we would’ve made a journey out, but was a shower really worth a 1 hour 15 minute drive each way? We were fine.

This place was a whole lot of rocks, mountains and rivers– picturesque. Once again, Abel convinced me to step out of my comfort zone and climb up the side of an escarpment that yes, had somewhat of a trail, but a fairly steep and rocky one. There was certainly resistance from my end, but sure, I’m glad he persuaded me. The view always makes the height (somewhat) worthwhile.

 

 

While the site was on the low-equipped side, there was an office left open until late, with heat, bathrooms, running water, wi-fi and a smart TV. We were actually able to ring 2019 in a nice space, with some games, music, drinking and movies. Quiet, but a lot better than many other New Years I’ve had.

As we went to depart West Virginia, we started experiencing some car trouble– it wouldn’t start. There was no cellular service out there and although the office was officially closed for the 31st and 1st (yet left open for us) now that it was January 2nd, for some strange reason, everything was completely locked up. I couldn’t call AAA to have them come start our car. My poor mum, I gave her a call, said “Happy Birthday!” and then “Can you do me a favour?”. When the car had it’s batteries replaced while in Salem, the mechanic mentioned there was a missing tooth on the fly wheel that would need replacing sometime soon. We assumed that was the issue. After waiting in the cold for the mechanic to arrive, he came down to the site where the ambulance sat– terrified it was going to have to be towed up a wet, steep, narrow, gravel road.

He popped the hood, had a look, “turn the key,” he said, and on it went. An embarrassing relief to say the least.

Most mornings since then, we have struggled to start the car. Diesel tends to go sludgy in the cold, but we were still in the Northern half of the country and they use a special winter blend up there.

We stayed a night in Virginia and then headed to Knoxville, Tennessee where we spent a few more nights. I was pretty surprised at how cute Knoxville was, lots of variety in shops and food, the weather was warmer too so we could actually walk around and take in the feel of the city.

We made our way to Nashville via a pit stop at a campground for two nights. Nashville had an electric energy, that I can only describe kind of like New York City, except that it’s completely and utterly different. In no way is it similar– I just mean, in the way that a city’s ambiance can catch on so quickly.

This place was party central from the moment we arrived and it just didn’t stop. We parked over at the football stadium which is an easy walk across the foot bridge into down town. We ate and drank on a rooftop bar and on the streets below, open-roofed buses with drunk, screaming women trudged past, along with everyone on the streets, horse and buggy rides, bicycle pubs. Country music pouring out of every single doorway. Every shop on the main drag is either a bar with live music, or a boots shop. That’s about it. For two people who are certainly not country music fans, you cannot help but be when you’re in a place like Nashville.

 

On to Memphis. Where Abel made sure I played “Walking in Memphis” as we drove into the city. This place consisted of more car trouble– it was time to take it into a shop and get the flywheel fixed. We’d had enough of not being able to start her in the mornings. So we booked a room in a hotel near Elvis’ Graceland. Tacky as all hell, with three framed pictures of Elvis hanging above the bed (I mean, that’s absolutely fine with me, but still) and I kinda loved it. Until Abel and I convinced ourselves there were bug beds and we had to sleep in layers on top of the bed covers. We didn’t have any bites– most likely all in our heads.

 

Graceland was a dream. Elvis was such an influential figure, such a star, and his pad reflected what an icon he was. He put so much care into decorating and entertaining, everywhere you went, you felt his presence in there. Big deal for a big Elvis fan like me.

 

Since then we’ve been making our way to New Orleans and we just arrived… after another incident with the car. While the flywheel did need replacing, it wasn’t the source of the issue. The most recent mechanic wasn’t really to know, he didn’t specialise in diesel and we should’ve thought that one through. So she was in the shop the past two nights and we checked into another hotel, for two nights, in Jackson, Mississippi where there’s a whole lot of nothing. The glow plugs have been replaced and she’s running like a dream now.

Two days here in New Orleans and on Sunday we’re off to Cuba for nine whole days. Bring me that sunshine.

A.

PS. Here’s what our route looks like drawn out on the map

ALOHA AND MAHALO

It’s funny looking back now at the first leg of our trip, when we’re actually at the tail end of our second. I’m currently sitting at San Francisco airport, about to board another red eye flight. Tomorrow morning we’ll be in NYC– my all time favourite–but albeit extremely exhausted. So instead of thinking about the small amount of asleep we may or may not get, I think I’ll tell y’all a bit about our time in Hawaii.

It’s funny how time seems to just totter along when you’re experiencing something new and different, but then all of a sudden you’re looking back at what happened and it’s a bit like, how did I even get here? Sort of like driving and daydreaming.

Our first day on Oahu was pure magic for us. Back home, winter had dragged its frigid limbs for far too long. We were desperate for sun and salt. We landed at about 7 am and the humidity welcomed us as we sweated through border control in our jeans, jumpers, boots and all the layers we couldn’t quite fit in our bags. Entry went fairly smoothly, Abel does have to exit the country for some amount of time (possibly 30 days), regardless that he has a five year visa but, hey, what can you do? It definitely effects our overall plans, but we’ll make the most of it: a month in Canada won’t be terrible.

After picking up our little silver whip and hopping into the wrong side of the car, we drove straight to the north shore where our airbnb was. A quick stop at Foodland was necessary, only because we forgot to pack some essential beach items: towels and sunscreen (which unfortunately both ended up in the bin on our last day, due to a lack of room in the suitcases). Then we headed straight to the beach: Waimea Bay, where we spent a decent amount of time dipping in the water and exposing our pale, tired bodies to the UV rays. Abel then asked me if I was hungry (his way of telling me that he’s hungry), and I was a little desperate for a decent sandwich. Two turkey, bacon and cheeses and the little girl inside of me was begging for a root beer. It went down a treat for me, but Abel took a big swig, scrunched up his nose and said it tasted like the smell of danker rub: “If you like that, you would love the footy change rooms”. I seriously doubt that.

The next few days pretty much consisted of beaching, eating, drinking, some walking and exploring.

The infamous Diamond Head Monument walk was something we had to tick off the list. It was only slightly shitty because of the intense humidity. Rain had been predicted that day and it definitely came, heavy yet sporadic. It pretty much down poured the entire hour-long drive to the other side of the island, until we drove straight into a clear patch that circled our destination. Afterwards we rewarded ourselves with a much deserved tiki pineapple drink (served in a real pineapple). Then it rained the entire drive back to the north shore, except for our short visit to the Shrimp Shack for lunch. I don’t normally do much seafood (only a bit of fish and that’s pretty recent), but these spicy garlic prawns were to die for. No wonder this truck had killer reviews. I was thinking the holiday gods were really working in our favour weather wise, until the next day.

The rain continued to come and go all the next morning. It arrived in full sheets just as we pulled up to the bay, but this only taught me one thing: the rain doesn’t deter the Hawaiians. Nor its visitors. We ran to the sand in nothing but our swimmers, no point getting our towels wet, right? And there were people still laying there, sunbaking. Barely flinching at the crying skies. Tourists were still fighting over car parks and we were just looking at each other, questioning everyone’s level of crazy. Back home the rain locks everyone indoors, but not here. Everyone just waited patiently for it to pass, not even bothered that it had come at all. We made a sneaky exit to the Waimea Valley botanical gardens and falls across the road on this particular morning. For the first part of the walk, we followed the historical plant guy, Dave. Abel was in nature heaven; this guy knew every little detail about every plant’s origins and needs for pollination. It was actually rather interesting, but we were moving along at a serious glacial pace and wouldn’t have made it to the falls for another week or two, so we split off and finished the tour on our own.

We were lucky our airbnb had a perfectly equipped kitchenette. Money was saved by cooking breakfast every morning and the occasional dinner. Majority of our meals were enjoyed at the cluster of food trucks up the road. Probably about five or six different cuisines all adjacent to each other; it was perfect for my indecisiveness. Abel and I could get whatever we wanted, but still enjoy dinner together with a sunset in the distance: purples and blues, with streaks of citrus, all painted behind a few lanky palms. I remember that first night we ate with such a calming quality. This was the beginning, day one. The thought of ‘work’ wasn’t going to dawn on us anytime soon and bring us back to reality. This was our reality for now. At least for the next four evenings. After that it would consist of something similar, perhaps with a varying backdrop.

We drove back across the island a couple of times. On our way back from the Diamond Head walk, Abel had spotted a trail in the distance, climbing up a mountain across from Hanauma Bay. He said we would come back in the next day or two, attempt it and then snorkel. To me, it looked like an impossible 90-degree trek. I wasn’t interested. Walking constantly ‘up’ just didn’t really appeal to me. I lost. So we climbed the old Koko Head Tramline. I have no idea how in the world a tram could have made it up this mountain, nor why it needed to. But now it was used for hundreds of tourists to climb and shed tears on. I was really out of my comfort zone, before we even got to the bottom of the walk. I hate heights.
The first part of the trek was just a lot of broken wooden sleepers acting as steps, with a few cinderblocks thrown in here and there for balance. The path looks steep, then kind of flat, and then unbelievably steep– more like climbing up a ladder. The flat section looked like a dream. Turns out it was a fucking nightmare. The sleepers laid flat over a 1-2 metre drop which isn’t high for many, but plenty for me. Abel’s really calming and encouraging in these situations. I had already moved to the side, repeatedly said that “I couldn’t do it”, convinced and partially happy that the walk was over for me, but still panting from non-stop steps and height anxiety. Abel told me I was fine, I’d be fine and that I could do it– no shame, just crawl on your hands and knees. And I did. I hated every moment of it, but I made it. Even the 90- degree ladder part too.

To be honest, we got to the top, surrounded by sweaty delirious humans and I was thinking: is this it? We climbed that for this?! Meanwhile, Abel is calling my name telling me to walk further up and around the corner and I’m thinking, I ain’t walking anywhere. I finally got off my ass and followed him and there it was, sprawling out beneath us: mountain ridges, beaches, and ocean. Lots of ocean with another island settling on the horizon. Ok, so it was kind of worth it.

That afternoon we also went to Hanauma Bay, which is a bit of a novelty for tourists. I was expecting epic snorkelling and my hopes deflated slowly, over the course of the hour or two it took to finally get down to the bay. It’s a fair mission to get in and down there– once you’ve watched your nine minute intro/safety video and queued up for your snorkelling gear–but then the water was seriously murky and lacking in fish. I saw a handful. Plus Abel is an experienced diver and I’ve snorkelled maybe twice. I had a blocked nose too, so that put a damper on things. It really wasn’t worth it and I wish Abel had told me sooner that he’d already been here before and thought the same things as me. I was expecting flourishing colours and an array of bright fishes and coral. That was not there.

All in all though, it was perfect. Our mind and bodies were thirsty for summer notions. Time was gradual and kind and we did all the beaching, eating, reading and drinking that we needed. Not that I could ever really get enough of those things.

The weather’s been exceptionally pleasant during our time in San Fran and Lafayette. I’ll be back at some point to talk about it. But, for now, get me a slice of that NY pizza (cause I don’t eat enough pizza as it is).

 

A

PS. If you made it to the end, hurray, and consider yourself lucky because my first draft was almost twice the size of this post. I also wanted to include photos (as I plan to be doing with most posts), but for some reason they wouldn’t upload and this would’ve sat in my drafts for too long.