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All that jazz

Emmanuel picked me up from New Orleans bus station at 7am Wednesday.  Interesting guy, older than the other couchsurfer hosts I’ve stayed with.  In contrast to Bernado’s immaculate new house, Emmanuels is a well lived in and cluttered with stuff.  The fridge definitely needed a clean out.  A house with character, infact the whole of New Orleans has a lot of character.  Unlike many identikit American cities, you know when you’re in New Orleans, from the Spanish moss draped trees to the constant jazz.

Emmanuel works in a casino near the French quarter, so I got a lift in to there every day.  The French quarter around Jackson square is the heart of New Orleans, loaded with street performers and musicians, and I happily spent most of my three days wandering among them.  Royal street is packed with art shops, the whole long street is pretty much one long art gallery you can wonder in and out of for free.  Emmanuel also got me into the aquarium and insectarium for free.  It’s carnival season, with mardi gras arriving soon and dozens of parades marching through the streets in the weeks leading up to it.  While New Orleans may be a city overflowing with culture, it’s also the poorest place in America I’ve been to yet.  Walk just a couple of blocks outside the French quarter and things get ghetto real quickly.

On Friday I went on a boat tour of the bayou (or swamps) though as it was cold and wet and most of the wildlife was hiding it was somewhat of an underwhelming experience considering the price tag.  Friday night a couple of his friends came round, one of whom is an award winning barman who made us some beautiful cocktails.  Then we got stoned and watched youtube videos.

My last day I was approached by three guys amongst a crowd outside of some hip hop expo. ‘Thanks for not being scared of black guys’ they said as they gave me some cds and dvds supposedly from the event.  Though I soon realised it was just a con when they asked for a donation and suddenly forgot about the ‘change’ they’d promised they could give back.  Just when I think I’m a savvy traveller who knows how to avoid a scam I go and walk into that.  My only consolation is it was a $20 I lost rather than the initial $100 I first pulled out my pocket and then stuffed back in.

Ending on a positive note, Emmanuel and I went to watch a star wars themed parade, the krewe of Chewbachus.  It took two whole hours to go past, and was loaded with every variation on a  scifi theme as you’d wish to see.  It ended with the men in black telling us we hadn’t just witnessed a star wars parade and had instead seen swamp gas reflecting the light of venus.

Houston

Houston greyhound bus shelter is in a rough area!  I took shelter in McDonalds until my new couch surfing host Bernardo picked me up.  Bernardo’s place by complete contrast; is a very nice neat and tidy new house out in the suburbs.  Just as good as any hotel I could have found but for free.  Plus he even took a couple of days off work to show me round Houston.

The only thing I really knew about Houston was this is where NASA’s Johnson space centre is located, so that was first on my list of things to do.  You can take a tour to see the original mission control room, in use until 1992, from where all the moon landings were directed.  You can also see one of the astronaut training areas where they practise in mock ups of the ISS and even the upcoming Orion missions, which are one day hoped to take people to Mars.

Yesterday we started with a walk around McGovern Centennial Gardens.  The museum of natural sciences was next to it, so we went in to see if there was anything we could see without paying the $25 entrance fee.  Then it turned out that Bernardo knew someone working there who got us in for free, win!  Their palaeontology section is one of the best I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen quite a few!

Dallas

I had to swap buses at Amarillo again.  I didn’t fancy sitting in the bus station for two and a half hours so headed out into town.  Amarillo is an uninspiring place, but I did find a bar I could sit at for a couple of beers.  Back in England I’d never go into a pub on my own, but here it’s OK, you can sit at the bar and if it’s not busy the barman will take the time to chat to you.

My bus got into Dallas at 5am Thursday.  Fortunately my couchsurfing host Zeke was already awake and messaged me the details of the bus to his.  So I was at Zeke’s place and ready to crash by 6:30am.  He also has the comfiest couch I’ve stayed on!
His housemate Marou worked at a Mexican restaurant round the corner, and got a message that CNN where filming there and they wanted more people in to make the place look busy.  I still don’t know what the story was about, but we got food and margarita’s, and even got a couple of drinks on the house when CNN needed to film some people at the bar!  Zeke turned up later after work.  He’s a cool guy, has hosted loads of couch surfers and takes the time to hang out with them whenever he’s not busy.
On the Friday I got a bus into town, where I discovered that Dallas is the city in which JFK was assassinated.  The building from which Lee Harvey Oswald shot him is now a museum.  Naturally there’s people setting up stalls on the grassy knoll, trying to flog their conspiracy theory books.

The sand dripping through the hourglass

So I’ve done it, I just paid for a TEFL course.  My original plan was taking a course in Thailand, but my dad mentioned he’d seen some TEFL courses in Leicester so I checked them out.  It’s a mainly online course with a weekend classroom part.  Plus it was far cheaper at £190.  Normally it’s £380 and the half price offer was meant to last only till the end of January.  It was the 1st Feb, so I bought it straight away before anyone realised and changed the price.

Buying the TEFL course was kind of the decision making moment for me in that I was taking the first step towards teaching abroad.  Oddly enough, once I’d bought the course I suddenly got cold feet.  Going back to GOSH could have had me back in my own place with employment by the end of April.  The teaching option would see me probably spending four months at my parents place in between returning from Cayman and heading back out again to finally get work.  But mainly I’m just scared of the time passing.  I’d still like to settle down and have children, and now I’m most definitely in my mid-thirties I’m worried about putting that off, even if it’s for another year or two.  Of course I currently have no one willing to settle down and have children with me but I’d at least be in a position to start looking!  And that’s really my only fear, other than that teaching in Asia for a year or two sounds like great fun.  It’s just time, time is the most valuable thing we have.
My plan was to carry on travelling until I had so had my fill that I’d feel I was no longer missing out on anything by returning to England and settling down.  Up until now I’ve still had the fire of wanting to keep moving from place to place.  It would be a bit of a waste if I lost the passion for travel just as I’ve paid for a course in order to help me do that.

Cowboys and aliens

It was a seventeen hour long uneventful ride by Greyhound bus to get to Roswell, swapping at Amarillo, Texas.  The only noteworthy thing was a group of Baptists at the station going round praying for people.  They asked me if they could pray for me.  I don’t believe praying for anything alters the chance of it happening, but it’s all well-meaning so I said yes they could.  It’s not the kind of thing that’s likely to happen to you back in England, so when in Texas do as the Texans do.

What I’ve seen of New Mexico so far has all been flat, brown and rather uninspiring.  The main crop I saw on the way down was miles upon miles of wind turbines.  Gary met me at the bus station.  There was a French couple here when I first arrived, but since they left it’s just us two.  Gary’s cool, an old firefighter who’s now retired and drifting from one state to the other.  He’s got the old school cowboy moustache, likes country and western and comes from a republican family, but is much more liberal..  I’ve come to think of him as the ‘liberal redneck’ (also the name of a comedian, check it out).
The house and the two llamas, six goats, four cats, eleven chickens and two ducks we’re caring for belong to Karen. She left a couple of weeks back in protest of Trump becoming president and is now travelling India.
It’s a nice house, no central heating but it has a wood fire that’s currently burning.  And pictures and figures of dragons everywhere, the more I look the more I see.  And a very extensive library of sci-fi, astronomy and UFO related material.  There’s not a lot to do around the place other than feeding the animals, so I’ve been looking around the place for work in between wasting my time reading the news on my phone.  So far I’ve built up the compost area, dug over the vegetable bed, swept up the goat droppings, chopped some firewood and cleared the area of old rusty nails with a magnet.
Every day at 4 we have Happy hour where we drink whisky and coke and have homemade crackers.  Tuesday we went out for Taco Tuesday at a local restaurant.  90 cent tacos and fried ice cream!

Roswell is a sprawling town six miles from our house with no clearly defined centre and is of course famous for just one thing.  ‘The best thing that never happened to Roswell’ as Gary and I have termed it; the stories of the crash back in 1947 haven’t done the town any harm.  I may be a sceptic, but that didn’t stop me biking to the ‘International UFO museum and research centre’.  Oddly enough there are no genuine artefacts from the crash!  Gary tells me Karen has also worked as a journalist and interviewed some of the people who claim to have seen the crashed spaceship.

Proper Old

I’m thirty five today, well into my mid thirties!  The friends I’ve made over the past year are mainly in Asia, so the birthday messages started coming in mostly yesterday.  It’s been a quiet one, just a few whisky and cokes with Gary, the one other guy at this house, but I’m completely happy with that.  I’m now at my new workaway in Roswell.  It’s a rustic place on the outskirts of the town where my sole duties are making sure the chickens, goats and llamas are fed.  Other than that I’ve been digging up the compacted soil of an old vegetable bed.

Really about time I started applying for things if I’m to take this teaching overseas idea seriously.  A couple of people have recommended applying to EPIK if I want to teach in Korea.  And I’m considering taking a TEFL course in Thailand in April.  Whatever I want to do, application dates are looming, I should decide in the next few days…

Into the wild

We were hoping the weather would clear as we got further south, but as we reached Williams on Monday night it was still snowing.  Not liking the idea of another night of freezing camping, Lee offered to pay for a motel, and I wasn’t about to argue with him!
But the snow storm seemed intent on following us.  The following morning it swept in as we were on the road down towards camp verde.  We turned in to a gas station, almost convinced the road trip would have to end there.  But we moved on, and in ten minutes the snowstorm was gone.  In another ten there was no snow on the ground at all, and you’d never guess just a few miles north the other half of Arizona was engulfed in a blizzard.

Lee planned to take us to where we could camp at some hot springs near camp verde a couple of years before.  We arrived at the gate to find it closed and a ‘road closed’ sign.  I looked at it dubiously, but Lee was positive we could still go down, saying the springs were just three or four miles down the track.  So we drove…
And drove…
And it was always ‘probably just around the corner’ and then it emerged that Lee had been ‘asleep for most of the journey there and back’ so he wasn’t quite sure.
Twenty three miles later of dirt road that got progressively worse we were almost there.  The sstate of the road left us worried about whether we’d get back ok in a two wheel drive, especially if it rained, so we opted to park the car and camp at a lookout spot a couple of miles from the campsite and walk the rest of it.
For two nights we had the entire valley to ourselves!  On the Wednesday I spotted some people rafting down the river, but other than that we could well have been the only people for a dozen miles in any direction.  I don’t think I’ve ever had the chance to be that isolated before.  We took a hike down to the springs, which were on the other side of the river, now higher in winter time than they had been during the summer when Lee had visited.  After several attempts to cross, we called it a day, relaxed in the sun, and hiked back.

On the way back we took the route through Sedona.  Originally I’d planned on getting a couchsurfing host here and spending a few days but they were all full, so a brief drive through with stops to photograph the magnificent red rock formations would have to do.  Then our last call was at the Baringer crater.  50,000 years ago a rock impacted the earth at an estimated twelve kilometres a second, leaving a crater 550 feet deep and nearly a mile wide.  It’s the best preserved meteor crater on earth, and the first crater to have been confirmed as caused by a meteor back in 1960.

Lee and I said our goodbyes outside a hostel in Flagstaff.  I had a full day in Flagstaff before my bus to Roswell left at 9:10pm, so went to visit the Lowell observatory, famous for being the observatory from which Pluto was discovered. The hostel was cool and let me hang out there even after I’d checked out. I ended the day with Thai food, followed an hour later by Mexican food and beer with a guy I met at the hostel.  I was completely stuffed.

Blizzard!

Our first stop in Arizona was the magnificent Hoover Dam, source of both electricity and water for much of the surrounding area.  One side of it touches Nevada, the other Arizona, and it’s the first time I’ve been able to walk from one time zone to another.
The original plan was to make it all the way from Vegas to the Grand Canyon in one day before the snow storm reached it first.  But it was dark halfway there, and we stopped at a little town for food at the ‘Road Kill Café’.  The café is decorated with trophy heads and the menu has many creative variations on ‘roadkill’ but even that place has a veggie burger.  There was another two and a half hours of driving to be done through the dark on pot hole filled roads, and the barmaid suggested leaving it till the next day instead, even if it was snowing.
Fortunately there was a campsite down the road.  Lee slept in the tent.  I slept in the car as best as I could.  The stars were out in a cloudless sky as I snuggled down in a sleeping bag stretched across the back.  Come morning the campsite was covered in snow.  Lee took it extra careful on the road up to the grand canyon.  It’s unfortunate that a lot of our trip through some of the most spectacular of the USAs landscapes took place in weather that obscured the scenery and made driving tense.

Grand Canyon Village is a complex of visitor centres, hotels, campsites and shops on the south rim of the canyon.  I’ve been told it’s swarming with tourists during the summer, though we most definitely arrived off peak.  The campsite was empty except for one campervan and us.  We had to dig out a space in the snow for our tent and car with a shovel.
The following day the snow storm continued.  I had every layer of warm clothing on that I owned, including wearing one pair of trousers over my other pair, than three pairs of socks and my big walking boots.  For months my walking boots had been the heaviest thing I was lugging round the world with me, and completely impractical in hot countries were they were too hot and heavy, tending to look like a pair of cartoon boots when I was in shorts and t-shirt.  Now in over a foot of snow, they were finally essential.
We trudged through the snow to the rim trail.  And there was the canyon.  Its just as spectacular as its hyped up to be, but half an hour later it was obscured by the snow clouds.
The previous night had been freezing, and the weather report said the next nights were going to be worse, with the weather not expected to lift until Wednesday. The forest surrounding grand canyon look beautiful in the snow, and normally I’d be happy with that, but the spectacular snowscape the blizzard brought was hiding the even more spectacular landscape of the canyon.   I had pictured spending a least a couple of days hiking the grand canyon with magnificent views all around, so half an hour of seeing it before the snow clouds descended again was somewhat of a disappointment.  But in balance we were probably better of heading south to camp verde early than wait around freezing for a couple of days in the hope of conditions improving.  So we packed up the tent and left…

Viva Las Vegas

My original plan to get across the USA involved buses, lots and lots of buses.  So when Lee said he’d like to join me as far as the grand canyon I was happy to have some company.  Plus it meant that for the first part of my travels across America I would not be restricted to whatever cities Greyhound bus goes to.  A snow storm was headed to Nevada, so Lee and I began our road trip on a Wednesday a day earlier than originally planned.  The first step on our trip was the hot springs up in the hills near Bridgeport.  The snow was already deep and the road there was soon broken by potholes and ditches.
‘I don’t think we’re going to make it,’ I said, ‘let’s just walk’.
‘It’s at least a mile, we can make it,’ Lee said.
‘It’s a bad idea, you’ll get stuck…’
Lee went for it anyway.  It was a bad idea, we got stuck.  He attempted to reverse us back out but couldn’t quite make it.  Fortunately we weren’t waiting for long, as help appeared in the form of a couple in a big four wheeler with a tow rope.  Car pulled out, we continued the rest of the way by foot.
The springs began as a stream of hot water running in a line along a ridge, before pouring into a series of pools.  I changed into my swim shorts in the freezing cold, made my way as quickly as I could across the snow, and bathed in the hottest of the pools.  Lovely, especially on such a cold winters day, but the snow storm was approaching, and we couldn’t stay long or else risk not making it out of the mountains.

Lee was tired so I took over the driving for half an hour.  It’s been a long time since I drove regularly, but it was the best possible road I could have hoped for; straight, well maintained and utterly empty.  I didn’t see another vehicle in either direction for at least half an hour.  This is what I imagined when I pictured an American road trip; just so much space, miles upon miles of empty desert, scrub and mountains.  Compared to the USA England just feels cramped.
We were halfway to Vegas by nightfall.  We considered sleeping in the car, before deciding on a motel.  I must be getting fussy as I get older, opting to pay a little for the comfort of not sleeping in a proper bed!  I’d previously imagined motels as being not particularly classy, but this one was nice.  They’re basically just hotels where you can drive up to the front.
An hour into the drive the following day the front left tire blew out along an empty stretch of road heading through death valley.  It’s been a long time since I did car maintenance of any sort, but fortunately Lee had a spare tire, a jack and knew what to do.  We hoisted up the car, wrestled the new tyre on, and then made it to Beatty where a used tyre was fitted.  Nevada is a very sparsely populated state, aside from Vegas and Reno it seems to be mainly desert peppered with the very occasional small town.  Before this trip I’d mainly just been to the big cities of America, so I was interested to finally see small town USA.  We passed through a couple of ghost towns and trailer parks.  A whole village can be off the track in the usa in a way that just isn’t possible in the UK

We made it to Las Vegas that night.  I’d never imagined Vegas being my scene; I have no interest in gambling and am happy drinking in some small country bar as the trendiest uptown one.  A big Vegas weekend was not on my budget. That said, the Vegas strip is well worth a walk down, just to see the many wonderful shapes the hotels have been made into, featuring Luxor, a  giant pyramid the same size as the ones in Egypt, Camelot, a fairy-tale castle, and New York, New York, featuring unsurprisingly a scaled down skyline of New York with a rollercoaster threading through it.  We discovered a bar that made chocolate cocktails.  We finished the night in Coyote Ugly, which is a good place to get distracted in.

On the Friday we took a drive to the Red Rock Canyon.  We drove along the scenic loop road, at least it would have been the scenic loop road if a snow storm hadn’t started as we arrived and cloaked most of it in cloud!
That night we got a ticket to the Blue Man group.  This is basically three men painted blue who do drumming with all kinds of crazy things, plumbing, paints etc.  It’s far funnier and entertaining than I’m making it sound.  On the way back we had one last drink at an outside bar.  Two strawberry daiquiris, which proved to be the most expensive drinks I’ve ever bought.  If I ever get a bill like that again, I’m just going to run.

Gotta get ready for the real world

Reno's chief attraction is casinos, which really don't appeal to me at all.  Add to that that i've visited the city before, and i don't have the urge to run around exploring like i do in most places i visit.  So i've been content with board games, butterbeer and dog walking in the snow.

With spare time on my hands i've finally started researching my options for after i finish my travels.  My number one plan was to teach English overseas.  I was told that some schools in Korea didn't require the TEFL certificate, which i don't have, but i'm struggling to find any.  So it looks like realistically i'd have to do a TEFL course, which costs a mimimum $1000 even when done online.  It's an option i'm considering, but i'm wondering if i'm really that enthusiastic about teaching to justify the cost and time of the course.

I've been searching different options all afternoon and its giving me a headache.  Some recruiting companies sound good, only for an online search to reveal that many users consider them a scam.  Am I that set on the teaching abroad idea, or is it time to let the overseas dream die and go with my fall back idea of applying to Great Ormond Street.

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Back again, taking a break from all the TEFL reading i've been doing.  I've just seen that the next assessment for HCAs at GOSH is on 19 april, which would fit in perfectly with my return to the UK.  Strange how the opportunities that would once have made me excited now leave me a bit meh.
With hindsight i could have done a TEFL course online back when i was working at GOSH, and have bought my documents ready to apply for any job during this set of travels.  But of course when i set off i'd imagined coming back to London after a year.  All this travel has left me spoilt, I feel like *stamps feet* why can't i have my TEFL qualification and a cool teaching job lined up in Asia NOW!