Welcome to the windy city

I seem to bring bad weather to cities I visit. Severe coastal fog when I went to San Diego, thunderstorms in Austin, rain and low visibility (I think) in Charlotte. Now it’s exceptionally wet and cold in Chicago. And from asking the locals here it seems like today was purely freak weather because apparently it hasn’t rained for weeks. It just has to pour when I set foot on windy island. When the captain said that temperatures in Chicago are about 40+deg when we were about to land, I was a little jittery. 40+ in summer? Even with all the gusty winds, surely it’s not that cold? I had summer wear and only summer wear in my backpack, so I started thinking what’s the warmest combination I can possibly make out from my limited resources.

Thankfully it wasn’t half as bad as I anticipated. Though it was really wet today. I can’t quite wrap my head around how can there be that much rainfall to pour at one go. It didn’t even stop for one second through the whole day. And well, I wasn’t the only one annoyed having to walk on splashy streets and lug around a drippy umbrella all day. Guess Chicagoans don’t quite welcome rainy days.

I love this district that feels just like Walnut Street. Clad with boutique stores, fine dining, cafes, retail outlets and everything that you need to complete a stroll-down-the-street-and-window-shop experience. Literally window shop. I found myself staring through every full glass; on the same side of the street, the store names were out of sight to know what they carry. It was fun trying to figure out each store and registering everything eye candy-ish within the time I took to casually walk past the storefront.

Today’s pot of gold was discovering a rustic, second-hand bookstore. I have never seen anything quite like it; three full floors of books of every possible genre you can think of, with shelves marking out narrow walkways. Everything had an age to it – the books, the shelves, the furnishing, the walls, the stairs.. It just felt like stumbling upon a time capsule. I loved how their solid wooden shelves extended from the ground up to the ceiling, engulfing you as you walk through them. The feeling of being surrounded (literally) by books is just so invigorating, so soulful, so much bliss. Every inch of the store is covered with books. There’s so many to see, so much to pry your eyes on that it’s almost visually exhausting. It has every flavor that a bookstore should carry. And so I can’t quite blame myself for buying a book when I finally managed to get myself out of the store. The feeling when you clutch a book, the smell of the pages.. I think I could even live in a place like that.

I concluded that there’s actually three things you should always do when you travel, not two. 1) Take photos, 2) write, and, 3) read. I love my reading obsession, it fits snugly into the traveling scene. In another place, a different timezone, different people on the streets, and different skies. Already so surreal. Add a fiction book and you find yourself taking the streets as the backdrop of your imagination, superimposed onto reality.

Hopefully the weather holds up tomorrow so I can head out to get some clear skies and sunshine, and comb the city with dry shoes.

Oh and today’s fortune cookie says: You need a new environment. Go on vacation. Absolutely spot on. A change in environment really helps to add a bit of tastefulness to your everyday, You’d feel a little more alive and like you’re actually breathing.

I had a few hours to kill, so I thought why not take that few hours to indulge in a good book over a pike brew. I took a seat by the corner, my favorite kind of seat where I can lean against the wall and watch the world.

People kept coming in to get a dose of caffeine to jump start their day, so I paid little attention to the queue of customers and their chattering.

But there was this little girl and her mother that came in. In didn’t notice them at first, till the girl walked past me and took the seat opposite me by the window. I happened to glance up from my book when she walked by my table, and was greeted with a big warm polite smile.

Immediately I thought this girl must be very well-mannered. She looked approximately 6 or 7 years old, dressed in a denim jacket, black leggings and a puffy black skirt that resembled swan feathers. She wore bright pink socks with what seemed like ballet shoes, and carried an air of confidence with each step she took.

Her mother was still in queue for a coffee, I would guess, so she bravely decided to take a seat on her own while waiting. What I love most in children is their public display of carefreeness. I watched her take the window seat, sitting gingerly at the edge of her chair with her legs stretched out, as though she couldn’t care less if that was considered dainty or not as long as it was the most comfortable sitting posture.

She sat there quietly eating her muffin, curiously looking outside the window at pedestrians crisscrossing each others’ path along the streets. Her mom must have lent her phone; the little girl played with it occasionally, and when her mom came to the table with her drink, she immediately returned the phone to her mother even without being asked.

Her dad must be out of town, because he video called his little daughter. She took the phone from her mother, delighted to see her dad’s face. She carried and articulated herself well, speaking with a tinge of excitement and zest, recounting the day’s events.

They spent a few moments talking; I didn’t hear what the mother was saying, but the little girl obediently listened. Her mother stretched her hand out to her daughter across the table, and the little girl immediately understood, stretching out hers and held her mother’s hand. She seemed so mature for her young age, sitting across her mother at the same table without fidgeting or squirming in her seat, responding to her mother in some grown-up fashion.

Though they were sitting some distance from me, I could feel the warmth of their parent-child love. I witnessed bliss at its purest form, and happiness at its simplest moment.

That’s how life should be right?

Escapism at its best

The best part of traveling is exploration. You need to know where you’re going of course, but the actual route of getting around and finding your way is pure awesome. Watch where the crowds are heading, listen to what people are saying, talk. Ask for directions, get some recommendations of where you can get the best deal.

Challenge your less than perfect pseudo-American articulation as you ask bus drivers and passerbys for help, it’s part of the fun actually. Sometimes, you’ll get a weird facial expression as a response because your natural accent got the better of you and the poor chap has got no clue what you just said. Sometimes, you meet really nice people who tell you not just how to get around but even share a piece of their life story during your quick chat. Follow directional signs as they take you from place to place, or just roam the streets like a random stranger and walk into the first restaurant you see for brunch.

The little surprises that delights every waking moment, the adventure that awaits you at every corner. Loving it.

Moving on

Liverpool feels like one of those empty cities that the world has decided to leave behind, passerbys looking back occasionally to marvel at its history. Besides Anfield and museums, there really isn’t much here. Streets are broad, sometimes empty, clad with old bricked buildings. Pretty low population density, you don’t see crowded streets packed with commuters. Always a slow stream of pedestrians, or just a speckle of people across the streets.

It’s hard to imagine that this city was once richer than London with an incredible sea port trading industry. Everything is so quiet now, to the point that you’d start wondering where have all the people gone to. You catch tourists equipped with their DSLRs and their compacts firing away at tourist spots, but other than that, it seems like people who once lived here have moved on to somewhere else, leaving just a trickle of locals who still reside in this old city.

Go easy on the feet, but never on the tummy

You know your traveling itinerary is a bit too packed when you have to start backdating your blogging. I’ll get to that later.

Right now it’s chilling out with late night dinner/snacking, with a bit of time to write while the boys watch some crappy soccer lol. Imba vending machine spotted at the lobby, more awesome munchies tonight, I forsee.

New continent musings

Europe is so similar and yet so different from America. Residential districts are clad with low-rise, standalone houses spanned across spacious land masses, with more to go around than ever seemingly needed. You can feel the age of the place — old buildings tell you much of a city’s history, but yet it’s not quite the same kind of oldish feel as in America.

I’d always thought of Ireland as a country that is rustic and flavorful, covered with grassy landscapes and populated with people carrying deep, rich culture. And beer of course.

Dublin seems to fit that picture. Love how perpetually every house follows this template of bricky, low-rise terrace rows with arc doorways and brightly-coloured doors. Bold colours seem pretty much in favour; dull streets in monotone sometimes have a couple of striking structures installed — shophouses with tinted colour glasses or residential blocks with bright yellow doors.

People speak in deep, rich languages that I don’t understand, but their intonations and exuberance somehow creates a sense of grandeur and pride. Like how I enjoyed listening to people articulate French in Montreal like it’s some kind of tune, the myriad of languages I’m hearing everyday along the streets is music to my ears.

This Ain’t Goodbye

It really doesn’t feel like I’ve traveled for almost 3 weeks. And I can’t believe this will be last night of my solo adventure.

You know, I could really get use to this kinda nomadic lifestyle. I guess it took an initial period to get used to the irrational concerns and fears of traveling solo, like having a major flight/accommodation screw-up, meeting weird people, or getting into sticky situations. And having an imaginative mind really doesn’t help cos you’ll start coming up with all sorts of possible scenarios like getting robbed, falling off a trail, fainting from hunger pangs, or getting stalked by some weirdo. And the list goes on and on.

I think after the first week of traveling I got the hang of things and got more settled in moving around and about pretty smoothly. And as the time when on I get less creeped out by those bad catastrophic scenarios my brain likes to postulate.

Of course when I get to a new city I’d usually start off being more cautious and checking out and exploring nearby areas first before venturing further out during the subsequent days. I’m pretty glad that I did my homework and spent those late nights before the trip reading online resources and planning my trip itinerary and details. It was a grueling process to plan city after city, especially having 7 cities to deal with in total. But it was good to have done that because it really takes away a lot of unnecessary stress and concerns when you’re traveling. Typically I’d be pretty tired out by the end of each day; imagine having to plan the next day’s stuff from scratch every night – I think by the first or second week I’d call it quits already. It spoils all the enjoyment of your trip and if you start dreading your days, then that’s not a holiday anymore.

I’m actually pretty surprised by how smooth things went during these 3 weeks. Apparently I got to all my destinations in one piece, never overslept, had all my flights being pretty much on time, went to most attractions/places that I really want to go as planned, and did not lose anything (lol). Biggest surprise is that my backpack has about just as much stuff as I started off. I thought by the second or third city by backpack would be overflowing and I’d be dying trying to squeeze everything in. I did a good job refraining myself from impulsive purchases (I’d remind myself – NO SPACE IN MY CARRYON). I bought a couple of useless things as usual, but nothing very big so thankfully my backpack’s not screaming from suffocation.

This trip has proven how much you can really do in just three weeks. Every city was awesome in its own way and people treated me well. I guess it was a bit of luck too that everything went well and met some really nice people along the journey.

It was a good decision to write; writing is like doing AAR on a daily basis. A lot of thoughts and memories get lost because they don’t get recorded down somewhere and it’s sometimes such a waste. The best thing about writing is that you’ll think through the day’s happenings and try to pick out all the little bits that made it eventful and special. And you’d realize they don’t have to be big spectacular stuff. Today I went back to the same restaurant for dinner because I loved the food (and mini desserts) there too much. I had another round of scrumptous food and when I was footing the bill, the waiter drew a smiley face on my receipt. I almost LOLed. The little things that make you laugh/smile and brighten your day. Even running into someone in the lift that’s staying on the same floor as me in the hotel gave me a good laugh, especially when that guy started calculating the probability of having 2 people in the same lift going to the same floor (except the ground floor), lol stats geek.

I now also realize how much I miss the outdoors. Combed Greenlake Park in Seattle, hiked Lands End and biked across Golden Gate to Sausalito in SF, biked the lake trails and city area in Austin… I can definitely say that the most enjoyable parts of this trip were all the outdoor activities and explorations on foot/bike. More than determined to get my knee back up in good condition because that’s really all that’s stopping me from running/biking/hiking.

Give me another chance and I’ll definitely backpack solo again. So soulful and so enriching; you’d feel like your hearts all filled up with a million happy and epic moments that blew you away. Glad that I took a leap of faith and went on this adventure.

P.S. I think I’ll continue writing still, even after this trip ends. Writing’s highly addictive.

More than meets the eye

Today, my perspective of Austin changed 180 degrees.

When I first arrived at Austin, I was honestly not having the most comfortable feeling. Austin is known for being a very culturally-unique city, it’s slogan “Keep Austin Weird” says it all. I read a lot online about this city and I guess I got a bit freaked out by what people were saying. Night music scene is probably what Austin is most famous for, and many travelers who visited Austin told their stories about all the scary things that go on along the streets. Downtown was often described as not being the safest of places, and how peddlers can be aggressive and offensive to passerbys. 

After reading all that, I obviously couldn’t feel totally at ease when I came here. Of course there were pro-Austin reviews and write ups too that described Austin to be just as safe as any other city.

Having said that, you must be thinking why then did I decide to visit Austin? I came here for only one reason — culture. I’m a music junkie and the fact that this is the world’s most famous place for live music bought my heart. I did my homework, of course, and though there were much negative reviews of especially Old Pecan Street that’s filled with famous bars and pubs, there were things I read too that convinced me there must be more to than just what people say. Take extra caution I will, but visit I must.

I figured two things:

1. Any US city has its own dangers. Even any city in this world has its fair share of dangers, for that matter. I have visited 5 cities already on this trip and I cannot confidently say that any one of them is entirely safe. Every city has its safe regions and its shady dangerous ones. Some have more, some have less. Most US cities are clad with peddlers, baskers and homeless people on the street. Poor attitude towards them is merely digging your own grave. From past experiences, politely declining them usually suffices. Most will even thank you for your consideration and wish you well.

2. Any place or area that has sale of alcoholic drinks will mean possibility of meeting drunk people. Under the influence of alcohol, anything can happen. Anything. Hanging around places with pubs and bars at 2am alone is of course potentially troublesome and dangerous. I don’t actually think that Old Pecan Street is any more dangerous or unsafe than places like Gaslamp District in San Diego. It’s the same anywhere and so I figured the best to deal with this is not to put yourself in a spot in the first place. I have seen Old Pecan Street in the evening, it’s not at all scary like what people describe; it’s just like any other pub street.

The more I see of Austin, the more things clear up and the better I feel. I’ve had some misconceptions of this place and was honestly over-paranoid. I have seen downtown and yes, like any other city, it gets quiet in the day but near sunset onwards, lots of working class people stroll the streets and dine at restaurants in the area.

Biking the lake trail and several areas of the city made me change my view of Austin even more. I’d wonder where do all the people go in the day, and then I found out that everyone’s picnicking at parks, going for walks or bikes along the lake or taking a dip at Barton Spring Pool. That part of the city is awesomely beautiful. I thought Greenlake Park in Seattle was going to be the nicest lake I’ve seen, but Lady Bird Lake in Austin can definitely put up a good fight. The trail is so, so gorgeous and so natural with trees hanging over the dirt path and rocks by the lakeside.

Austin is extremely bike-friendly (as I have read about). People bike everywhere and it’s so cool that in certain parts of the city, they have designated lanes just for bikers. And mind you, these bike lanes aren’t the narrow ones you’d see while biking across Golden Gate Bridge. Urban planners ain’t stingy at all; bike lanes can be almost as wide as car lanes (of course they’re a little narrower, bikes are so slim). You’d feel privileged as a biker in Austin. Pedestrians and drivers alike respect and look out for bikers, the pavements in the city area aren’t that cluttered with people so it’s surprisingly acceptable to bike on pavements. Even on the road, cars are mindful when people bike on the road and people here seem pretty patient and easy-going. I usually avoid biking along road shoulders if I can but in many cities you have to bike on roads because it’s actually more dangerous to bike on pedestrian pavements with the immense number of people walking around. In Austin it’s really enjoyable to bike on the roads. There aren’t many cars in the city during the day so many a times almost the whole road is to yourself, which is pretty awesome. Cars generally give way to you and slow down if they come behind you (and that always makes me paiseh and try to speed up).

The weekend is here and I can feel the streets becoming more lively, it’s nice. I usually tend to have not-very-pleasant impressions of cities that look old and a little crummy. Many parts of Austin I’ve seen looks like that, but what I have come to learn is that an old-looking city doesn’t imply that the people are weird/dangerous/bad. In fact I get the feeling that Austin’s actually a lot safer than many other cities I’ve been to (of course excluding areas with highly drunk people at 3am). You don’t see as many homeless and druggy-kinda people around. And most don’t even bother about you.