Snakes, Zombie farms and rather a lot about Voodoo

In New Orleans, I added my cultured yet extremely un-mingled racial profile into the hot pot of muddled human history. Choctaw and Houmas were the main Native American Indian tribes, until the French and Spanish colonial periods, and African slaves were shipped here in the 18th century. Even following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 (when America bought the land from the French), and as settlers continued to move west, it is fair to say that New Orleans was always far removed from Anglo-Saxon New England. Now, as a flavourful stock pot of French, Cajun, Creole, Spanish, Native American, African, Mexican, multi-religious and tourist-rich influences which make up the unique American city, it remains uniquely removed in many ways.

One uniqueness that conjures up myth, misunderstanding, fantasy and spiritual intrigue, is Voodoo. Prominently referenced in a multitude of ways, it can be seen as a religion, cultural tradition, as an exploited, commercialised money maker, a tediously-linked yet fascinating (for some) section of the modern entertainment industry, as a lifestyle, and in art. Running through the pulsing veins of New Orleans, it is still practiced in sections of communities, and Voodoo traditions run deep into the legacy of the American south.
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All over the world and throughout history, Christians have spread the word of their god through missionary work, and expected the people they invaded, exploited or enslaved to adopt their faith. The French colony of Louisiana was no different, and Africans were not only forced into slavery, but forbidden from worshipping in the ways they had done for centuries. Voodoo priests began incorporating their own gods alongside Catholic saints, and although appearing to be practicing Catholicism, Africans often turned to the familiar spirits of their ancestors to help them during their enslavement. Performing rituals using the items and imagery of the Catholic Church was confusing, and as with many historic, religious responses to lifestyles and spiritual practices which are foreign to their society’s norm, Voodoo quickly gained an unpleasant reputation.

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White settlers came to associate Voodoo with the violence of slave uprisings, as well as embrace many unfounded rumours which demonised the spiritual religion. It became known for devil worship, animal sacrifice, torture, cannibalism and malevolent magic. Violence in places such as Haiti was extreme, and although Haitian slavery ended in the early 1800s, “Voodooists” were often persecuted by authorities. Eradicating native races was not the only thing on the agenda of many white settlers; foreign religion which arrived with African slaves was on that list too. Another tick in the box for the westernised freedom of American culture, racial equality, and for the forgiving/understanding nature of Christianity.

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Although enslaved, persecuted, humiliated and misconstrued, Voodoo practitioners consider themselves Catholics, and some see the saints and spirits to be one and the same. However some use the Catholic accoutrements primarily for appearance, and keeping up appearances can often paint a vague picture. Although there are similarities, Louisiana Voodoo is often confused with Haitian Voodoo or southern Hoodoo: it differs in its emphasis upon Li Grand Zombi (snake deity), as well as things such as Gris-gris, voodoo queens, and the use of Hoodoo occult paraphernalia. It was through Louisiana Voodoo that Voodoo dolls were introduced to America, and due to the commercialisation and the association with all things sinister, these have misrepresented the faith ever since they appeared.

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Most practitioners of Voodoo typically do not use pins or knives in Voodoo dolls and when they are used, they focus on positive ways of healing symptoms such as depression, stress, anxiety and loneliness. Voodoo is not a form of the Black Arts, and incorporates a karma system; using dolls to hex your disliked acquaintances is inadvisable and would have unpleasant karmic repercussions.

Voodoo is believed to originate from West Africa. Benin still has about four million adherents and it is also practiced in the Caribbean and South America. Sadly, with the extremely volatile end to the slave trade, negative propaganda linked Voodoo to the violence. It also vilified race-hatred, and in turn conjured up the sinister associations of bloody animal sacrifices, evil zombies, dolls stuck with pins, and naked dancers wrapped in snakes, shaking their possessed shapes in the shadows to the rhythm of African drums. I do wonder what African tribes would have thought of Christian hymns, had they stumbled into a church while trying to kidnap a country’s population to enslave them back on an African cassava farm.

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Reputations are often deserved however – rhythm and dance are some of the many ways used to communicate with the Voodoo spirits. Africans obviously thought spirits responded better to funky, animal-involved, barefoot dancing to drum and bass, whereas Anglo-Saxons assumed singing relatively melancholy hymns accompanied by a large organ was often more appropriate. Unsurprisingly, with a Snake as Voodoo’s main deity, they feature in spiritual rituals, and as snakes are often seen as a deceitful symbols in other religions, it isn’t hard to understand how conclusions over Voodoo rituals were so easily misconceived.

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Voodoo likely evolved from ancient ancestor worship and animism, and although some rituals involve animal sacrifices, this is hardly unique – bloodletting is historically documented in Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism.

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Voodoo is a guiding force in the communities where it is practiced and Priests are prominent and respected figures as they have strong connections with the spirits. They are expected to perform many social functions, and through music, dance, readings, prayer, spiritual baths, devised diets, and personal ceremony, spirits are called on to provide practical solutions to life’s problems – heal the sick, feed the hungry, help the needy, cure anxiety, addiction, depression, loneliness, and other ailments. Much like every other religion in the history of mankind.

The core beliefs of Louisiana Voodoo include the recognition of one God who does not interfere in people’s daily lives. Spiritual forces and the dead can be kind or mischievous, and are able to shape the daily lives of followers…much like your conscience. The Voodoo serpent represents “healing knowledge and the connection between Heaven and Earth”…which, in every faith, gives meaning to life. The main focus of Louisiana Voodoo today is to serve others and influence the outcome of life events through the connection with nature, spirits, and ancestors…much like tribal or Native American Indian beliefs.

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The global phenomenon of zombies and the Voodoo element of animal sacrifice, are the more sensational aspects of Voodoo which are fine examples of how a religious element can be taken out of context.
Countless television shows and films have always succeeded to paint Voodoo as sinister and “dark”. Original zombies were not villains but victims, and were said to be people brought back from the dead (and sometimes controlled) by magical priests called bokors. The word Zombi simply described a human form after the soul had left the body. Zombification was used to strike fear in those who believed that they could be abused even after death, however I think even this was taken out of context as I read that zombies were even used as slave labor on farms. As much as I’m sure that some plantation owners would have wanted human forms, lacking self-awareness, intelligence or a soul working out in the fields, it is odd that I found no concrete evidence (in historic texts, or in person across America) of this actually happening!

Stripping sacred objects and rituals out of their original context for commercial exploitation is nothing new: Native American dream catchers made in China for sale at gas stations, or mass-produced African art or weapons sold online as “genuine imitations”. Unsurprisingly, Voodoo has also become a prominent part of the capitalising tourism industry in New Orleans.

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The commercialised, “Hollywood” Voodoo has again, misrepresented the faith and many fundamentalist Christians (and other religions) still regard Voodoo with suspicion; associating it with the occult, black magic and Satanism. Voodoo is often used as an adjective to describe something that is unknown, mysterious, and sinister, and in 1980 even George Bush famously disparaged Ronald Reagan’s monetary policies as “voodoo economics”. I imagine Reagan gained a few followers…

Voodoo has a largely undeserved, sinister reputation, and it is both ironic and unsurprising that it is best-known for its most sensational features. Although they have been rather tediously popularised, they have little to do with Voodoo practices or its belief system. The aspects of Voodoo which are so prominent in pop culture, are indeed extreme, but they are predominantly misconceived inventions to a) strike fear into non-followers (mainly the Christians who believed their faith should be followed by the people they enslaved) and b) stimulate “Hollywood” fantasy stories. I also find it ironic, that most Voodoo practitioners consider themselves (albeit not orthodox) Catholic.

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Next time you see a naked woman dancing in the dark by a fire cradling a snake above her head, you may want to pause (note that you’re not at the Burning Man festival), and think about her starving family or depressed husband, before assuming she’s lost her marbles and is about to jam scissors into the doll you think she acquired at the dollar store.

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Diversity and Division

To avoid any ambiguity, below, I will say “race-specific”, and I mean Black and Hispanic Americans. There are a multitude of varying and mingled races in North America, non of which are any more or less important than the next. Even though I am putting more than one race under the ‘race-specific’ umbrella, the slightest similarity between races is no reason to paint anyone with the same brush. Any manufactured or true statistical evidence of any racial commentary on the United States has not been sourced. This is my experience.

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Although nobody would like to admit the stark reality of what the result of most natural disasters around the world are: the wealthy recover, and the poor get poorer. Even in the democratic land of the free, this is clearly evident, and New Orleans is no exception. Relative to the rest of the country, throughout a recovering city community, it is impossible not to recognise large scale, race-specific poverty.

The hurricanes that the south of the country are susceptible to are not the sole reason for any noticeable, rich/poor divide. However, it is fair to say that, as well as in some other areas in the US, which are also susceptible to extreme weather (e.g. the tornado-riddled mid-west and seasonal, frozen areas in the north), weather can play a major part in the development of an economy and ultimately, a community’s wealth.
Although climate, and as a result, farming and slave trade history contributed to the popularised south region, weather does not directly account for todays evident concentration of race-specific American poverty, however it does play a part in the life, or rather death, of the people that live there.

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Nowhere else in the country does a city bury their deceased above ground. Due to the water levels that New Orleans must respect, burying under ground would cause huge problems should flooding occur. When Katrina hit, graves were destroyed by the storm, the peaceful dead were no longer at peace, and coffins floated disturbingly in the water. As uncomfortable as death may be for many, and due to regular flooding, the city has some rather unique and beautiful graveyards.

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Other parts of the country were reminded of the horrors in New Orleans which Katrina left in her wake. I met people in Texas that welcomed evacuees into their home; people housed strangers who had everything destroyed in the storm, including their place of work, and colleges not only had to find space for pupils to study after their education centres were destroyed, but double the amount of people sleeping in their dorm rooms.

Of course, every city has rich and poor, every city across the world has different cultures, races, classes, political views, differing lifestyles, and these to some degree, can all be broadly attributed to their climate and geography (normally the reason why people chose to settle somewhere). However, apart from snippets in Texas, I have visited less than a handful of cities in the US in nineteen states – $6 a day isn’t a very comfortable budget in any city.

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Concentrated, race-specific poverty in the south is mainly rooted to the slave trade. It shackled people to the US and enslaved them into some of the most unimaginable conditions and despicable human treatment in modern history. Located in the southern (slave) states of Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina (and all the slave states before 1860 which included Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas), cotton was the main product of forced labour. The southern states were also where the American civil war was mainly fought, over secession from the northern states, which were anti-slavery and wanted to stop the spread of “slave farms” into the mid-west.

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Little mercy was offered while squeezing as much profit as possible out of slave labour and the world trade it allowed. Nearly every map of America’s races on the web depicts an image (using census data) of southern America saturated with the Black race. The centre of all cities are where the majority of race-specific people live, and the southern states of the US are also rurally home to a large black race population.

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Slavery officially ended in 1865 and since then, the USA has moved as far forward as to elect a black President.
Not one based on factual statistics or referenced information which may or may not have been manipulated to benefit the debate; my experience has arguably proved how the USA has failed to eradicate racial poverty or racial segregation from its demographic landscape, even though it projects such intermingled, racial equality, and a united front to the rest of the world.

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From Boston to Austin, (via nineteen states), I have seen less than ten black people on my travels, and only a couple of dozen Hispanics – most of whom were students in New England. The USA is known worldwide for its multi-culture, its racial kaleidoscope of mingled heritage, and its diverse social map. However outside of American cities (unless in the south eastern states – of which I visited a minuscule section of), the rural population is noticeably, made up racially of an extreme mono-colour – it is white. I only have to look at my list of hosts, and people which I have received hospitality and communication from to notice that every single person is a relatively educated Caucasian. I don’t believe that the Caucasian race is any more welcoming – in fact in my experience, it is warier than other races of being even slightly hospitable to “unknowns”. Before my trip, I did not expect to be so distanced from the many different races in America, mainly because the world press, popular American tv shows, and more so now the American political system; reference black and other races (alongside sexual equality) so heavily, as if it is racially, a United Nation. On my rural travels, I found it almost impossible to meet anyone who was not Caucasian.

I have observed and experienced two things:
1) the majority of poverty in the US is in the south of the country and is obviously home to a huge proportion of America’s Black and Hispanic people
2) if not in the south, finding American citizens outside of a city who are not Caucasian, is near impossible.
It is also impossible to be ignorant over the fact that even with our defiant opinion that equality exists, the Black and Hispanic citizens are easily recognisable as economically, the poorer sections of society in North American cities, as well as rural areas in the south. In regards to the word “sections”, that is exactly what the USA appears to be divided in to – not just by state or city lines, but by religion, race, cultural beliefs, political opinion, class, climate, terrain, and sadly still, wealth and skin colour. I did meet one black man and his white wife travelling in Vermont, having an indulgent weekend in the state capitol, in the chill of Spring. Anomalies are always welcome, but it also wasn’t strange to realise that this couple was doing very well financially.

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I have also come to learn and witness that the USA has separate laws on Native American Indian lands – all across the country – setting aside large reserves for their populations, their business, taxes, education, historical traditions and lifestyles. Important as it may be to recognise races and cultures; segregated populations with independent law and various enforcement operating from area to area does rather alienate communities from the notion of unity. When you visit so much of the USA (I feel like I have covered a fair bit so far), it is extremely obvious just how diverse, yet also how divided this country is. I think it is fair to say that the United States struggles with modern race and culture-related politics just as much as any other country, if not more. It almost celebrates its differences instead of uniting them, but more importantly, it struggles to diplomatically unite its people under any “united” laws. This is relevant to all people in different states and regions, and irrelevant of people’s race or culture; where the federal government is working to legislate an entire country, American states oppose and contradictorily enforce laws they disagree with. For a traveller, it has been a minefield of variable laws and sometimes uncommon enforcement, and it is no wonder that any united culture is effectively segregated and divided.

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Worldwide, the majority of the white race is privileged compared to that of other races. In modern history, it has typically always been economically wealthier, and unfortunately is still revered, in many countries to be more acceptable and welcome in the hierarchy of society. America is no different from many other countries around the world, with race-specific issues which have been present since the spread of ancient empires and indoctrinating religions. The history of what brings us to today is unpleasant, and even though equality may be implicated in the land of the free, it is far from in place. Race-specific communities remain economically less desirable the world over, and in the poorer communities in the south of the USA, including the limited areas which I visited in Louisiana, it is impossible to be ignorant of its extreme existence.

I admit to having a big knot in my stomach over a country which is supposed to be so racially diverse, free, educated, and united; because in the nineteen states on my route between Massachusetts and Texas, in over twenty national and state parks, in rural locations of importance and beauty, and in these hubs for environmental tourism, I have seen only one Black man. Every other visitor has been Caucasian from European or an antipodean nation, or an East Asian tourist. This raises many questions about cultural, economic, educational, and race related environmental priorities. Whether this is painted by Americans themselves, or by a world press, my experience so far is of a sectioned country, painting a pretty picture that everyone lives, diversely and harmoniously together. Races and cultures live very much apart.

When you see so much of the USA, from rural community to over an populated city, from lake shores to deserts, mountains to vast agricultural plains, dense forests to swathes of grasslands, highways to back roads; I can’t help but question where the equality and unity is, when a democratic nation’s racial and economic divide is so black and white.

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A Hurricane, a flirtatious Miss Havisham, and some drenched, French lingerie

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On $6 a day, and with plans to hit my environmental checkpoints on time, I had no intention of reaching Texas, let alone New Orleans.
I have seen and met a few people around the globe travelling on tight budgets, across continents on unicycles, paddling a thousand miles in a kayak, kicking a soccer ball thousands of miles to get to the World Cup, hiking across countries and many other variable challenges, for all kinds of different reasons. One thing has struck me; from every adventurers tales, in every country, amongst every walk of life, whatever the challenge: Every individual has received unprecedented, extraordinary, selfless, and often (while living on such basic means) indulgent hospitality. Often surprised, and as humbled as I am, I am no exception.
I was taken to New Orleans, and was liberally treated beyond what I could imagine.

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There are only a few cities around the globe which have instantly, like a teenage crush, bolted into my loins and said “Hey, you with the emotionless look on your face – Forget holding hands, come cuddle with me naked (“cuddle” NEVER means cuddle)!” and with that, they are in my new urban cuddle puddle. I’ve been naked with my favourite cities; Prague, Paris, Edinburgh, and I’ve gotten away with it – and now, like a teenage lover, the hedonistic New Orleans has covertly yawned, and put an outstretched arm around my lonesome shoulders. She’s a sly one.

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Even though my arrival into the city was rain-drenched, I could still feel the enigmatic streets oozing with charisma, with colourful, cultural history, with a cajun flavour, a high-hat of positivity and a beat that hummed under the harmonious, humid streets. It’s soul that I just hadn’t experienced anywhere else in the country.

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The city was relatively quiet because of the downpour. Porches were empty, only a few characters were mulling around on damp, street corners, restaurants and cafés were closed in the suburbs in the afternoon heat, buses and street cars were almost empty and the foliage that clinged to the streets in the sweaty, southern air was still and silent.

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Yet it wasn’t eery, it isn’t a sad place, and like so many cities when it rains, it didn’t welcome me with a greyish, sympathetic, limp-handshake. I could sense, that from the base of the dirty gutters up to the tops of the elaborate and chic, French-style buildings downtown, there was a hum-drum of infectious, heart-warming vibes. Even the trees, with their bark covered in vibrant green moss and climbers, seeped a hot happiness that suggested they could, at any moment, drop a few outrageous dance moves to this city’s groove.

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It isn’t hard to see why New Orleans is so attractive. She’s suave, sophisticated, and shows off a renaissance-number of curves with flashes of lacy lingerie. She’s passionate, poetic, bohemian and chic; encompassing the influence of French and southern American history into her library of debauched, effortlessly stylish, antique book cases. She clearly drinks a neat bourbon (legally, and without care while waltzing down the artisan streets) to keep her spirits high, and has a cabinet of cocktail ingredients that every high class Madame would have in the corner of their loft space over looking a city which, although maybe full of floozies, (and charcoal/callous-fingered artists and musicians), she is a resolute and flirtatious Miss Havisham.

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My first evening, in possibly the most unique city the USA has to offer was like stepping into a sauna of smooth jazz; sweaty, moist, beat-infectious and awesome. Leftover remnants of mardi gras hung around the buildings and from the trees; signs of colourful, alfresco hedonism were draped over the bohemian edges that framed the shabby-antique city.

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I was taken to Tujagues – documented as the second oldest restaurant in New Orleans. The traditional French-creole/Cajun cuisine was possibly the best food I have eaten since arriving in the country – which arguably isn’t hard to beat when living on $6 a day. However, the style in which it was delivered, the love and attention to the ingredients, the detail on each plate, and the relaxed yet appreciative atmosphere in Tujagues transcended me to the traditional and impressive French kitchen which I grew up above, as a five year old. The chef clearly knew what he was doing, and although I have missed being somewhat of a foodie and a semi-ok cook on this journey, enjoying some edible delights from a professional kitchen was completely appreciated.

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I was treated to a five course extravaganza, each dish accompanied by a traditional cocktail. As I used to be a cook, and a cocktail barman in an previous decade, I set high standards…and they delivered. However, one thing I can’t quite get my taste or texture buds around, is corn bread. It’s sweet! Yet Americans seem to think it goes well with everything savoury, and it crumbles like a dry lemon drizzle cake, turning to corn flour in your mouth. After tasting an oyster and shrimp bisque, some spicy swordfish, and some perfectly roasted lamb, I think I enjoyed the best ever banana pudding and caramel sauce that I have ever tasted – and I’m not a huge banana fan. No puns or jokes in this text; I grew up in France, maybe taking for granted some of the best cuisine in the world: The food in New Orleans was impressive, and not just at Tujagues.

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The city known as The Big Easy is a melting pot of cool, smooth culture, spanktastic food, soulful and infectious good-time music, eclectic and varied art, beautifully chic antiques, plenty of dowdy and dusty artefacts, colourful and quite morbid history, stunning French/Spanish, and (in the suburbs) southern American architecture, devout religion, and voodoo influence (more in part II). All the city’s cultures were brought together in the events and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and since 2005 New Orleans has been a recovering city.

As well as being a gigantic tropical storm, Katrina is sixth on the list of most powerful Atlantic hurricanes. Even though Katrina registered as a level five hurricane (that’s pretty damn knarly), with winds up to 175mph at its strongest over the Gulf of Mexico, when it reached land, it dropped to a level three, and winds were between 100mph and 130mph.

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The reason Katrina was so destructive, was because the Federal levee system failed. The result was the worst civil engineering disaster in American history, or as one Doctor at the University of California stated, “the worst engineering disaster in the world since Chernobyl”.
Floodwalls and levees constructed by the United States Army Corps of Engineers failed below design specifications, and 80% of the city flooded. Emptying New Orleans was relatively successful after the first mandatory evacuation in the city’s history. However, tens of thousands of residents who remained, will be forever remembered on the news as those suffering and barely surviving in the giant Louisiana Superdome or the New Orleans Morial Convention Center. More than 1,500 people were recorded dead in Louisiana, most in New Orleans, and others are still unaccounted for.

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Even though it was a massive storm, I have mentioned before that we continue to house ourselves poorly (both geographically and by design), in the path of these natural, spectacular gigantums.
I may sound unsympathetic, but on the contrary. New Orleans was intelligently, originally built above flood levels and it is almost impossible to expect the city to move. The rebuild process was commendable and charity completely needed. However flood levels have risen, and nature repeatedly shows its capabilities against our unfortunate, unnatural, modern engineering.
Seeing the city now, and witnessing how proud and resilient its residents are, it is a heart warming experience. It is practically alive with positivity after the disaster. It is also noticeable however, how much of the older part of the city seems to be unaffected by flood damage. Strategically positioned, original cityscapes are commonly built to last, compared to our “developed”, expanding, and modern approach.

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To not just have a one dimensional view of New Orleans, I didn’t just spend time seeing the old French quarter of downtown. A very short ferry trip, across the river takes you to another world, onto a century old, flat, historic battle ground that was once boggy grasslands. Now filled with industrial housing for the not so rich, working class, it also has at its epicentre, the first domestic sugar refinery to process one million tons in a single year: Domino Sugar’s Chalmette refinery. Although hit hard by Katrina, it reopened just 98 days after the disaster, and still processes about 60 percent of the raw sugar produced by Louisiana’s sugar cane farmers, and about 19 percent of the country’s cane sugar. I couldn’t tour it, but it appears future tours and public access is being developed.

The view of the industrial river bank was stark, in comparison to the romantic, chic and bohemian glory of the colourful old town. It appeared monotone, drab, and grey against the grey skyscrape. The bridges over the Mississippi are tough, old iron erections, and the streets around downtown, in suburbia are poorer, unkept, dowdy – although houses were elaborately detailed compared to many across Texas – they were run down, fractured, and in need of some love and restoration.

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Such is the flirtatious, carefree intrigue of New Orleans. She seems to wear a kaftan and a sun hat, but under its wide brim, in her dark shadowed eyes, she holds many secrets, many taboos, hedonism beyond dreams, and is culturally in bed with all kinds of miss-fits. She isn’t afraid to be seen in every neighbourhood, throwing a wry smile at the tourists that might think they can tame her.

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Rather poignantly, much of the interest in her colourful past, and now sadly in her present (following Katrina), is around suffering, misguided and misrepresented religious practices, and death…

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Shameless Sausages, Strange Sacrifices, and “She’s an Easy Lover”

There are many things which I sacrificed for the challenge of getting across the states on $6 a day; knowing where I’m going to sleep each day, some cleanliness and maybe some hygiene, some dietary luxuries, seeing loved ones to name a few. However, I did not bank on sacrificing, or indeed losing the ability to realise when I am being so blatantly hit on.
A new experience for me in Austin was to enjoy a roller derby. A hobby and minor sport in the UK, yet in the USA it is something that is, especially in Austin, rather a big deal.
The roller derby was definitely a fun-filled afternoon, I particularly liked the dowdy, brown couches that they had brought in and positioned under the commentators table, for the VIP fans. Some sacrifices are clear to comprehend and expect, however as unfamiliar as it was, while I sat at the back of one of the bleacher stands, high in the crowds, drinking a Lone State lager and eating a slice of pizza, one of the rather cute roller girls made her way up through the crowds, sat closer than most strangers would next to me, and began discussing my t-shirt, and my day. Unable to put my finger on simple, Texan forwardism, and after she had left, I asked my friend next to me if she was in fact, unwell. Amused by my complete lack of reciprocation, my friends joyfully ridiculed me at my interaction. I had obviously, unexpectedly sacrificed my mojo, and been out of practice for far too long.

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Immersing yourself into a new culture often brings confusion. Nothing confuses my British taste buds more, than having a savoury/sweet breakfast. It’s just not something that is commonplace amongst the continentals or full Englishes that most Brits are used to. However, even though the portions in the majority of the USA are shamefully double that of any normal sized stomach (and I’m not a small guy), I am converted.

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Maple syrup on American bacon works, fried chicken on a sweet waffle works, and although my mouth is still confused by the titilation, my tastebuds reluctantly rejoice over their debauched indulgence. One thing I didn’t understand earlier in my adventure however, was this compilation…

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Another unfortunate gourmet affair, which I experienced for the first time in Texas, is that I haven’t been able to convince my mouth that grits are a good idea. Rather like a cheesy rice pudding made from corn, I don’t know whether to chew, spread them on toast, or just take one for the team and swallow. Like a coach blooding his young players at the end of an already decided game, I threw them onto the field of battle…but they lacked any eager action, failed to inspire another outing, and ultimately, let me, the rest of the edible team, and my mouth down. It’s a southern thing apparently.

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Amongst numerous urban exploits and city excursions, I managed to visit Bastrop State Park – which was victim to one of the largest forest fires in Texas’s recent history. In 2011, after damaged power lines in a storm sparked the fire, 1600 homes were devastated. The large area is now undergoing recovery, and the forest is re-growing around the numerous, charcoaled tree trunks, sticking out the ground like oversized, black toothpicks, and some estranged brick chimney stacks, that used to be attached to the wooden houses built around them. As always, nature finds a way after fire; wildlife is flourishing and I ticked off some pretty lean-looking road runners and dozens of vultures (of which I always imagine to be scousers, sounding like the few from Disney’s Jungle Book), as well as some colourful arachnida, lizards, and mesmerising butterflies on my long checklist of fascinating wildlife. As was the same in Yellowstone, fire is like the hot and hedonistic intercourse, before Mother Nature gives birth to new life.

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Natural disasters are not getting worse. Earthquakes, storms, hurricanes, tornadoes and volcanic eruptions are all as intense and as distructive as they have always been – but we chose to build our lives around fault lines, on flood plains, or in the path of regular monsoons, hurricanes or tornadoes. It’s no wonder natural disasters are assumed to be worsening, but its mainly due to our stupidity of putting ourselves in harms way.
A certain amount of sympathy is required for victims of such disasters, but it does call for some common sense when looking at plans for the future of the human race.

We live on a wonderfully wild planet, but we must learn that to do so, we have to cease making the mistake of thinking that our planet can continue to cope with excessively growing the world’s human population, and stop assuming that it is not our fault when we are misfortunate enough to be in harms way. We used to be wild animals. We used to be a part of nature, instead of trying to control it. If we look at the wild, everything in it does something to contribute to, or aid a neighbour; bees pollinate while they gather food, large fish resist eating smaller fish while they have parasites eaten out of their mouths, trees grow and create ecosystems for everything around them, as well as produce oxygen for every living creature that needs it; humans on the other hand have resisted giving back to the wild what they take, and this needs to be addressed. I mention this because Texas’s reputation for its oil extraction is an obvious example.

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Due to the relentless hospitality, Texas was definitely proving to be more of a luxury adventure. I may have cooked a few meals for my host, but Amanda treated me to some local restaurants where I was blown away by some of the dishes. Not only was I taken for breakfast in Austin, to a restaurant simply called “Bacon” (fairly self explanatory), but I also tried my first ever guacamole margarita; something that grows on you, with its thick and creamy, milkshake consistency.

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I was also treated to my very first pedicure, and when I saw a man twice my size sitting amongst the twenty ladies in the room, we shared a strange yet comforting glance, followed by an assured nod of the head, acknowledging that we were highly outnumbered, and if things kicked off in any possible, dangerous salon war, that we would stick together. I felt rather relaxed amongst the numerous gossipers as they all indulged in being either roughly rubbed, lathered in gritty goodness, clipped and sculpted with fine, shiny implements, or drenched in lava-hot wax.

Texas is not famous for its wildlife, other than cattle, so when dark shapes form over the Colorado River running through Austin at dusk, and they are not rain-filled or made up of Mosquitos, its difficult to assume what they are. The largest urban bat colony on earth, mainly sleep and cuddle under one of the busiest and most central of downtown bridges during the humid days. The bridge and the river was flooded with people, eager to see the spectacle, and it wasn’t long before thousands of rat-sized bats drenched the skies below the bridge. The flying mammals took flight; quite an unusual treat in the centre of a city as they swarmed off into unusual, fast moving clouds.

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I visited possibly the smallest, weirdest, most obscure and eccentric museum that I have ever come across one afternoon in Austin. The House Museum of Natural and Artificial Ephemerata is a collection of “misplaced items” from history, which are arguably interesting and unusual.

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Amongst the somewhat morbid items, which have been collected by the lovely Scott and Jen Webel are: a Faberge egg smuggled out of Russia which belonged to the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna (the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, the last sovereign of Imperial Russia), a miniature taxidermy crocodile, which sits on a conch shell – the oddity of this is that is cries genuine tears; a rotating wooden, 19th century cellulite massager – much like a giant cotton reel that you sit on, as it rotates and bumps your backside around. There is a whip that belonged to one of the first infamous female big cat tamers (Mabel Stark, I believe), and celebrity hair trimmings…the list goes on. The free museum tour is displayed in a young, eclectic family’s garage; decorated and well presented, it is worth a look if you want something completely, and wonderfully bonkers to pass an hour of your day. Donations are very welcome..

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I once said inappropriately and at high volume over a quiet dinner with friends on a Greek island that, “I love Phil”. Despite their initial reaction of surprise and curiosity as to who Phil was, I’m afraid I had drunkenly admitted to loving Phil Collins, while my friends were unaware that his music was playing in the background. The lovely Phil is about to donate his expansive and impressive, personal collection of artefacts to the Alamo, in San Antonio. I was too early to catch the inclusion of his collection, but the historic site where Texas was fought over was impressive in the mid day sun.

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I genuinely felt like I was seeing some ancient, human history – something difficult to find in the USA. Some people forget that when they say “old” and “historic” to me, I come from the continent where the history comes from (we also do some fine work in condescending sarcasm). The spanish, religious outpost was reminiscent of an ancient Spanish monastery, with beautiful gardens and plant life. It became a barracks for the Mexican army, and was the pivotal point where Texas was reclaimed by the forces of Texas America. With battles still heavily influenced by the sword, the Alamo feels older than it is, but it is definitely a huge draw for San Antonio visitors, holds huge significance for the people of Texas…and for the “Easy Lover”, Phil Collins.

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I was again treated, this time to the riverboat tour around the centre of San Antonio. Informative, humorous and relaxing, it was the perfect appetiser before just one more indulgent trip off-trail. Creole architecture, southern jazz, Cajun cuisine, voodoo practices and a whole myriad of art and history awaits at the mouth of the Mississippi. Before contemplating getting my adventure and budget-challenge back on track, I am to experience, New Orleans.

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A southern threesome with some ex-presidents, and Lionel Richie

Reputations are rarely undeserved. If you’re known for being a flirt, chances are you’ve flung your eyelashes, maybe a few loose comments, and flicked your hips in the direction of someone’s face on a few occasions. If you’re known as being violent, it’s likely you have thrown more than your eyelashes and made contact, and word spreads fast if people dislike your unfortunate demeanour.
When you’re known being the over-sized, oil harbouring, barbecue-loving, Stetson-wearing, humid meat market with an accent so drawly, your words written down become “laaaaawwwwnger”; you’re the state that is little more amusing to a eloquently spoken Brit than some, but you turn up at the party and ya’ll reeeeaally know aboud’it.
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The Lonestar State still lives up to its reputation, and it only takes five minutes of travelling over its endless flat landscape before I’m welcomed by the aesthetically rambunctious threesome of abundant cattle, slowly pumped oil wells, and denim-wearing, wide-brimmed-hatted cowboys.

As well as the alfresco menage et trois, one thing I was not prepared for, were the vast fields of wind turbines. Not only are the oil wells a reminder of why this state has been so wealthy, but now the turbines are a constant reminder in Texas, that energy sources are changing. Even in this part of the USA, where stoic capitalism is at its most obvious, its also clear that reputations, self awareness, sustainability provisions and what you must bring to the party, is evolving.

I wasn’t aware that Texans take so much pride in their hospitality. Seemingly, the ladies of Texas are apparently known for their welcoming nature, large personalities and undiluted, infectious laughter. Texans are simply friendly, and as long as you don’t upset their cattle cart, or try to tone them down, you’ll be just fine.

Detouring again, a thousand miles from my planned route, I landed myself in the city of Austin. With another incredibly welcoming host, who had planned joint ventures around her busy work schedule, I had a diary full of exciting city excursions ahead. Although fully immersing myself into the unaccustomed position of being her retro car’s passenger, for some of Texas’ city culture and history, it allowed me to relax a little, recharge away from the wilderness and catch up with civilisation.

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Feeling like a bank in the movie Point Break, my Texas seemed to be harassed by a few ex-presidents. I visited the LBJ presidential library and archives in Austin, his ranch in the Texas hills (where the Italian sculptor Benini now has acres of art strewn around the humid hill sides), the John F Kennedy assassination museum (The 6th floor) in Dallas and the Johnson Space Centre in Houston.

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Texas has thrown numerous successful candidates forward into the White House, the most recent of which was George Bush Junior. I couldn’t fail to be educated further on sections of recent presidential history. Although like all American history lessons, much of the story is steered very definitely into a propaganda-style box. Even though colourful, informative, well laid out and focused purposefully on the “positive”, much of the effects of “the greater good for the american people” are overlooked. American Indian history is often the first to be poorly represented, but in the more modern era, it is suspicious assassination facts and poignant conspiracies that seem to be conveniently not detailed (and how intriguing would the USA be without a few decent conspiracies?). These attractions are not near each other, and the equivalent of driving around the UK a couple of times only added to the splendid reputation of how hospitable my wonderful and enthusiastic host is. Although ironically, as the state holds such a reputation, Amanda is not from Texas.

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I can’t discuss Amanda without tossing up hospitality, an endeavouring spirit and an enthusiasm for sharing generosity. I was treated, spoilt even, and welcomed with a fridge full of highly-prized, edible British products – including English back bacon, something which she sourced specially, and I have missed since I left home. I was also taken to see Lionel Richie in concert, and people inevitably saw the beard throw some unusual, disco shapes in flip flops. Luckily, no one was hurt.

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Amongst the city excursions which included the impressive State Capitol building/House of Representatives in Austin, and accompanying Amanda to the questionable, but in the end luxurious Chinese massage spa; I helped pack vegetables at the Johnstone Organic Farm for a morning (and received a couple of boxes of product for my labour). It was here that I met one forward and gregarious granny, offering me both insight into her previous life as a crack dealer, and the most accurate sentence anyone ever, loudly thrust into my ears about Austin. She said it was “Texas’s apology”. Referring to both its liberalism compared to the rest of the state and its cities, and presumably, Austin’s leniency towards her youthful vices…

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Texas continued to throw up some social surprises, and after a few more note-worthy experiences at a record store, a restaurant dedicated to bacon, viewing the largest urban bat colony in the world, being romantically approached at a roller derby, visiting the Alamo in San Antonio, and having a one room-tour of a tiny, garage museum of ephemerata, Amanda splurged in her holiday time (and maybe on an extra “sick day”) on a nine hour drive to New Orleans…

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Trying to have kittens with a Colombian…but waking up to a dog.

Metaphorically speaking, Carlos and I had been at it like frisky flamingos, trying to hatch plans like we needed a massive brood to take to Texas for their first flight. As close as we were to having kittens, and with Carlos deciding it was time to put a deposit down on a rusty car to get us there, his “life got flipped turned upside down”, with a phone call that said he had work for two months..

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As happy as I could be for my age-defying friend, this is how a positive attitude is the only thing that saves a hellish haemorrhage of plans which say “Hey, you there with the great idea – come here while I slap you in the face with this giant salmon!”
Courtesy prevailed and Carlos, after laying down some cash to purchase a banger, called to say that my Texas road trip was off the table…at least with him. I was stranded for a few days and had to re-hatch my own kittens. Thankfully, I pulled through. Denver to Austin was only a sixteen hour drive, and I had found a Texan that desired to drive home.

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Some adventures, such as visiting the beautiful and secluded foothills above Boulder, staying with a hedonistic cat that liked to catch birds on balconies in the moonlight north of Denver, and actually enjoying a vegan diet for a while as I couch surfed with a young music teacher with a penchant for spinach smoothies and debauchery in the mountains, will make it into a book this winter, or into bonus blog posts from my detailed diaries.

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More on adventures with Carlos, on my delayed time in Colorado, on meeting more hot-tub-loving people in the pot-friendly, apparently large snake-infested state, will be amongst the pages of future reads…

Linsi agreed with me on the feel and sense of community that Boulder lacked, and spending seventeen hours in a car with her was quite possibly the best extended drive I think I have ever been on. It’s the longest time I have spent in a car in one day, and having to spend it with someone arrogant, narrow minded, selfish, careless or with a menacing mind towards British men would have been quite a difficult drive..
My new sidekick however, is as wonderful as a field of flowers in the spring. She smells good, isn’t corrupted by any wind, loves a warming sunset and even though she wouldn’t like me to tell you, probably has a few interesting secrets that the scarecrows amongst the grass would only know about. She is obviously on my “favourite people of America” list, and she doesn’t drive like she wants to kill me (bonus). After a short delay and credit card issue, which Linsi had when collecting her hire car, we were underway. I couldn’t have asked for a better co-pilot, and while sharing the driving, discussed many things such as acceptable underwear, female hygiene, lost trains, yoga, the environment, devilled eggs, future travel plans and the women of America. Broad subjects…but we had seventeen hours to kill!

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The drive flew by. We only went the wrong way twice, and stopped twice for a short leg stretch, some hard boiled eggs (sadly not devilled), and a trip into a Texan bar to see if we could “borrow” a few wooden whisky barrels, as Linsi’s mother wanted them for her garden. Unable to acquire any barrels, I helped myself to a fancy seat, and briefly took in the slightly uncomfortable, dry heat of a more southern climate. After I had seen two new states: New Mexico briefly, and a long drive through cattle country and past dozens of oil wells, in Texas, we arrived in Austin around midnight.

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One thing I wasn’t expecting to see when reaching the Lonestar State, was the multiple, vast seas of towering wind turbines. They were everywhere, like nowhere else I had seen in America so far. Love them or hate them, and with arguments definitely for and against, I assume Texas is fully aware that their oil supply is not forever. These humming and buzzing, white beasts are hear to stay, covering the flat landscape in massive numbers.

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Arriving in Austin late at night, in the dark was unusual. It was only the second time on my journey that I had travelled in the dark. Unable to see anything away from the roadside or footpath was uncomfortable, and I constantly felt as though I was greatly missing out on soaking up the visions into my sponge of memories. Travelling in the dark suddenly felt unsafe, because I was couldn’t relate to the unknown. I knew that either side of the road were expanses of land with more wind turbines, cattle, oil wells and grass land, and seeing the landscape in day light was daunting enough. Not seeing it at all from a dark passenger seat, with a tired driver eating the last of the rationed snacks, was haunting.

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I woke up in Austin with yet another small dog licking my face (no petite lady jokes, thanks). In fact of the dozens of people I have met across the country so far, I have only met one household without an animal! Im nit sure what it says about a nation, but pets are definitely high on american’s lists of priorities. Breakfast tacos with hot sauce arrived at the door as my hosts came back from a coffee run, and I had an exciting, full calendar of southern treats waiting for me as my Texas adventure began…

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At this point, I’d just like to remind everyone that I’m still succeeding to travel and live on $6 a day. I’m meeting wonderful people, enjoying remarkable hospitality, immersing myself in intelligent discussions, enthusiastic, passionate debate and being welcomed into people’s social lives like a lost, bearded elephant. Only this herd seems to enjoy locally brewed beverages, discussion around their less adventurous lives and reminding me that not only do I say things wrong, but I eat pizza with a knife and fork.

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It’s obviously not all plain sailing. I constantly am aware of: making sure I’m safe, not over spending, not breaking the law (i.e. hitchhiking in certain places), not getting stranded more than a few days from food, always having water, not accidentally finding myself in a built up area with nowhere safe, or totally legal to sleep, staying warm at night, and now in the south, cool in the day, making sure the weight in my backpack isn’t too heavy incase I am on foot for a few days, making sure I write everything down, and keeping a level of hygiene and cleanliness that is acceptable if I sit in anyone’s car, or arrive unexpectedly at a strangers front door. My daily concerns list needs constant management.

I am raising awareness and funds for World Land Trust because it works internationally to purchase valuable land, to conserve ecosystems and to protect endangered wildlife. The issues that our natural world faces are global ones, not just the ones I am coming across in the USA.
If you’d like to donate (no money lines my pockets), please visit here

http://www.justgiving.com/WinstonWolfrider

If you have any comments before my rambles through Texas, please feel free to join me on Facebook, twitter, tumblr, or email me.

winstonwolfrider@gmail.com
Facebook: Winston Ben Wolfrider
Twitter: @wwolfrider

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The Beard, Altitude and Pedro’s interrogation

According to a chap I met in a mountain town in Colorado, I would fit right in. “There are beards everywhere in Dillon!” He was not lying.

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Since beginning my journey, my viking-clown facial fuzz has provided entertainment, a problem or two, offered reason to be thankful in the cold, and as my chin is normally open to the elements, often made me think as to how I am now perceived on initial interactions.

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My beard has only been a talking point in America when people see photos of me without it. I have found I have been perceived a little differently to how I am maybe used to – but this hasn’t been completely the fault of my growing growler.
My beard has clearly insinuated a misinterpreted lie, of who I really am.
My gruff has actually been more accepted, and admired in general society in the states than I think it might have been in the UK. However this is probably due to not working an office job and slinging a backpack around with me daily; Winston’s beard has become an expected part of my associated uniform.

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As much as I enjoyed the Colorado mountain break for a couple of nights, I was glad to drop down from altitude. The extra few hundred feet on top of what I had been used to while travelling down the Rockies, was an overwhelming surprise for my rather fatigued body. Mixed with a house full of friendly critters and some unfamiliar cigarette smoke at altitude, I suffered.

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I had been invited by Julia, a friendly restaurant manager for one of the resorts in the mountains. As welcoming as she is, it is the first time on my trip that my body has given up, and I have never suffered altitude sickness previously. My organs felt like icing, spilling out from a split icing bag, controlled by an arthritic man who had never iced a cake. I was a mess and any attempt to dam the leek, just made the haemorrhaging worse. Everything aches, and the migrane-type pain is only intensified by the interrogation from Pedro.
Thanks Pedro.

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Down at an altitude where I didn’t feel like dragging a cinder block around the inside of my head to reduce the constant pain, I was back to my old, British self. I took a free tour around the Celestial Seasons tea factory: A rather impressive outing with some intense and invigorating smells. They had a mint room, where they stored the imported, dried leaves and welcomed people in to make their eyes water and their nostrils melt. Recommended.

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Colorado continued to throw up some intriguing adventures, and after spending some time in the Mile High City, enjoying some hospitality in a microbrewery, and in the quiet, secluded foothills overlooking Boulder, rumours began that somehow, I would catch a ride sixteen hours south to Austin, Texas.

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Wearing a loin cloth…and getting evicted

Frankly, the shopping mall is not exactly my first location choice when I have only €6 and one large coffee to last several hours. It may have been entertaining to see what mischief I could have found for a day, but with a heavy, life-containing back pack and a recent lack of wifi, I had work to do (despite the jolly you think I might be on, keeping this blog without a plug socket, internet or even a decent phone signal is harder than you might think). I hadn’t been in a shopping mall since Ohio and I feared the bright lights, the noise of the cash registers and the hustle of the crowds. I sat down in the metropolis of Broomfield CO and worked my thumbs like never before to bring you the radio4-style updates of my journey.

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It was recommended that I spend some time in Boulder. It is a tourist hot spot, a flip flop wearing, Thai latte drinking, wheat grass dieting, luxury, healthy town that is wonderful if you’re on holiday with a few thousand to spend and some arranged adventures to the mountains. It’s full of tanned, beach lovers (I never found a beach though), the restaurant scene, the music and the feel good vibe is generally all around, with plenty of attractive people enjoying a drink. Something bothered me.

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On the surface, the city has every intention to be the coolest and cleanest in Colorado, and be a genuinely warm and “welcoming” place so close to the beautiful peaks. However, it seems to have lunged a little too far, splitting a rip in its fabric en route. While wearing their yoga pants, everyone is hell bent on “doing the right thing” for their body, their soul, for the cleanliness of the streets and the image of the area, that to outsiders it appears a healthy idilic, but lost somewhere amongst their efforts, have they forgotten to actually be a heart-warming community. Seasonally, a lot of people here are either tourists, outdoor enthusiasts or old school, now wealthy hippies living a lavish lifestyle. Even though I met some wonderful individuals, the collective of the city seemed rather superficial, with a fairly transient soul. It merely lacked a draw or a pull that you get when you dive into some home cooked food.

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I had been thrown the digits of Carlos. A Colombian American, soon to be returning to Boulder. He invited me to Couchsurf at his new pad for as long as required while he was in town on business. We first met at 11.30pm in the Yellow Deli. I didn’t buy anything and used the now slightly overused “I’m just waiting for a friend before I order” line. Carlos turned up and we instantly walked a mile or so to his temporary home.

Suited and booted, Carlos went to work the next morning and I helped myself to a shower. I was busy soaping myself and reminiscing over how much we take the simple things in life for granted, when there was a knock at the apartment door. I contemplated answering, but as I was naked and not in my home, decided to ignore it. I wandered in a rather small towel into the presumed empty lounge, en route to my clothes, and was boldly met by a rather determined man in a very crisp shirt and tie. He looked like a young american newsreader, the orange-type that had just walked onto set after being in make up, and with teeth that would probably have lit up the room if I had dimmed the lights. Clearly no burglar (and no need for a torch), he had just let himself in without breaking anything; oddly, standing in a little more than a loin cloth, I said “welcome! How can I help you?”

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Handing me a card he informed me that Carlos was living there illegally and that I would have to leave too. I nodded politely and asked if I could put some pants on first. He wasn’t keen on my humour.
After a short interlude, I explained that Carlos must be unaware of his predicament, but this tall Oompa Lumpa was adamant, we had to leave, swiftly.

It quickly became clear that Carlos had been the victim of a rather unfortunate scam to rent empty accommodation. A father, of a student who had vacated the house for the summer, was trying to save a few dollars. I called my unfortunate new friend and explained his predicament. Carlos and I quickly came up with a solution – it had just gone 11am and it was in liquid form.

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As we mulled things over, a quick refreshment turned into a late evening, with nearly everyone who came to the bar, buying us a drink. Carlos also has a pending bank statement that details how many margaritas he bought. It’ll be a long read.
He struck me as a slightly wiry character, as adventurous as me but with commitments to his business. I have done well to remember two things on my adventure 1) never judge a person on appearance or on first impressions and 2) the best way to get to know someone is to drink too many margaritas together and try not to worry about being homeless in the process..

Assuming that we were some kind of party, we made “friends” with everyone who invaded our space (at the bar). We even caught the eye of a silver haired black man wearing the cleanest white shirt I have ever seen (clearly Boulder was a place to wear crisp shirts). On “holiday”, staying with one of his many lady friends around the country (so he told us), he was interested in doing some business in Boulder. He informed me that his business was cocaine and “this and that”. Intrigued and only slightly inebriated, I took my line of questioning down the only reasonable route. I enquired where drug dealers spent their holidays. Remaining a mystery, he informed me that he never left the country and unsurprisingly, some new “friends” don’t like it when you ask them for a selfie together..

I had a back pack and a tent and could simply walk out of town, but as I had met the bronzed-agent in little more than a loin cloth, and I was the barer of bad news; I felt an urge to help my new friend.
Within a few hours, Carlos had a few leads for somewhere to move to.

I am often reminded that the difference between an ordeal and an adventure, is simply attitude.
I am also reminded often, that it is amazing what I have managed to do on just $6 a day, and the further I go, the larger my beard is getting..

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Shapely white arses…it’s what I came here for

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I thought elk were nervous, shy and retired creatures…yes, most of them are over 65. However, the majestic Rocky Mountain National Park, just north west of Denver CO proved to be home to some rather carefree, left wing socialites who came to inspect their camper-riddled meadow, making sure we were all provided for.
Another bonus state on top of my original fourteen – like a stalk with a heavy, baby-laden sack in its beak – Colorado completely delivered. It was another wildlife wonderland.

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From Rock Springs, I ventured over Rabbit Ears Pass and shortly after, paused by a lake by the side of the road to watch trout and swallows feast on an abundance of hatched flies from both above and below the surface of the mirrored lake. Not a particularly noteworthy spot, there were some fishing boats on the pond and the birdlife early in the morning was mesmerising. More noteworthy however, here I had bacon and egg for breakfast, and I have missed that kind of love in my life.

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The campsite in Rocky Mountain National Park was exposed, slightly breezy and surprisingly, rather quiet. The side of the park I had yet to see promised to be full with trippers from Denver, Boulder and the nearby suburbs on the eastern side of the mountains. Elk have always seemed to be the quiet, slightly awkwardly large child in the playground, and it was no different here. However instead of skipping away because you had just threatened them with the unfortunate classmate’s lergy, elk were wondering around the campsite, flashing their white butts, as if the school bully was off sick.

The journey over the Rocky Mountains and through the protected park was possibly one of my favourite. I marvelled once again at KP’s expressed inner monologue (kind of an over polite, repetitive-sounding house-wife holding a feather duster, who really didn’t want to leave a mess anywhere she hovered) and how he handled the drive.

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It was by far, in all seriousness, the most nerve racking drive of our tour. Irrelevant of any extreme weather, or KP’s quite obvious and acute fear, it was not for the faint hearted. I again reminded him of the stunning views that were indeed out of his window – only this time, for our safety, once we had reached lower altitude…I do have a caring, if not narcissistic side..

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Following a night on the busier, eastern side of the park, which entertained me like a carnival float throwing candy from it, it was time for KP to throw me, like his least favourite chocolate in the box, respectfully to the wolves…or at least to the side of the road in suburbia, in a shopping mall that has wifi. Our time together was brief, we had complimented each other’s personality, worked together to make our trip as eventful but as peaceful as possible and have become great, respectful friends. He may feel like he is getting old, but as I think he’s rediscovered in retirement, the greatest adventure is only a ahead. It was a manly goodbye with an Australian-style, cricketer’s hug….

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….and he gave me three rings when he arrived home safe, twenty seven hours later.

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Schoolgirl in the desert, dinosaurs and a hammer

After abusing Starbucks’ wifi privileges in Jackson WY, it was time to skip town. Just a few hours of volume in a populated area was enough to make me slightly angry – and for those that know me, anger does not occur on my emotional spectrum much. You would think after six years in London, I would be used to a little noise, but losing the hum for a few weeks was enough to reset my natural clock.

I danced very briefly with Idaho, but like an excited school girl playing hopscotch on American states, I skipped into Utah, stopped quickly to pick up my pebble as I travelled the length of the beautifully clear and blue, Bear Lake, and then jumped straight back into the south west of Wyoming.

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Completely different from the north west, where the landscape was lush, mountainous, blanketed with pine forests and sprinkled, generously with mammalian, the south was dry, arid, brown and alive with lizards. I had reached the place in the USA where I would feel the furthest from home; which from northern Utah, the desert stretches a thousand miles south. It will be travelled across, and explored soon..

Fossil Butte National Monument was in my path, and if your vice is dinosaur bones, this was the first landmark on my journey east, through an archeologist’s desert dream. It was only a lunch spot, as the drive ahead would take at least a couple of days, but the landscape couldn’t have been more different from the one I had woken up in that morning.

Just north of highway 40, is Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area. More importantly, it was my first shower in almost two weeks. It also appeared to be one of those places completely off the tourist trail. Americans were camped here in their RVs for what appeared to be the entire summer. Their boats were not far away, and in their downtime men socialised by drinking and fishing…downtime is important and most found it daily. Maybe it was the time of year, but even though they were swollen from a late, winter melt, Bear Lake and Flaming Gorge waterway (it’s damned) were astonishingly crystal clear and a perfect lagoon blue. What these people did when they weren’t enjoying their fishing spots on paradise waters, was a mystery. It is many hours to drive to a nearby town, and work in the hot, dusty wilderness is not common. Not that I’m making any assumptions, but I wasn’t surprised to see very, very few females.

The drive south from Flaming Gorge was a nervous experience again for KP, but what’s a little adventure without soiling your pants once in a while? At high-altitude, there were steep inclines and sheer declines on a journey that thankfully, neither of us needed to change our underwear on. We stopped in Vernal to take a breather; it is times like these that the majority of english folk crave a cup of tea. Sadly, KP was not accustomed to calming his nerves with what the empire was built upon , so I made him a peanut butter sandwich. The drive east along highway 40 took all of KP’s energy, and a whole day. After a longer than expected stop in Dinosaur National Monument, I was surprised we made it to our destination before dark.

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Dinosaur National Monument was simply massive, and nobody on my journey had ever heard of it, nor had I come across it in my research before coming to America. Granted, I didn’t look at Colorado or eastern Utah much as the areas were not on my original trail.

The monument has three entrances, one in Utah and two in Colorado. It spans about 100miles east to west and surrounds the convergence of the Snake and the Yampa River. I am not a huge fan of dinosaurs, but it can probably boast one of the best, original site, exposed exhibits of dinosaur fossils on earth (yes, even I this time, will go as far as to say it is probably one of the best in the world, but oddly at the monument, America didn’t).

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The dry rock landscape fielding around the “prehistoric big-hitter”, it is just as breathtaking without the dinosaur exhibit, and the geographic scenery that surrounds you details over a few hundred million years in time. If you fancy a whole day of driving and seeing some rather remarkable, ancient skeletal structures and rock formations, I sincerely recommend it.

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Tucked away at the most eastern end of the Utah section was Josie’s lodge. Following a divorce, she set up her homestead in the shelter of the magnificent gorge and lived peacefully, in renowned territory of bear and mountain lion. She chose this remote spot as her home; it would have been bitterly cold, below freezing for much of the winter, she was without electricity, plumbing, neighbours, and had at least a couple of weeks horse ride to a nearby town or hospital. Josie ranched alone for fifty years before dying at the age of 90.

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The cabin is now merely tree trunks clad with mud and is slowly struggling to be restored. With some imagination, it is hard not to romanticise about the beauty and simplicity of her lifestyle, but her isolation reminded me of how much I miss not sharing my experiences with others. I certainly crave many aspects of self sufficient living, and surviving only on a respectfully modest amount more than what is necessary, but it still shakes my emotions every time I see people living as reclusively and as remotely as Josie.

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Dinosaur National Monument was again, a bonus stop on my trek. For its size, it does well to maintain a conspicuous personality. A 25 mile journey off the highway at the western Colorado entrance gets you to the monument gate, and there are many more miles inside the park – it is never a short trip! A drive from a city, from east or west, really is a day’s outing, but it does mean that it’s rarely overcrowded.

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Seven hours later and after a long, straight, dry drive east, north of Steamboat Springs, is a little place on the map called Clark.

I cleansed my dusty feet in the Elk River (no I didn’t use soap or wash off any deet into the natural water). I was almost washed away by the chill of the teeth-chattering, fast-flowing melt water, but managed grab a tree trunk to avoid the embarrassment of being found twenty miles downstream. I did a little paperwork in the seclusion of the pine trees and managed to find a use for all the abundant sage bush – rubbing it over my smells. I think KP was appreciative, although he didn’t rush out to replace his deodorant stick.

The camp spot may have been a little louder with the swollen river rushing by, and it is clearly a recreational area for some locals to come and enjoy themselves, but it was one of my favourites. In spring, the flowers are everywhere; purples, pinks, yellows, and the trees are bursting with new growth. The ground is alive with wildlife and the lush, green grass is sporadically scattered with sparkling quarts in the setting sun.
The snow-covered Rockies are to the east and national forest surrounded me on both sides of the valley.

After an evening of wine, women and song…which I substituted again for some flatbread, vegetables (which were a treat), water, and a chilly night of interrupted sleep; the journey continued and I arrived a little sleepy, into the showerless refuge of Rocky Mountain National Park…

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