Category Archives: North America

Heading West in an RV

San Francisco had been a fantastic city in which to start our family RV holiday, but now I was excited to start our road trip travelling in the Western United States. For most of the 20th and 21st centuries, the automobile has been the dominant form of transportation in the United States. Equally, travelling on a road to the West has for a long time been synonymous for many with the American Dream: freedom; adventure; and diverse, enticing and grand landscapes. Therefore, the road and the car both hold a revered place in the American consciousness. It was our first time in the Western United States, and we looked forward to travelling across a variety of Western cities and landscapes.

Our RV trip didn’t start that well. In the first minute of the trip, plates fell from a cupboard and shattered on the floor. But that was soon forgotten after we left San Francisco and ventured further south. Continue reading


Sunshine in San Francisco

I was eagerly anticipating a visit to San Francisco, which was the first stop on a three week, West Coast family RV trip. I was attracted by the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco’s cable cars, the city’s seemingly laid back vibe and by the West Coast sunshine. This was also my first experience of a trans-Atlantic flight, so I was excited by the prospect of watching multiple movies and TV shows on the twelve-hour journey.

Upon arrival, unsurprisingly, the United States Border Force at San Francisco took their job incredibly seriously, so our family had to collectively suppress our excitement about being on the West Coast. After we got through security, we took the subway downtown.

We emerged from the subway, and were greeted by sunshine in San Francisco. There were multiple street performers, a tram that had just gone past and an infectious excitement and atmosphere in the busy streets. After a fairly short walk, and having dropped our suitcases off at our hotel, we were famished. So we headed to the nearest restaurant, Lori’s Diner, which is a 1950s style diner and has multiple outlets throughout San Francisco. I really liked Lori’s as the service was quick, the red booths were comfortable, the burgers and chips were tasty and it was fairly cheap. After that we crashed in our hotel, exhausted from the jet lag, in very comfortable beds.

The cable cars epitomise San Fran for many. Photographer: Ali Leyland-Collins

The next morning we emerged from our slumbers into another hot and enticing day in San Francisco. Continue reading


Solo In Seattle (and Portland)

Travelling by yourself is a strange experience. On the one hand, you have the freedom to get up when you want, go where you want and complete control of the trip. But on the other hand, there’s a lot of downtime when minutes by yourself feel like hours. I found this out when I travelled to Portland; originally just to see the incredible band Fleet Foxes, but then I decided that while I was travelling up the West Coast, I should go to the highly-recommended Seattle too. This turned out to be a great decision, turning a two-day trip into a five-day exploration of these two fascinating cities. This was also my first solo voyage to a strange new place, which filled me with a mixture of excitement and nerves.

Portland was an interesting city but not really anything like I expected. When we touched down, the skies of Portland were overcast and grey, not too dissimilar to my home country of England. There weren’t any major touristy attractions per se: it felt like an ordinary city, so wandering around the place by myself I wondered what the draw was to this renowned destination. The first stop I made was Powell’s City of Books, which boasts of being the world’s largest independent bookstore, and it was so huge it felt like you could spend days absorbed in the copious amounts of literature.

Walking down the grey empty streets of Portland, the sudden reminder that I was travelling by myself struck me and I felt the most lost I’ve felt since initially wandering around San Francisco the day I arrived in America. After a quick bite to eat and a visit to my hostel I was feeling more confident, but sometimes this kind of travelling can overwhelm you when you realise how entirely alone you are.

While Portland is indeed a cool little city, one of the friends I met that day put it best when she said it’s more about the culture and food, and not so much the sights. In this regard, Portland is an extremely interesting place with great restaurants, a good music scene and some lovely spots to just chill. Some of my favourite spots to eat include: Sizzle Pie, Portland Penny Diner, Salt & Straw Ice Cream Place and Voodoo Doughnuts. There are also some beautiful spots like Washington Park with its beautiful Rose Garden and Mount Tabor.

Mt Tabor, ©

The difference in atmosphere, setting and even weather from Portland to Seattle is incredible. Seattle is the epitome of a tourist-friendly city — a big sprawling market, the Space Needle and plenty of other shops and sights to see. I got the extremely touristy City Pass which let me see the five big attractions in Seattle for $79, definitely worth it but maybe don’t cram it all into two days like I did. The Space Needle is obviously overpriced, even if you buy a single ticket for it, but it’s worth experiencing as it’s got an interesting history and a fantastic view of the whole of Seattle. The other four tourist destinations of the City Pass were the Chihuly Garden & Glass, a greenhouse filled with plants and sleek glass sculptures, and the Seattle Aquarium which was a step above any other I’ve been to. The ferry is another perk of the City Pass which takes you on a one-hour-long tour of the beautiful city with interesting trivia, and finally my personal favourite: the Museum of Popular Culture which boasts a Fantasy exhibition, a Horror exhibition and a new Star Trek exhibition.

The City Pass kept me busy during the day, along with my hostel’s location in Freemont, which is a fascinating area with bizarre art installations and a quirky neighbourhood. It was at night I feared that I’d be at a loose end, as it’s not necessarily safe to be wandering around an unfamiliar city during the dark but I didn’t want to be stuck inside the hostel for the duration of my evening. Luckily, the people at my hostel were very friendly and we travelled to Gas Works Park, which offered a beautiful view of Seattle and a chance to talk to others. So my advice to those travelling alone, something which I will experience properly when I travel from New York to San Francisco in 15 days, is talk to those surrounding you – whether that be the others at your hostel or people you meet at events. This will help you in the dark evenings and provide you with some company on the otherwise, at times, lonely trip. Everyone should travel alone at some point, it’s an experience I definitely recommend.


The Native American Regalia Bill and Native American National Erasure

On April 21st a bill was passed in Montana which allows Native American students to wear traditional regalia at their graduations. Signed by Governor Steve Bullock, the Native American regalia bill means that schools and government agencies are not able to interfere if students choose to wear items of cultural significance with their robes and mortar boards upon graduation.

Native American graduation rates have historically been notoriously low — the school drop-out rate for Native American students is a massive 70% — and the minority group is still one of the most marginalised in American society. Indeed, 97% of the Native American population reportedly live below the poverty line, the community suffer from a fluctuating unemployment rate of up to 85%, and indigenous groups are still campaigning to receive equal voter rights in the US, after reporting that officials have institutionalised practices which prevent some tribes from voting in American elections — for instance, refusing to translate ballots into native languages. Therefore, a bill which allows for the celebration of Native American heritage and achievements is a huge leap forward for the communities which have been suffering under increased Westernisation since colonisation.

Native Americans have suffered from a history of attempted erasure from ‘civilised’ Western culture. Upon British colonisation of the United States, efforts were made to physically remove indigenous tribes from the land, followed by more psychological erasure attempts. Richard Henry Pratt was known for his creation of the idea of Native American boarding schools — founding the most famous, the Carlisle Indian School. These institutions removed children from their tribes and took them to Western schools to learn how to ‘fit in’ with American society. Boys and girls were separated, had their regalia removed, and were placed in ‘appropriate’, gender-specific clothing — boys had their hair cut short, and girls were placed in classes teaching them cleaning, needlework and motherhood, enforcing traditional Western gender ideals upon a group which customarily placed little import on gender; in typical Native American communities women were given equal respect and duties, and it wasn’t until after these boarding schools had been in use that gender imbalances — and larger issues, such as rape — became commonplace among tribes.

Disney’s Pocahontas romanticises the struggles of Native American women, and ‘sexy Indian’ Halloween costumes sexualise and fetishize them, taking away their cultural worth and significance in the history of the American land and placing them in a position wherein their worth in their country depends on their bodies and their aesthetic, commercial value.

Despite the enormous injustices faced by the Native American community, there has been little by way of de facto progress even today. There was a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada which addressed the atrocities that indigenous people suffered after colonisation — essentially a nationwide public apology which directly announces, addresses and apologises for all injustices and is seen by many as a form of closure, allowing for the country to move forward and to finally allow a chance for social equality. However, in the US there has been no such commission. The closest America has come was the Maine Wabankaki-State Truth and Reconciliation Commission; whilst this does address issues faced by Native Americans, it is specific to the Wabankaki experiences with child welfare, and doesn’t address larger issues of violence (both physical and psychological), discrimination and marginalisation, or erasure. This commission concluded that there was still an institutionalised racism towards Native Americans, and acknowledged a ‘cultural genocide’, but still there has been no real action to address this glaring social issue.

Therefore, the recently-passed bill in Montana is seen by many as the first step towards at last achieving equity and harmony for the Native American tribes and peoples across the United States. Despite the huge physical assaults, it is the psychological damage which has been most scarring for the community, having lived with the fear of losing their heritage entirely and being forced into Westernised, Americanised ways of living. Thus, making it possible for graduating Native American students to celebrate their culture publically is a huge leap into de-marginalisation and prosperity — something which is so significant in an America which still suffers from such fluctuating synchronisation with minority groups.


Greyhound to Memphis

I was excited to travel to Memphis, Tennessee, whose renown as a musical city appealed to me — and as the city is situated just north of Mississippi and the Deep South, I also welcomed the chance to travel away from the East Coast and head southwest into the warmer climate.

On my travels, I took the four-hour greyhound bus from Nashville to Memphis — it was $14, which I thought was really good value and it was particularly scenic, especially when we crossed over a bridge on the Tennessee River on Interstate 40. The next day I took a bus to downtown Memphis over the Hernando do Soto Bridge, which crosses the Mississippi River, with fantastic views of the city. I hoped that Memphis would be an entertaining and lively city, which would be easy to navigate.

I was eager to visit the Rock N’ Soul Museum, and learn about Memphis’ musical heritage in the downtown and historic area of the city. I highly recommend a visit to the museum. The admission fee is $12, which includes a self-guided audio tour. The museum has many interactive exhibits where visitors can listen to Rock ‘n’ Roll and American soul music from the 1930s-1960s, and learn about the social and cultural transformations that took place in Memphis during this period. Beale Street, in the centre of downtown and historic Memphis — a two minute walk from the museum — is where performers like the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elvis Presley; prominent blues performer, BB King; and jazz legend, Louis Armstrong, recorded their records and performed.

Memphis jukebox © Stuart Aitken

On Beale Street, I had a sumptuous BBQ pork spicy sandwich and chips (crisps) at the Rum Boogie café. The café has a nice atmosphere, with guitars lining the walls and hanging from the ceilings, and the Rum Boogie logo lit up by neon lights. Music reverberated around the fairly small, welcoming and reasonably-priced café. At night, the Rum Boogie café, like many restaurants on Beale Street, has live blues performers, creating a brilliant, packed atmosphere.

The next day, it was pouring with rain which made me miss the sunshine of the day before. Fortunately, however, there is the National Civil Rights Museum, another cultural exhibit I wanted to visit, and I was amazed by its size. Sadly, like many museums in the United States, there is a metal detector upon entry. The admission fee is $14 for students, though it’s only $1 more for adults. The museum begins with the history of the slave trade and continued the story right through to the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. It was not until right at the end that I realised that the museum has preserved the balcony where Martin Luther King had been shot, as well as the Lorraine Motel room he stayed in during April 1968.

Throughout my walk back to my hotel, artwork lined the streets, and I got a sense of how Memphis had been shaped by its musicians, artists and the social, cultural and political transformations during and after the civil rights movement. Despite Memphis’s relatively small size, the city, especially Beale Street, is very aesthetically appealing. Memphis was a very enjoyable experience in sunshine and rain, with a relaxed musical vibe, whose spicy foods, live musical performances and cultural exhibits make it well worth a trip.