Garden State

As much as I loved the hustle and bustle of life in New York City, it can be overwhelming, to say the least. After the weekend that was my 22nd birthday celebrations, all I felt like doing was curling up on the couch for a few days and recovering. Mischa, Jesse and Georgia had all had to head home soon after the weekend was over, so it was back to normal life for the rest of us – well, whatever normal happened to be for me, at the time. However, instead of hiding from the city and feeling sorry for myself, Melissa and I had an interstate excursion planned. She had come bounding in from the other room like an overexcited puppy when she’d got the phone call before the weekend.
“My mom wants to make us her special spaghetti and meatballs! We’re gonna go out to my home in New Jersey, and we can spend a couple of days there, if you like.” I was always keen to check out other less frequented parts of the country and, let’s face it, I couldn’t let me only impression of New Jersey be the nightmare that was returning home from Six Flags.
“Wow, Laura is gonna make her spaghetti and meatballs for you?” Stefon seemed genuinely impressed, maybe even a little jealous. “You should feel special  – they’re kind of a big deal.” Unfortunately Stefon wasn’t able to join us for the trip, so I promised him I’d have a plate in his honour. Laura, Melissa’s mom, picked us up one evening to drive us back to New Jersey, asking questions all about the birthday weekend, as well as all the other travels I’d been doing prior to New York. She was just like Melissa in that she was so generous and kind-hearted, and I watched the the New York skyline glitter in the distance and eventually fade, happy to be surrounded by such beautiful souls.

***

I actually really enjoyed my time in New Jersey. I try to not say that with a tone of surprise, but I guess the pop culture references had planted me with a few doubts. But for every movie that I’ve seen that was set in the busy streets of New York City, I’ve also seen one set in the all-American suburbs. I don’t want to lump the suburbs of every state into one blanket stereotype, because I know how much the US can vary from region to region, so I guess the way I would describe the Marlboro Township of New Jersey is ‘cozy’. The streets were wide, yet still neat and trim, and there was a lot of trees and greenery – probably why they call it the Garden State – that made it all seem so homely. It was late by the time we made it to Laura’s place, so after a quick tour of the family home we hit they hay. The following morning, we went for a drive to with Laura to pick up Melissa’s friend Asha before driving to the state border with Pennsylvania to visit a flea market. We browsed the markets for a while, and I bought a pair of sunglasses to replace the ones Kathi had given me in Vienna, which were literally falling apart by now. Laura insisted that they were a gift from here, forcing me to put my wallet away, and afterwards we drove back over the border for her to treat us to lunch in a quite, leafy little area. I don’t remember the names of many of these places – I just let the locals take me wherever they thought was best.

I also experienced a couple of things that felt like a huge culture shock to me, but were completely normal for all of my American companions. For Laura to make her famous spaghetti and meatballs, we had to visit a grocery store. Not like the ones in New York though, which had an extraordinary range crammed into an unbelievably small space. The supermarket we went to was huge – it even had its own free wifi network. And the selection of brands within certain types of products was simply staggering. Potato chips? There had to be at least 20 different brands, all with their full range of flavours. Chocolate bars? They basically had their own entire aisle just to cater for the range of selections. I found it completely overwhelming. The other thing I found peculiar that was apparently common in these parts was drive-thru anything and everything. I hadn’t seen it as much in New York, probably because hardly anyone owns their own car in the big city, but out here it seemed to be a very standard thing. We have drive-thru establishments in Australia, but they’re usually limited to fast food restaurants, and the occasional movie theatre. But on our drive back home to New York, Laura told us she had to stop at the bank. I was expecting her to have to park somewhere and visit a branch, but instead we turned off the road an into a driveway. Yep, there was a drive-thru bank. Your money gets delivered to your car window in a little express tube. It was like Laura was a secret agent or something. There might be Americans reading this thinking, “Yeah… and? What’s the big deal?” That, my friends, doesn’t not happen in Australia. Or anywhere else in the world, as far as I have seen.

I was even impressed – or surprised, at the very least – by a drive-thru Starbucks. I mean, I guess it makes sense, but I’ve seen a lot of Starbucks all over the world (thank God for free wifi) and that one in New Jersey was the first I’d ever seen with a drive-thru lane. Melissa and Asha found my sense of wonder amusing, though I had to refrain from making the critique that this whole obsession was drive-thru’s was actually incredibly lazy – mainly because it really was just so damn convenient.

***

In the way of tourism, there wasn’t a lot to see in New Jersey. No museums, no iconic landmarks, nothing like that. The state itself is the butt of more How I Met Your Mother jokes than I can keep track of, and I guess in a way it sort of lives up to that reputation. It’s peaceful, clean, relaxing – everything that New York isn’t. But I still thoroughly enjoyed my brief visit to the Garden State, not only because I spent it with such fantastic company, but because I got to see a part of the country that isn’t really on every tourists to-do list. I’m always saying that I like to live and experience places the way that the locals do, and when you visit places like the suburbs of New Jersey, you don’t really have any other choice. I saw a very different corner of the world, one that I think a lot of people are too quick to brush over when doing a tour of the US. Of course, not everyone has as much time to go off the beaten track as I did, but if you do – and you know some locals who will show you around – I would definitely recommend to any travellers to go beyond what you think you know from the corny American high school movies, and actually experience that setting for yourself. I returned to New York with Melissa feeling refreshed from my stay in the suburbs, and with a tonne of leftovers of what was potentially the best spaghetti and meatballs ever made.

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“Home is where your phone recognises the wifi”

After the weekend of depravity and sin, it was mostly back to the working week for Ralf, which gave me some time to sort out my next move in the bigger scheme of things on this world tour. While I was flying by the seat of the pants for the majority of the trip, there were times when I really had to sit down and look at a map and figure out at least the general direction of where I would be heading next. My romp through mainland Europe was almost at an end, so I had to start thinking beyond trains and onto planes and international airports. However, there was sufficient time to just hang out with Ralf, and some of the other friends I had made in Berlin.

***

One afternoon, Ralf took me to a park near his house that had a lookout with a view over the north-eastern side of Berlin. He pointed out certain structures and gave me interesting, little historical facts about the area. Afterwards we took a walk through some of the greenery, stopped for ice cream, and I just enjoyed not being on such a tight schedule of trains and sightseeing and searching for Couchsurfing hosts.

A sculpture at the lookout in  Volkspark Humboldthain, the park near Ralf's place.

A sculpture at the lookout in Volkspark Humboldthain, the park near Ralf’s place.

The view of Berlin from the lookout.

The view of Berlin from the lookout.

Ralf leading the way through the park.

Ralf leading the way through the park.

The greenery of Volkspark Humboldthain.

The greenery of Volkspark Humboldthain.

Berlin's TV Tower from a new angle.

Berlin’s TV Tower from a new angle.

Another afternoon I went on a trek down south in the city to visit Tempelhof Airport, not because I had a plane to catch, but because the airport had ceased operation in 2008 and been converted into a huge parklands area. Rivalling the Tiergarten in size, the park was full of people enjoying the afternoon sun – riding their bicycles, walking their dogs, playing sports and having picnics. I swear I saw a couple of shady looking guys hanging out in the trees, beckoning me over in what I can only assume was an attempt to sell me drugs, but they spoke in German so I just shook my head and kept on walking.

The transformed Tempelhof Airport.

The park surrounding the transformed Tempelhof airport – the old airport itself is much more flat. 

A rose garden within the Tempelhof airport park.

A rose garden within the Tempelhof airport park.

After that I met up with Micha for a drink. The last time I had seen Micha was on his birthday, during my last weekend in Berlin, and I had been slumped over the bar at Rauschgold, struggling to stay awake. He’d said to drop him a line if I was ever back in Berlin, though like Ralf, I don’t think he was expecting me to be back quite so soon. Yet we did catch up for a drink, and I told him more about my travels throughout Europe, and it was a strange but nice feeling to actually have familiar faces to catch up with in a familiar city. Micha had work to do though, so it was only a quick afternoon drink before he had to head off again. Though on my way back to the U-Bahn station, who should I run into but Donatella and Eva, on their way out to get some dinner. I guess it wasn’t too much of a surprise, considering that we were only a ten minute walk away from the apartment where I had been staying during my first time in Berlin, but randomly running into people you know on the street was definitely an experience that I had not had in a long time – the closest thing would have been bumping to Xavier at his work during Parisian Pride, and that wasn’t exactly a good thing. I had told Donatella I would be back in town, but I’d spent a lot of time on the other side of the city in Ralf’s neighbourhood, so hadn’t gotten around to catching up with her again. We stopped and chatted for a little bit before saying farewells and parting ways, knowing that it would most certainly be a much longer time before I was ever back in this crazy city. But I skipped off down the street with a little spring in my step and a grin on my face. I felt like a bit of a local, or at least like I had left my mark in the city, by the fact that there were even familiar faces I could bump into on the street.

***

When I’d arrived at Ralf’s for this second visit to Berlin, I’d collapsed on the couch and tried to sort out my personal belongings a little bit, without taking over his living room entirely. When I pulled out my iPhone I almost went to ask for the wifi password, but then I remembered that I had been here before, and the bars of signal had already appeared at the top of the screen.
“I have this friend”, Ralf said to me when he noticed, “who has this favourite saying: home is where your phone recognises the wifi.” He smiled as he helped me unpack my things and sort out my dirty laundry. “So welcome home, or at least, home for now.” It was nice to have a familiar place to crash, and it did feel a little like home away from home. But it wasn’t just Ralf’s apartment – it was Berlin itself.

I remember talking about it with my sister via Skype, who had just relocated to Hawaii a month or so beforehand.
“I know what you mean,” she said when I told her of the unexplainable connection I felt with the place. “I never thought I would ever want to live in another city, let alone another county! But the first time I came here I just loved it – I hated having to leave, and I knew I had to come back.” I had been to quite a number of cities on my travels so far, but there was something that had drawn me back here, and I knew exactly what my sister was talking about.
“I just really feel like I could live here, you know? Like if someone told me ‘Your trip ends here, you have to stay’, I would be completely okay with that.” Of course, there were still so many destinations in my future that I was so excited to see, so that wasn’t entirely true – I’d be pretty upset if I was unable to do all the other things I’d been planning. But in terms of actually spending time in a city, getting amongst it and actually living there – Berlin had already truly won my heart.

The Worldwide Web: Connectivity on the Road

When I was discussing my travel plans with a friend back in Sydney, I remember saying to him, “Part of me just wants to escape, and be totally disconnected, you know? Like, just set off into the world without a phone, or a Facebook, and just get completely lost in the world around me.” It was a highly romanticised idea, and one that I obviously didn’t follow through on, but reflecting back on that moment gave me reason to pause and reflect on just how far from that original idea my journey has deviated. In the 21st Century, with so many different media platforms and channels of communication, it’s never very difficult to stay logged in and connected. In fact, quite the opposite is true – no matter where you are in the world, your online identity is essentially able to follow you everywhere.

***

South-East Asia is very in tune with the needs of its tourist population. Not so much in Bangkok, but all through southern Thailand in the islands, in Ho Chi Minh City, and all throughout Cambodia, free WiFi is prevalent like a digital plague. Every bar, restaurant, club, hostel, even some of the charter buses between cities provided you with Internet access. Unfortunately it promotes the rampant and semi-narcissistic holiday Facebook posting – be in statues, photos or check-ins – that I know I myself am entirely guilty of, but it meant that keeping in touch with family and friends back home was as easy as if I was in the next suburb rather than the neighbouring continent. What I did find particularly interesting in Cambodia though, was that the rise of the wireless connection saw a steep decline in the provision of regular desktop computers. I noticed this when I was chatting with Laura in our hostel in Phnom Penh.
“They have the WiFi, which is good for most people, but I don’t have a smartphone or anything like that,” she’d told me. “All I want to do is send a quick email to my mum, but the guy over there can’t even get the computer to work properly.” The hostel had a single ancient computer stuffed away in the corner of the common room, which I’m pretty sure was mostly occupied by one of the hostel employees, who I’m fairly sure was either playing online poker or watching porn most of the time.

I offered Laura the use of my iPad to check and send her emails, for which she was incredibly grateful, but it really made me wonder how the hell I had ever expected to get anywhere on this journey without the assistance of my iPhone and a web connection. Thankfully the GPS system even works without Internet connection – to this day I would probably still be wandering around the streets of Saigon if it weren’t for that brilliant piece of Google Maps technology. But the relatively constant connection still has its drawbacks – you’re afforded all the luxuries you didn’t want to give up, but are simultaneously stuck with the things you would rather go without. Arguments and dramas within groups of friends back home, which have really nothing to do with you since you weren’t there at the time, are suddenly just as much your problem since you can be CCed into a discussion at the click of a button. It’s slightly frustrating, but thankfully there were many opportunities to switch the devices off and go and lose yourself in a city that couldn’t care less about your trivial dilemmas.

***

On my last night in Thailand, Rathana shocked me with a revelation that I had somehow managed to overlook in planning my visit to China. “How are you gonna let people know you arrived safely? You can’t use Facebook in China.” Say what? Of course, I am an idiot for not knowing more about China’s heavy Internet censorship laws, but I just said to myself, No worries, I’ll only be in Beijing for a couple of days anyway.
Flash forward to the Vodkatrain briefing meeting with Snow, and afterwards Tim was telling us about some of the journeys he’d already had through China. “Yeah, it’s been a few weeks without Facebook,” he said when the topic was raised. “But you know, I don’t even miss it. It’s been kinda liberating, really.”
A couple of hours later, and a few of us were sitting around the lobby of the hotel in China. A few minutes before we had been chatting away, until my Googling of “How to use Facebook in China” back in Bangkok had finally paid off, and I found a free and reliable VPN connection that allowed us to connect to the Internet via a portal somewhere in Texas. Tim was singing a different tune now that access to Facebook was a feasible thing again, and we all posted from our Facebook accounts in China, simply to show off the fact that we could.
“Robert! You’ve created a monster!” Alyson said in a tone of humorous exasperation, and we all laughed at the comment, though there was an echo of truth in the statement. I don’t really know whether or not I should have been surprised, but it was bizarre the way a proper unrestricted Internet connection could so heavily impact upon the experience.

Yet once we were on the trains across the Trans-Siberian, not even a VPN network was going to save us from technological isolation. But I found myself feeling very accepting with that. I mean, in the end I was being forced to do something I had actually wanted to do, but had proved a much harder task for my self control. I guess there’s more than a grain of truth in the term ‘Facebook addiction’. With the exception of a couple of restaurants and our hotels in Ulaanbaatar and Irkutsk, Beijing to Moscow was a relatively Internet free zone. Being out in the Mongolian wilderness was like a dream, untouched both physically and mentally from the outside world. The train from Irkutsk to Moscow gave all of us plenty of time to really get to know each other, and I ended up making some pretty good friends in people like Kaylah and Tim. True, we all went a little stir crazy by the end of the four day trek, but I don’t think the ability to numb our minds with the Internet would have made much of a difference. In a lot of ways, the freedom from the grasp of demons like Facebook and the ability to enjoy the uninterrupted attention and company of my fellow travellers is one the things I miss the most about that epic train journey.

***

Europe is a different story. “Finland has recently made access to wireless Internet a basic human right for all it’s citizens”, Susanna told me when I arrived in Finland. “So you can pick up WiFi pretty much anywhere in the city centre.” Despite that, the Internet in Susanna’s apartment was not WiFi, but a portable data device which was plugged into her laptop. So while I couldn’t use my own devices, I was able to use a real computer for the first time in many weeks, which actually took a little getting used to. The rest of Europe was pretty reliable in providing free public wireless Internet, whether it was in a bar, a hostel, or the nearest Starbucks. If I was lost or needed directions, it was less a matter of asking the nearest person for directions, and more a matter of looking for the closest, strongest signal.

My stay in Berlin involved a peculiar set up when it came to connectivity. “Yeah, so, we’re still working on the Internet”, Donatella told me when I first arrived. “Someone was supposed to come today, but they said there was something wrong with the building, and they’re coming next week. Which is a load of crap, because every other apartment in this building had WiFi – you can see them all whenever you search for a network!”
The only Internet access we had at home was when Simon was home and we were able to piggy-back off his 3G connection. Which was easy enough, except that you could never be sure of when Simon would or wouldn’t be home. Eva and I often made little outings together to grab a coffee, with the ulterior motive of logging back into the online world. The whole time I was there, the Internet was never sorted out – half the reason I stayed with Ralf on my last night in Berlin was so that I had a reliable Internet connection to make my booking for the hostel in Cologne. It did made organising meeting up with Dane during my stay a little more difficult: he didn’t have a working SIM card, and I didn’t always have WiFi – it really makes you wonder how people did anything back in the days before all these technologies. Postcards weren’t a novelty to send home, they were actually a way of letting people know you were still alive!

***

When I checked into the hostel in Paris, the woman in reception gave me a run down of the facilities in the place. “The wireless Internet isn’t free – you have to register, log in and then pay as you go.” The expression on my face must have been pretty filthy, because the then added: “But… there is a McDonalds just around the corner, so… yeah… do what you will with that.” Needless to say, I was a regular patron at that McDonalds while I was in Paris. The fact she even threw in that last comment proves just how much travellers rely on things like an Internet connection close to where they’re staying. Whether its for communication, organisation or research, for better or for worse, the Internet has become an integral part of traveling for tourists and travellers everywhere.