Thursday, 28 February 2013

To the west...San Fran?

Excuse the bad attire but early mornings mean joggers and hoodies

So the next leg of my US tour began with an 8 hour flight to America’s west coast. We stopped briefly to changeover in Kansas City for a Dorothy moment before carrying on to San Francisco.

The music, the architecture, the people, these were all things I had heard people mention when talking about San Francisco. I on the other hand, was just so excited about seeing where the Princess Diaries had been filmed. I wanted to see the cool trams that Mia uses in the film, where she lives in the funky loft with her mum and most importantly that big triangular building in the background of every shot. This was as cultured as I was at 18. Unfortunately, I never found Princess Mia’s haunts but I did get to ride a tram and see the triangular building better known as the Transamerica Pyramid, the tallest skyscraper in the city.

Having only two days in San Fran, myself and my other “poms,” embarked on a whistle stop tour dragging our jet-lagged booties across town. We had only been out of camp for a few days and most of those consisted of partying in NYC. The exhaustion was hitting us, tummy problems from adjusting to the decent food was taking us down one by one and a ban from dropping the D-bomb was imposed. Definite pick-me-ups were needed and San Francisco did the job. 

Day one we began by wandering the city to get our bearings and we met some of the locals along the way. Approached by numerous homeless folk and ladies of the night, our day was filled with giggles and surprises at what San Fran and its residents had to offer. 

Sophie, my fellow traveler and a human geography student, had learnt all about the city’s suburbs and was keen to visit the quirky parks and kooky restaurants she said lay just outside the centre. After 4 hours on a local bus, not a tour bus, the driver eventually turned to ask us where on earth we were going. Sophie had to admit she had no idea where we were and indeed had us lost. We sat on the bus until we arrived back where we had started. Now this wasted four hours was not all in vain, we did get to see many a homeless shelter and run down building but nothing resembling Soph’s studies.

Day two. This day started at 3am, yes you heard right. Traveling isn’t all glamourous hotels and luxurious lie ins, no no you have to make sacrifices if you want to see all there is to see. 

Reaching the docks by 4 am we queued for 5 hours to make sure we could get on the boat to Alcatraz. The queues for the world’s most famous prison seem infinite and if you are not there early enough you won’t get a ticket. Here’s where I offer another piece of ‘Bex FYI,’ if you want to see Alcatraz book online way in advance or you’ll be forced to bear the early morning wind and a sore behind after sitting on a hard pavement for hours. You'll also save $5 off the $43 ticket price. 

The waiting game paid off for us though and we finally got shipped off to prison. Alcatraz is steep in american history and even if you are not a history buff the cells, where the likes of Al Capone stayed, are well worth a visit. 

The other essential landmark to visit in San Fran is the Golden Gate Bridge.  Now this is where you do as I say not as I do. If you wish to cycle across the bridge and pretend you’re in a Hollywood rom-com the obvious, although apparently not to me, place to get the rented bikes is down in the city centre. This way you can cycle up to and across the bridge. Arriving by taxi as we did means you merely get to take a few photo snaps and walk a few steps on the iconic bridge.

Even on a cold, wet and horrible day, the views were spectacular but the bridge isn’t one for the faint hearted. The sea below is a long way down and even an adrenaline junkie like me got a few shivers. Nevertheless, the beautiful bridge that marks the opening of the San Francisco bay into the Pacific Ocean is a significant landmark to cross off the list. 

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Oh so popular

Touching the Empire State from the Rockefeller

One day, alone in NYC, at 18, I was killing some time in the 'Big Apple' before I flew back to the UK. I spent 24 hours wandering the sky-scraping streets and the tree-lined parks. I walked amongst the glamourous and the quirky, the professionals and the travelers. I let my eyes feast on all the city had to behold. 

Now for those of you who don’t know me personally I seem to have a tattoo on my forehead that states “wierdos, crazies and oddballs here.” This is a message, that seems to have followed me for years, and has provided my friends and I with many a giggle. New York was no different but let me be clear that the people I tell you about may just as well have been extremely friendly gentlemen as crazy-ass nutbags.

The first man to cross my path was a rocker. Dressed in skinny-leg jeans with chains dangling from each loophole and a slipknot tee-shirt, his piercings matched his Mohican hairstyle perfectly. My wholesome tourist appearance must have caught his eye. I was wearing my new “I love NYC” t-shirt, with my camera round my neck and sunnies on my head. Be assured that over the years I have learnt to kerb my tourist ways and blend in more whilst traveling. Not a good idea to flash your valuables and bop around like a city newbie. 

Anyway, Zachary the rocker, struck up conversation. I disappointed him with my lack of Slipknot knowledge but realising I was alone he invited me to an underground club opening that night in Soho. He offered to dye my hair and pierce my nose if I wanted. I took his number but knew I would decline the offer. 

After my encounter with the creepy Zachary, I was colecting my thoughts in Union Square subway station when a man in his late fifties threw his arms around me. “You’re here,” he says. With a vacant expression plastered on my face I finally manage to prise his arms off me and ask who the hell he was. His response was an embarrassed and fumbled apology explaining that he thought I was one of his students that would be lodging in his house. Afraid not, I remark. “But you look just like the girl I’m supposed to be picking up.” Sorry, still not me. He asks where I’m going and I say I am just visiting all the tourist attractions. He practically jumps on that and hauls me onto the subway with him. He says he’ll show me all I need to see. 

All I can think is crap, crap, poopy, crap. I am now at the mercy of a granddad and start to think of excuses to get away. In his button down shirt with his salt and pepper hair all thoughts of the girl he was supposed to be meeting seemed to disappear and I wonder if I’ve found another crazy. Why have I let this man steal me away? 

After a while my nervousness subsides and 'Papa Tom' turns out to be a good tour guide. Born and bred in NYC he knows all the good haunts in the upper east side. He shows be fascinating buildings and famous streets but after an hour or so I think it’s time I get out of here. As nice as he is this is just stepping over the creepy line. I make the excuses that I am meeting friends and he offers to walk me to the nearest metro. Except that he doesn't. We walk and I trust he knows his way but eventually we stop outside an apartment block. “Wanna come up?” he says. Err hell to the no, what have I gotten myself in to? “I have a map you can have, I just need to grab it.”  Alarm bells start violently ringing in my head.  I make it very clear I am staying put and let him run up. I stand there frozen to the spot. Do I run? Do I stay? Is he a nice old man or is he coming down the stairs with his mafia brother to eat me? 

I stay, stupid as it sounds, and he returns mafia-less and brings the map. He walks me to the subway and I breath a sigh of relief. Strange and random as it was, I was safe and had gotten rid of my tour guide. Then I opened the map...inside is a phone number and a message saying to meet him tonight for dinner? Mmmm is this a date? Our clear age difference makes that an automatic no. Once again I decide not to take up the invite and as much as I am sure it is just a sincere gesture I had had enough random men in my life for one day.

However, I had one more left to meet that day . Heading out a few hours later for an evening stroll I am approached by a John Mayer look-a-like. He asks me for directions but noticing my english accent he realises I can't help him. 

He continues to ask me questions and tells me he's in the music business, don’t they all I told myself. He tells me he is in the middle of helping record Nick Canon’s, Mariah Carey’s husband’s, album that night. Did I want to come along later and watch him record? Now I know what you’re thinking...potential murderer here? pimp? or just some sleaze? I could hear my grandmother’s voice in my head saying “Don’t do it Bex!” And she was probably right, dodgy idea. Still, I thought he was a nice guy and again appreciated the offer. I accepted his number but once again declined to take him up on it. Either a wise choice or a missed opportunity to be a Nick Canon groupie.

My point is that 24 hours alone in the city that never sleeps leaves you with new friends and a full social calender. Whether they were all creepy creeps or genuine gentlemen, I could have enjoyed a series of nights out with people who may just have been friendly. One night in the city, imagine one year? So so friendly.

Just one of the reasons I love that pretzel eating, broadway singing,  taxi hooting city.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

New York Baby

This picture marks one of the best weekends of my life and, the many more to come in NYC.

After a raucous and exhausting few months stashed away in Pennsylvania’s deepest valleys, 150 camp counsellors are dropped in the heart of Manhattan’s jungle; Times Square. You can only imagine the energy and excitement that catches like wild fire among young and eager counsellors; like animals being let loose.

New York City became my favourite place as soon as I stepped off the bus. Aside from partying on hotel rooftops, eating copious amounts of pepperoni pizza and hardcore celeb spotting, of course I hit up all the tourist hotspots. The iconic monuments you see in movies and the infamous landscapes painted on posters are all there for you to feast your eyes upon. 

“It’s just like in the films. Like really, just like it. I feel like I’m in a Hollywood movie,” I remember shouting to my mum down the phone as I stood somewhere between west 34th and broadway. I think those first few hours knocked the wind right out of me. I remember feeling overwhelmed and crazed with wonder. My eyes couldn’t take in all the magic before me. I know you’re thinking what a cheese-ball but I’m afraid when it comes to NYC it is the love of my life. 

So what to see and do...The city is so big and there is so much on offer that it can be hard to know where to start but this is where I introduce tip number one. In every city I am a true travel geek and get myself on a tour. Usually, if you’re staying in a hostel they provide free walking tours (always the better option-more personal, more info and less money.) A tour bus is a quick fire way to learn about a new place, get your bearings and decide on exactly you want to see during your stay. It’s also a speedy tool to help boost you in the culture vulture stakes. My grandparents always think I’m so intelligent and well-cultured when I drop in the tour I did here and the one I did there. It helps if you can rattle off a few well rehearsed bites of info too

The NYC tour bus costs around $64 and whilst it is hard on the pocket it allows you access on 2 routes across 3 districts over 2 days and nights. It takes you past all the main attractions allowing for some good photo ops. Union Square, Radio City, the Empire State, the Golden Bull, Brooklyn Bridge, China town, Little Italy, everything you never believe truly existed.

A tour bus makes it a little easier to decide what you want to see and do however, after 3 visits to New York I still have a 2 page long list that needs ticking off. 

However, some of my highlights include the free boat that takes passengers  from Manhattan over to Staten Island where you can see the Statue of Liberty. Although you don’t get to see the statue up close, if you time it well you can see the statue amid a Manhattan sunset.

The 9/11 memorial museum is another of the main attractions that I insist needs a visit. It is only $10 to enter and the experience you take away from it is harrowing but something you won’t forget.

And there’s always a toss up between the  Rockefeller or the Empire State. Which one to climb? I have only ever been up the Rockefeller but there are 2 reasons for this. Number one being that if you go up the Rockefeller your pictures will have that oh-so-famous backdrop of manhattan’s skyline with the Empire State Building clearly visible. Number 2 is that the Rockefeller is the bigger of the two so if you are an adrenaline junkie like me, you get a little kick knowing you’re as high as you’re gonna get in the best city in the world. 

To be continued...

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Summer Lovin'...what not to love?

Cast of Round Lake's Summer Production of Grease 2009

“Summer lovin had me a blast...summer lovin’ happened so fast.” Probably the most iconic words for Round Lake Camp 2009. 

Yes, camp holds host to many summer romances making this song an appropriate soundtrack to the summer, but these lyrics signify more than just the summer night hook ups; our camp production was the legendary Grease musical. Unlucky for anyone that wasn’t into 60s rock n roll, this soundtrack blasted on repeat day and night. We ate our breakfast whilst humming “You’re the on that I Want” and we went to bed tapping the tune to "Grease Lightening." 
Almost four years later, if I am shaking my stuff in a club and the DJ starts to run dry and play cheesy pop, and "Summer Lovin" comes blasting through the speakers, I’m taken back to my days rehearsing crazy routines in the sweltering summer heat and hand jiving the months away.

As dance specialist, it was my job to choreograph the dances and teach the kids just how to strut their stuff for the big performance. Myself, along with drama specialists (Jess and Leanne) busted a rib, literally, trying to get the production ready on time. Stress, chaos and exhaustion was the picture of myself, Jess and Leanne. During rehearsals there was many a day the girls would turn to each other and said “na this isn’t gonna happen.” But after weeks of late night set building, bruised knees and sore throats the production all came together.

The hard work did pay off and contributed to a very proud and emotional moment (yes I cried like a baby.) To see these kids, that each struggle with their own different disabilities, overcoming them to perform your routines is overwhelming. For many of these kids managing to learn a script or a routine may seem impossible and the idea of standing in front of hundreds of people can be their worst nightmare. However, every child overcame their personal boundaries and performed an amazing and utterly unique performance of Grease. 

The other children and counsellors gave a standing ovation and the demand for “one more song” meant a mini dance party on stage. Still a young and shy 18 year old, I was mortified at the idea of having to get up and accept my flowers but I did and it’s a memory I won’t forget. Even now I get shivers when I relive the it. I had never felt so proud of myself for having helped these children be part of something special or as proud of my friends for doing the same and the kids for being so wonderful. This photo marks that moment for me; the finale of Grease with all my wonderful kids. That truly is what camp, especially Round Lake, is all about; everyone pushing themselves to their own limits, doing things you’ve never done before and having the time of your life.

Do I have to say anymore to recommend taking part in a Camp America Programme? No matter what your age, background or experience, camp can be life changing and the best fun you'll ever have. it has you doing things you never imagined with people you never knew existed. It opens up your mind in so many ways and stays with you for the rest of your life. Why do you think I kept going back? It is pure Summer Lovin'!

Monday, 11 February 2013

Round Lake Camp, Pennsylvania ♥


So let's start at the beginning, always a good place to start. When I was 18 I was fairly shy and happy enough to fade into the crowd. This trip, my first trip, changed all of that.

I had always wanted to travel and was determined to do so as soon as I left school. I defiantly stood up to the family whose woes and worries meant they implored me not to leave. They felt the need to showcase some of the scariest horror films, all set in the US, in an attempt to make me stay. It nearly worked, but I armed myself with a can of mace and promised I wouldn't stray on deserted farms where potential chainsaw yielding men may be seeking camp counsellors. 

So I applied to Camp America and got accepted to Round Lake Camp, Pennsylvania. I think possibly the best decision I ever made right there. It was an affordable way to go and see some of the world, I worked for 2 months and my visa gave me an extra few months to travel afterwards. Camp America helped me through the visa process, dealt with my medical insurance and organised the flights. I knew I would be looked after by a reliable company if something went wrong. It was the perfect solution for a young traveller with limited resources.

It also seemed like the safest way to go travelling alone. However, I don't think I actually was ever alone. From the moment I stepped on that plane at Heathrow with my bright red T-shirt claiming "Woo I'm going to camp," until the moment I arrived back a dirty brown colour walking through UK customs with no shoes (a story I will later explain), I was not alone. 

I met aussies and israelis, americans and dominicans, chileans and columbians and a whole host of fellow Brits. These people became summer family and many of them remain my all time besties.

I worked for 8 weeks at Round Lake which is a special needs camp for Jewish children. It's hard to put into words the experiences I had there but I feel this picture pretty much sums it up. I remember writing home to my parents and describing camp as Dirty Dancing meets Snakes on a absolute riot but oh the time of my life. I was the camp's dance specialist and thought of myself as a Johnny Castle type and the kids ensured that the summer was filled with joyful chaos and raucous activity.

As with any trip, it is the people you meet that make it. Although you may not keep in touch with every person you ever met on your travels, they all stick with you because you share those camp memories; that includes the kids as well as the staff. For them, you were their mums and dads for the summer and they sure become as much a part of your life as you were in theirs. 

Of course working 24 hours a day with challenging kids pushes you to your limits but that is why the people you meet become your closest friends. You see each other at your ultimate highs and your all time lows, whether that's dancing on tables in the local hillbilly bar or getting caught stashing an un-kosher pizza into your bunk.

I couldn't recommend going to work in a summer camp more. It made me grow that back bone mum always said I needed, and gain the independence that today stands me in good stead. Camp gave me unforgettable memories, the time to travel the rest of the US afterwards, the friends to travel with, the money to pay for it; the only price you have to pay is the fatty fatty bum bum you come home with after months of PB and J sandwiches.

This picture is of the lake at camp. The lake that I cursed every morning when I had to dive into the icy cold water. The lake I refused to get in after a scary spider ran across my face, much to the children's delight, but the lake I loved come Friday night when all was calm and the sun began to set. 

Friday night was Shabbat at camp. We celebrated with songs and dances despite the fact that probably 90% of staff were not jewish- it was just fun. The view as you can see above was so beautiful and Shabbat just meant a good time.

 I will never forget my three summers at Round Lake Camp, it's a part of who I am. This picture marks my time there. It is my most sacred place on earth.