Goodbye, Saint Louis!

I didn’t know this for certain until today, but this is my last day in Saint Louis. There have been a few hiccups in finding somewhere to stay in Miami, and yesterday, the day before my flight was due to leave, I still had nowhere to go once I land there. A friend of mine was calling friends of his and waiting for their responses, and while I waited I had a goodbye meal with friends, packed my suitcases, and eventually went to sleep without knowing whether or not I was really leaving. This morning I woke up with an email confirming that a place has been found, and now all I’m waiting for is a phone call to make arrangements to be met at the airport. One of my personal philosophies is this: ‘Don’t worry. Ever.’ (Deep, I know.) So to be left without knowing where I am staying until the last minute has been a test of this mind set. (I’d like to say that I have passed this test with flying colours).

Now I know that I’m definitely leaving, I feel kind of sad. I arrived in Saint Louis two months ago (it feels like only two weeks) without having any idea of what to expect, but during my time here I have met new people and made lasting friendships which I really value, I have come to love the city of Saint Louis, and (here comes the cliché – brace yourselves:) I feel I have grown as a person (sorry).

I am truly going to miss this place and the friends I have made, but I am definitely going to return some day, hopefully very soon. This is a short post because I need to finish packing my suitcase and get it into my head that I am actually leaving in a matter of hours. I also need to arrange being met at the airport. Anyway, I will update you on my travels when I arrive in Miami!

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Baseball, Pagans and the Ghetto! – A Quick Update of My Time in St. Louis

A heavy thunder storm has recently passed, and I have come to sit out on the wooden porch, my favourite part of the house, to enjoy this fleeting moment in time where the rain has just ceased to fall and the sun has proudly re-emerged. The earth and its buildings and trees are now momentarily lit in exaggerated colours against the black clouds, and the branches, still dripping, stretch out and hang above the porch on which I am currently sitting, upon a wicker rocking chair, listening to the birds which have just re-appeared.

I thought I would take this opportunity to write, as it has been almost three weeks since I last posted, to give you a quick update of some of the things I have recently been up to.

I went to my first baseball game. Actually, it was the first sporting event I’ve ever attended, not just baseball. I didn’t go out of a love for the sport. Not even a lukewarm affection. In actual fact, I knew nothing (and still don’t) about baseball – I just went for the cultural experience. Everyone in St. Louis supports the Cardinals baseball team, so going to watch a game was something I had to do while I’m here. After sitting through the game, I came to the conclusion that I haven’t been missing much by having never gone to a sporting event before. I felt like I spent the entire three hours just waiting for the game to begin, when suddenly everyone got up and left and apparently the game was over. I can’t say I completely didn’t enjoy myself though. It was fun to see how involved the crowd got with the game, even though I couldn’t tell what was going on, or even if anything was being played. The jolly organ music which played sporadically was like something I think I’ve heard in movies (probably My Best Friend’s Wedding), and the singing of ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’ during the 7th inning (is that the correct terminology? – I don’t really know what I’m talking about) was fun (though I didn’t join in. 1 – I don’t know the words, and 2 – I don’t sing. Ever.)

I’ve visited many restaurants and have been introduced to some new cuisines including Vietnamese and Ethiopian. (Both extremely delicious and I will be looking for similar places in London when I return home)

My first taste of Vietnamese food. So good!

I found myself walking through a Pagan festival, and quickly came to the conclusion that the title ‘Pagan festival’ was just a cover-up for what was in reality nothing more than a weird people’s convention. Stalls sold things like magic wands (sticks obviously picked up from the park floor a few meters away), chainmail bikinis, paranormal investigation services, and lots of tie-dye. The festival attendees were some of the strangest people I had ever seen, and to see so many peculiar characters in one place was truly a memorable experience. People came dressed like wizards or extras from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (but they were serious) or half naked in swim suits (if not in chainmail or tie-dye). I was dying to take photos of this – the most surreal situation I have found myself in to date. But I didn’t feel comfortable pointing my huge SLR in these bizarre people’s faces, being uncertain of the reactions this might have provoked from them. My friend, however, was slyly taking photos of everyone using her phone whilst she pretended to text. When I get hold of the photos she took I will upload them onto this post for your viewing pleasure, but for now I will leave them to your imagination.

I took a driving tour over to East St. Louis – a separate city to St Louis (though they’re often assumed to be one and the same) located on the other side of the Mississippi, which is the dividing line between Missouri and Illinois. The area is known for being the most deprived ghetto in the United States, and I was interested to see the striking contrast between living conditions from literally one side of the river to the other. East St Louis has the highest crime rate in the USA, including a murder rate of 101.9 per population of 100,000, in comparison to the US national average of just 5.6 per 100,000. We drove through the city, a crumbling ghost town that resembled the set of some post-apocalyptic movie, without stopping; except for when Zach, the designated diver for the day, drove over one of the innumerable potholes too fast, causing the engine to shut down and the rear-view mirror to fall off. The car ground to a halt under a decaying railway track, and I thought the whole ordeal was quite hilarious. Zach, however, did not; and upon finally getting the engine to successfully restart, drove back over the river as quickly as he could. A curious fact which I find quite sad, is that the city’s racial makeup is 98% black, in a nation where black people make up just 12% of the population. Visiting the city made me wonder why nothing is being done to revitalize the area, which seems to have been abandoned and discarded – sitting squalid and depressed just a two minutes’ drive across the bridge from a city of million dollar homes and thriving businesses.

(I didn’t take these last two photos – I found them online. I thought that was a smarter idea than taking my camera with me over to the east side.)

On a brighter note, I went to Food Truck Friday (again). A growing trend in American cities is food truck dining. No, not those greasy kebab vans that we’re all too used to in England; the food is good, restaurant quality, gourmet stuff. The trucks are generally extensions of already established and well-loved independent restaurants, which drive to a different location of the city each day, informing their followers of their whereabouts via social networking sites. Though generally it is the successful and independent restaurants which launch their own trucks as extensions of their businesses, it is not uncommon for food trucks to begin as just that – self depending food trucks; sometimes even launching a restaurant in a fixed location as a follow up of the truck’s success. Driving through the city you will often see a food truck parked on a street corner with its patrons crowding around it. Erin, the daughter of Mike and Linda, works for a prominent food magazine here in St Louis, and on the second Friday of every summer month the magazine hosts ‘Food Truck Friday’, where some of the city’s best trucks (around 20 of them) come together at a park for the afternoon through early evening, and around two to four thousand people show up to buy good quality food and have a picnic, accompanied by live music! It is a fun event; the trucks do all kinds of food – Indian, Middle Eastern, American, German, Vietnamese, Mexican, Korean… Mexican and Korean fusion! The list goes on. There are also trucks that specialise in desserts, and there I tasted the best cupcake of my life (sorry mum) it was salted caramel… mmm.

One of the trucks (you can’t see well on this photo but it even has a roof garden!)

The cupcake truck’s menu board

These are just a few of the things I’ve been doing during my stay here. I’m enjoying myself, making new friends, and getting to know and love St Louis more and more each day! Next week I will be flying to San Antonio, Texas to spend a week with friends there, before returning back to St Louis for a final week. I am looking forward to this, and will let you know what I get up to in my next few posts.

Channelling my Inner Masculinity at the Shooting Range!

Being out here in the Midwest over the last two weeks, I have been forced to channel my inner masculinity. Two posts ago you read about my camping experience where we carried trees above our heads, ate steaks using sticks for cutlery and slept in the middle of nature without even showering afterwards. Also, during my time in St. Louis I have found myself doing other manly things such as hacking away the roots of a removed tree from the lawn using a pick axe and smoking a pipe (though not at the same time). So it was only natural that today I go down to the range to shoot some guns.

hacking the lawn with a pickaxe – the most exercise I’ve done in my life

This morning I accompanied Mike to the gun store – an intimidating place where all kinds of dead animals’ heads stare dauntingly down at you from the walls and thousands of rifles, pistols, machetes, knifes, and other weaponry are displayed in glass cabinets. We were here to buy some bullets to shoot with, and during our visit Mike questioned the cashier about a new gun he was interested in. I was impressed by his apparently infinite knowledge on the subject – especially with him being the church pastor – but this seems to be a common hobby around here! (I later found out that he wanted to know about the gun so as to buy it for his wife, which I found even funnier – the image of the pastor and his wife down at the shooting range)

After buying the bullets and stopping for some donuts (and also taking a wrong turn which resulted in an unplanned, hour long tour of the countryside) we arrived at Top Gun. I had only had one previous experience in shooting, where last summer I went with my family to shoot clay pigeons at a country hotel in England for part of my granddad’s 70th birthday celebrations.  I was somewhat disappointed that the pigeons were not pigeons at all, but round discs. I still am yet to discover why they call them pigeons, but anyway – I didn’t hit a single one. I was beat by my three sisters and even my own grandmother managed to shoot at least three. For this reason I was anticipating a humiliating experience at the shooting range today. However, though I was still awful, it wasn’t as embarrassing as I had expected.

This is the same gun James Bond uses, so of course being British i had to pose with it

I had predicted that the place would be full of big, manly men who rode motorbikes and had intimidating moustaches and tattoos of snakes or naked women, so I found it amusing to find an old lady with purple rinse in the stall next to me, her extended arms shaking with age as she held the pistol out in front of her ready to shoot. In the stall next to her (sorry if I’m about to offend anyone) was your typical American stereotype on legs – a particularly plump gentlemen (he didn’t walk – he waddled) wearing shorts with trainers (sneakers for you Americans) and white socks pulled midway up his podgy calves.

He was similar to this couple I saw at the zoo who lived up to the American stereotype. (Am I a bad person?)

We had purchased our own targets which we clipped to an electric pulley system and chose our distance (about 15 feet) to shoot from. The target was on an A4 piece of paper so it was harder than it sounds. We chose to go for a traditional round target as opposed to one from the range of ‘bleeding zombie’ targets available – a selection of different zombies which apparently splatter blood when shot, including a rather threatening looking undead moose.

As well as managing to shoot the actual clip that held the target in place, causing both the clip and the target to fly away, I was the only one to hit a bullseye! However, this was nothing but a fluke as the majority of my other bullets flew past the target without even hitting the paper, while the grandma next to me was repeatedly hitting her human silhouette target in the heart from 30 feet away.

a perfect (accidental) hit

My First Camping Experience

On Thursday night I went camping. That is a sentence I would never have envisioned myself writing, and so what I am about to say shocks me even more: I actually enjoyed myself.

On Thursday night we made the two hour journey from St Louis through endless miles of open countryside – old white-wooden houses and bright red barns were scattered across rolling green hills covered in forests of cedar and oak, like architectural flowers dotting the landscape with an occasional burst of colour. Having just arrived from Bogotá, I was impressed by the quality of the roads – twisting ribbons of smooth tarmac lay streamed across mile upon endless mile of open country, allowing the driver to travel smoothly at an unbroken speed for hours; something I should be accustomed to, being from England. But I had unintentionally adapted to the streets of Bogotá, where holes and cracks riddle every road, forcing drivers to swerve, slow down, speed up – ultimately just to drive erratically. To come straight from Colombia to St Louis proved to provide a great contrast in road conditions, and now I have an appreciation for something I had previously taken very much for granted.

[On an unrelated note, I noticed on the plane from Bogotá to Miami the headline on the back of another passenger’s newspaper. It said ‘Los huecos de Bogotá ya tienen perfil en Facebook’ – meaning ‘the holes of Bogotá now have a Facebook profile’. Here you can see a video on the BBC’s Latin American page. You may not understand what is being said but you will understand my new found appreciation of American roads just by watching]

Eventually, after a pit stop/cultural experience at Wal-Mart, we arrived at Marble Creek campsite: an area in which the woodland had been prepared for campers. Clearings had been made among the trees and fire pits installed into the ground, complete with swerving grills – but that is as far as the civilization went.

Marble Creek – Alongside which is situated the camp site

The camping was for David’s stag-do (bachelor party for the Americans). Ten of us travelled down there in three cars for the night, and upon arrival all the guys started trudging through the woods in search of firewood. This being my first camping experience, I naively assumed that finding firewood consisted of looking for dead sticks on the forest floor. Apparently I was wrong. Whilst calmly wondering through the woods, collecting a pile of sticks in my arms as I went, I came across one of the guys hacking down a huge tree with an axe.  I quickly threw my bundle of twigs behind me in embarrassment, hoping to be rid of them before he saw me. But it was too late – David had noticed. He offered for me to accompany him and see how it was done. We waded through the woods until we came across the creek which gave the place its name. There we found a dead tree that was still standing in the ground.

“This will be perfect for the fire” said David.

“Shall we go back and get the axe?” I asked, but before I could finish the question he had his arms wrapped around the trunk, heaving it out of the ground with his bare hands. I asked if we should chop it up there in order to carry it back to camp more easily, whereupon he patiently explained that we needed to carry it whole through the woods in order to achieve a manly appearance of heroism and grandeur as we emerged from the trees.

Pictured: Manly appearance of heroism and grandeur

After lugging the tree through the woods I sat down and watched as the others hacked away at the collection of logs and full trees with axes and machetes. While I watched, others emerged from the forest with the same expressions of triumph on their faces as they carried even bigger trees than mine and David’s over their heads like trophies.

They would lift the larger trees over their heads and throw them against other bigger, more stable trees in order to cut them in half without the effort of hacking with an axe. This turned into a feat of strength in order to impress everyone else and see who was the strongest. I just watched.

After the lumber had been chopped and the fire started, hotdogs, burgers and steaks were cooked – naturally using a machete to flip them. It made me laugh to see one of the guys eating a steak using a split log for a plate, with a penknife and sharpened stick for cutlery; but they were serious.

Manly improvised cutlery and crockery

Turning hot dogs with the trusty machete

The stars emerged one by one as the earth turned away from the sun, and grew brighter as the evening went on. We ate hotdogs as the smell of smoke filled the night air, and fireflies lit up the darkness in flashes as they floated amongst the trees. We smoked pipes and cigars and had deep philosophical conversations about their benefits. It was generally concluded that a pipe lent a man an air of intellectual wisdom and was useful for pointing at people whilst talking and emphasizing your point during a discussion – no one can disagree with a man who is smoking a pipe – whereas a cigar has the ability to make a man look wealthy and sophisticated.

A Firefly

After hours of eating, joking, smoking and conversing around the fire, we all retired to our sleeping bags: we didn’t have tents, just mats on the forest floor. As the fire died down into glowing embers and the twinkling fireflies became the only remaining source of light, the stars appeared in all their splendour. We lay in our sleeping bags under a thick blanket of them; it was the starriest night sky I have ever seen; and as I looked up into the layers and layers of glistening lights the occasional shooting star would dart across the sky. I inevitably woke a few times in the night, but seeing the stars made the sleeplessness bearable. However, hearing the howls of coyotes and other unknown animals didn’t help me to relax, and I forced myself quickly back to sleep trying not to think about what was making that noise, and how close it may be.

The next morning, I was woken by the sound of a woodpecker drilling against some nearby tree. I emerged squinting from my sleeping bag to find that everyone else had woken up and packed away their stuff ready to leave, while I was still lying on the floor in the middle of everything like an idiot. I quickly got up and ready to leave, and within thirty minutes we were off.

As most of you will know, camping is not something I would have ever chosen to do, so I am glad that I had no choice in the matter and was eventually able to find out that it can actually be fun. Being around good people, having good conversation, eating good food and seeing good stars made it all a very enjoyable experience. I think that sitting around a camp fire and being surrounded by nature inspires a good time. However, I don’t think I will be making a habit of this. As soon as I arrived home I couldn’t get in the shower quick enough.