Twitchhiker | Paul Smith's travel tales from here and there

The Shorty Awards – a very good night (and day) in NYC
04/03/2010, 19:27
Filed under: travel, twitchhiker project | Tags: , ,

So the Twitchhiker project won a Shorty Award! It’s very nice and shiny. Best of all, even though I stopped out til 4.30 this morning, which culminated in necking shots with a former Navy Seal who did three tours in Vietnam, the award is intact. No chips, no cracks, base still attached. Result.

I met plenty of brilliant people last night, the highlights being shaking hands with Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, and having a beer with Janis Krums, who helped push Twitter in the mainstream with a single photo. I also got to meet my fellow finalists, including @newyorkology – one of the finest Twitter users out there (and Amy’s website is pretty cool, too). The company was great, the bar was free. Perfect.

If you voted, thank you. If you supported the Twitchhiker project last year – whether you followed from afar, provided words of encouragement, offered to put me up on your sofa, shouted me a beer, drove me from here to there – then this really is your award, because it simply wouldn’t have happened without your involvement.

So to summarise: I’m in New York, I have no hangover, the award is in one piece and Stephen Fry has been in touch. Not the best day of my life, but a very good one.


New York bars and Boos, and family too
01/10/2009, 23:23
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After a somewhat sticky situation at Heathrow yesterday afternoon, I arrived in New York last night irritated but happy to be back. The usual cataclysmic debauchery of attempting to drink all the Jägermeister in Manhattan was sadly skipped, since I’m playing host to my mother for the next couple of days. I did manage to sink a first drink at Rudy’s in Hell’s Kitchen though – it’s a tradition, an old charter or something – and called into The Pony Bar, a rather fine real ale bar around the corner at 45th and 10th. I’ve just listened to the AudioBoo I recorded there, fearing it may have suffered at the hands of the third and rather potent pint of Sierra Nevada’s Brown Saison (7.9%), but fortunately that’s not the case.

So I’ll be dragging my mum around New York to the usual tourist traps for the next couple of days. It’s delightful to see the sense of wonder on the face of a first-time visitor, or perhaps it’s because we haven’t seen one another in a year. My Canadian grandfather lived in the UK from his teenage years to sprightly age of 88, and last year he returned home along with my mum to see out his final years.

Twitchhiker - Grand Central Terminal

I’ve just been informed she hates this photo. I’ll admit it’s not going to win awards any time soon, largely because my moon-shaped head is bothering the shot, but she looks giddy to be here so it’s pretty much perfect.

NYC’s real Little Italy
13/09/2009, 17:26
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As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m heading for New York again shortly – I fly from London on the 30th of this month. I’ll be meeting up with my mum who emigrated to Canada a year ago, to show her the sights and no doubt have her blub on my shoulder for three days solid. Mums are like that, aren’t they?

I’m also looking forward to exploring more of the city, moving deeper into the boroughs. On previous trips I’ve spent time in the likes of Red Hook and Woodlawn (which is as far North in NYC as you can go). This time I’m keen to explore Little Italy – not the gentrified remains in downtown Manhattan, but New York’s other Little Italy, centred on Arthur Avenue in The Bronx. It’s curious that guidebooks rarely, if ever mention this neighbourhood that seemingly burns fierce in European tradition, preferring to direct tourists to a couple of blocks immersed in Chinatown that glow dim in their fading history.

Arthur Avenue Market by jimmyack205 on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Arthur Avenue Market by jimmyack on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

No doubt the reason is the zipcode – most of us, myself included, have been spoon-fed our perception of The Bronx by mainstream media, and still believe it’s nothing more than a borough-sized penal colony of murderers and rapists. That perception, if ever entirely true, seems a decade or two out of date; reading through forums of former and current residents, there’s no doubt the borough has changed for the better. It’s probably lost some of the intense character that provided its former reputation, and there may be areas that tourists are best staying away from – but where isn’t like that? A little common sense, some research and talking to locals will always keep you safe.

[A couple of good local blogs I stumbled upon while writing this, with plenty of photos and guides to the area are The Bronx Rocks and BoogieDowner]

I’m also planning to explore the neighbourhoods along Manhattan’s upper west side – the likes of Washington Heights and Inwood – which I’ve been meaning to do for a couple of years. When explorer Henry Hudson sailed into New York harbour 400 years (and two days) ago, Manhattan was covered in natural forests and marshland (as an aside, it’s amazing how much of Manhattan was once covered in streams and rivers – now all underground or reclaimed for the metropolis above). Inwood Hill Park now contains the last natural forest and salt marsh on the island; how many of us can imagine the sight of New York without its towers of brick and glass, no roads or traffic or neon? It’ll be quite cool to stare across this virgin stretch of the planet’s greatest city and spin back the calendar four centuries.

I’ll take my mum to the tourist spots, when she leaves I’ll revisit my favourite bars in Hell’s Kitchen and the Lower East Side and I’ll peel away the city’s skin to taste the past and present. If there’s anywhere you can recommend, or if you want to meet up during the first week of October, get in touch in the comments or through Twitter.

Day 3 – learning to fly
04/03/2009, 22:07
Filed under: twitchhiker project | Tags: , , , ,

Twitchhiker - a boulangerie, obviously

This post concerns events that occurred yesterday, which was Tuesday. I haven’t been able to post it until now, which is late Wednesday night. Sorry about that.

It’s been a lazy day of little substance. I’d decided yesterday to stay over in Paris for two nights; I had to knuckle down and do some writing. Apparently bank managers don’t look kindly upon world gallivanting in lieu of a month’s mortgage payment.

Duncan and Gen, the team at @stchostels had provided me Metro tickets so I could explore the city but there wasn’t time; I’d require more than a few hours to oo la la my way through the spectacles of the French capital. Instead, I sat chained to my laptop for nine hours, rattling off words of whimsy.

Still, it was a brilliant day for twitchhiking, so long as you ignored the fact I sat on my fat arse all day going nowhere. I’d already accepted the only offer of help I’d received over the weekend, from a lady called @pluripotent – a train ticket from Paris to Saarbruck in Germany, a bed for the night then a lift to Frankfurt – on the basis it might tally it up with the offer of a single flight from Frankfurt to the US. If it didn’t, then I’d have to hope another offer could help me move on, otherwise my trip would fold in just five days.

The offer of a flight had come from @clocsen, or Owen as his email addressed him. While the offers were made through Twitter, Owen had emailed me to sound out exactly how I might enter the US without a return ticket; in fact I did have a return ticket, as part of a trip I’d booked last December for this May. The return leg of the booking fell well within the 90 day limit that visitors are allowed to stay in the country.

Despite his generosity Owen will sadly remain a stranger to me; the ticket was booked remotely and he obviously won’t be travelling to Frankfurt to wave me off. I did ask if there was anything I could offer in return; Owen simply asked me to draw your attention to Kiva, a website that lets you finance an entrepreneur in a developing country. You can lend as little as $25 to somebody so they can launch their own business and help themselves out of poverty. And when the business proves successful, you can receive your money back or finance another project. What a brilliant idea – micro-financing that can change someones world.

Back to the plot. I was going to New York. I truly was a lucky, lucky bastard. This will be my tenth visit in exactly four years, but it’ll also be my shortest. I’ve got two days, no more, in my favourite city before the rules say I have to move on. Pesky stupid rules. Who decided on them, anyway? Oh. As soon as the offer was confirmed, I arranged the detail with Owen and announced the news to Twitter. And then a quite unexpected thing occurred. @m4rkm offered me a flight from New York to Los Angeles.

Woah there. LA? In less than a week? That wasn’t what I was expecting at all. It felt like cheating, to hop off one long-haul flight, straight onto another. I asked the Twittersphere what it thought of the news. The Twittersphere went batshit crazy. There was a deafening chorus of individuals who wanted to crank up the probability of me suffering deep-vein thrombosis.

I began by replying to individuals, putting across my point of view in 140 characters or less. It didn’t matter, because the majority of followers wanted me on that flight. You don’t understand the scale of the US, it’s huge! Isn’t the point to travel as far as you can in 30 days? Take it! It’s been offered by Twitter, so why’s it cheating? And so on and so forth.

The more people challenged me, the more I was convinced not to take @m4rkm’s offer, or a similar offer from @tammisutton. Instead I decided I should attempt to cross the US by land, and take the gamble that if I became stuck, that either person would still consider helping me out, or that I might find another offer.

Here’s my thinking (in considerably more than 140 characters):

– when I discussed my concerns about heading east out of Europe, my greatest fear was the lack of Twitter activity in that direction. I hadn’t seen more than a handful of users located in Asia; I couldn’t traverse 6,000 miles by land, in three weeks, unless there were plenty of options. I don’t have that excuse on the North American continent. Of course it’s a big place and there are vast expanses of nothing much, but Twitter is everywhere in America and goodwill goes even further.

– The only way to cross water is by plane or boat; there’s no other way unless you swim. Over land I have options, so it doesn’t seem right to discount all those options and all the hundreds of thousands of people who could potentially help me.

– The aim is to travel as far as I can from my home in 30 days, not to travel as far as I can. That’s why I want to reach Campbell Island, not see how many times I can circle the globe; I can’t get any further away from home than that hulk of rock in the South Pacific. So I don’t have to travel for 30 days; if I complete the trip in a week, I go home three weeks early. Why’s that a bad thing? Because despite the generosity of those following me, only around 1% have donated to Charity: water. I’m still £1,000 short. And I don’t want to stop there; if I can raise even more money, that’s what I want to do.

– If I want to get to New Zealand, I have to find my way across the Pacific; that’s a mammoth ask of Twitter. If I’m going to find a way down under, I need to build up momentum before I arrive on the West coast.

Ultimately, I want to at least try and embrace the spirit of Twitter, rather than fly six miles above it at 500 miles per hour.  It doesn’t mean I can’t take up another offer if time becomes tight or if I take a wrong turn. Of course, there’s no guarantee there will be another offer.

The remainder of my day was hardly as exciting. I nursed a beer in the hostel bar, and felt alone for the first time since I’d left Newcastle. When I have an introduction to people, I’m confident in myself; put me in a bar full of strangers and I’m the shyest man on Earth. So I retired to my room, where the five empty beds were now full, and some hulk of dutch man was snoring like a pneumatic hammer trapped in a washing machine locked in a filing cabinet been kicked down a hill. It was very funny for the first five minute, less so for the hour that followed.