Thursday, 15th March 2018
I can't believe how lucky I've been with my travelling experiences. Without delaying my graduation I've been to Malaysia, South Korea, New Zealand, and now America... and onwards.
As I've said in my post "The increasing irrelevancy of the 'university'" I explained how a university is both a source of education and (more importantly), networking and opportunities. One of these opportunities include spending the final months of my degree researching in Southern Illinois University. Armed with my experience of minimalist travel and savings from a frugal lifestyle, it also marks the beginning of my attempt at around world travel - depending on how far I can stretch my savings.
I'm not sure how I'll be blogging my travels so it's best to follow me on Instagram: @all_you_need_blog. I tend to stay away from using images in these posts as this blogging platform doesn't optimise them and I dont want people losing data on 4k thumbnails. I think the best way to do things is regularly update the same page with these informal blogs, that way my essay/article style posts won't get drowned out.
I'll definitely be keeping track of my costs, like in New Zealand, to aid myself and others planning a similar trip.
The reactions people have when they see how much I've packed for an indefinite length of travel is hilarious to watch. All the advantages I've discussed about onebagging have already come true. Morning rush on the London Underground is not a place for heavy suitcases. In fact it looked like I was carrying less than most do on their commute. Having already checked in online and with only a carry on, I was through security within five minutes of arriving at the airport. Plus, I didn't have to worry about baggage transfers, which coincedently came in handy when our flight was delayed for so long in Chicago that staff were literally waiting for us (a collegue and I) when we arrived in St.Louis. We were on our next flight within five minutes. Sadly the same could not be said about my collegue's luggage.
I suppose I'll also be writing from a vegan perspective; wether or not it's hard to find places to eat, cultural attitudes and so on. Unfortunatly I already have a story to start us off. Having (pleasantly) enjoyed long haul flights as a vegan before, I knew I had to inform the airline of my dietary requirements; days before the flight I called American Airlines and explained the situation. After confirming that I required the vegetarian option I pressed, "Is that definetly vegan friendly as well though? Because there is a difference...". "Yeah, it says vegan/vegetarian on the menu", the voice on the phone replied. Fast forward to meal time on my flight. It was around the time that I was asked, "Beef or meatballs?", that I noticed something was wrong. Explaining to the flight attendant that I had ordered a vegan meal, we discoved that the confusion arose from having my seats changed as I boarded. I was quickly provided with a meal tray... topped with a muffin and cheesy meal. Damn. So close! The muffin was replaced with bread and jam, and after more confusion, the meal was replaced with... five 60g plain salads. I had gone from vegetarian to raw vegan. On a shorter flight I would have considered the salad an upgrade, however a meal like that is simply not calorific enough to satisfy someone. Luckily, as a vegan you learn to be prepared; I had enough snacks to tide me over. I was pretty bummed that my first experience of american veganism was so poor. To cancel out the negativity I will mention that, upon arrival, I did enjoy a meal at a chinese restaurant that seemlessly modified their recipes to cater for me.
I'll be curious to see how my experience with the UK based Starling Bank goes. As part of the growing FinTech market, it has been able to compete with well established banks by being a fully online, branchless bank. Features such as goal tracking, card freezing and zero fee international payments make it perfect for travellers like myself... on paper. I'll write a review in a few months.
Another thing I'm trying is BestOnwardTicket.com. Entering America without a visa requires proof of onward travel, this is the same for a lot of countries. A few ways around this, if you like to keep your options open, is to buy a cheap flight or a refundable ticket. I can confirm that I did recieve a valid itineray within a reasonable time frame, however I was never asked for it at security. Which is a good thing really as all I had was a pdf on my phone... which are banned when you enter the US.
The final leg of my journey took me on a Cessna light aircraft. A crop duster in comparison to 747s I'm used to. Despite losing my hearing through one ear for the rest of the day the flight was enjoyable, flying low and sharing the same space as the pilot you could see for miles around, and just in time for the sunset.
After 14+ hours of travelling the last thing I wanted to do was, well, anything. Thankfully, my supervisor had agreed to pick us up, get us some essentials (like kitchenware and bedding), and drive us to our accommodation. After finally getting a few hours of rest I was woken by the faint sound of a fire alarm going off in the corridor. Broken, I dragged myself outside to find the fire service, and guests meandering in out of the building. Couldn't be too bad. Bedtime.
Spring Break! Nobody's around to hear the clock tower. Gives me time to unlearn saying "Cheers" every other sentence and that it's okay to strike up random conversations with people. American culture is interesting. #justbritishthings #cultureshock #strangerdanger #bluesky #clocktower #americanflag #america #siuc #uon #studyabroad
Saturday, 17th March 2018
The last few days have been spent exploring the uncommonly sunny Carbondale and getting to know the campus. Then we realised that St.Patricks day is a big deal for americans and decided to make plans.
Through a disappointing lack of preparation we soon figured out that we were stuck in Carbondale, the train tickets to Chicago (or any form of transport, for that matter) were either too expensive or sold out. Fortunately, having just purchased some bikes we decided to make the trip to the nearby Giant City State Park, home of some of best rock climbing in the region.
After the ~20km ride I realised just how unfit I've gotten since my bike tour in New Zealand. I thought this part of the world was supposed to be flat but as I got further from town the hills got increasingly wavey. Of course, my excuse is I was armed with a chunky mountain bike!
The ride was well worth it though as we were rewarded with a walk through a labrinth of interesting geologic formations, with the names of old park rangers/conservationsists carved into the stone on either side, a few of which shared my surname which was a nice surprise.
With plans to join in the celebrations in town, after cycling back it was time to eat and rest before checking out the bars in town... unfortunately that rest lasted a few more hours than I had planned, taking me to the next morning. Oops.
Definitely a lesson in balancing forethought with spontaneity when it comes to travelling.
Sunday, 1st April 2018
Between learning how to analyse optically pumped xenon using electron spin resonance I've also been learning some of the differences between English and American culture.
A strong positive from my perspective has been the different drinking culture here. My experience in England, as a student, has been to get ridiculously drunk, go to a club, and somehow wake up in a bed the next day. This doesn't seem to be the case here. People get drunk, sure, but not enough to stop forming sentences; the bars are designed such that conversation isn't drowned out by the music, making for an overall much more sociable experience.
The weirdest part has been going out with teachers assistants and professors. This seems to be a uniquely American tradition, which is a pitty because it actually has huge advantages. By mixing amongst different age groups you can learn more from one another, not only professionally but (after a few drinks) personally as well. For example, conversation can range from work ethic and motivation, to married life and employment. This isn't anything mind-blowing but to see it applied so casually is very enriching.
Friday, 13th April 2018
I was surprised once again by this, at first, seemingly un-vegan-friendly town, when with little notice, I was invited to a Mexican grill restaurant, Chango's, and could pick up a tasty vegan burrito from their selection of fillings with no issues. I thought I was pushing my luck when I visited the Dairy Queen after, but even they had a vegan option, the Star Kiss, which is surprisingly creamy. Of course, how could I not ask for the red, white, and blue 'flavour'.
Clearly not the kind of meal to have regularly (as it goes against my frugal and health values) but it does go to show just how easy being vegan is becoming. Why bother killing animals when you could just ask for the other option?
The ENC, Orlando, Florida
Sunday, 6th May 2018
This past week the lab group and I headed to the '59th Experimental Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Conference' or simply, the ENC; being research heavy, as opposed to medical/clinical, attending the conference has honed my skills as a scientist and broadened my perspective on what a career in academia would like like, but more on that later.
The Road Trip
I'm sure if you asked everyone on the 14+ hour bus journey from Carbondale, IL to Orlando, FL what they thought of the trip you'd get a very different answer each time. For me, the novelty of 'America', getting to know the group, and playing games helped the time fly by.
Getting up early for the trip is easy when you know that you're going to Florida, and even easier when packing takes 20 minutes and you can sling all you stuff over your shoulder shoulder!
Hyatt Grand Cypress Hotel
Jaws dropped as we, the poor students, rolled up to the main lobby. Welcomed by a lush indoor garden, the sound of trickling water, and the cool night air of the high ceiling it suddenly clicked for us all how good this week was going to be. Despite the long journey we immediately got into the hot tub, an activity that would become a nightly tradition for us throughout the week.
Arriving a day early for the conference was a good call, giving everyone a chance to de-stress all the last minute preperation for the conference. Making full use of our stay here, I was up early for the gym, included access to sup boarding on the lake, and ample use of the water slide.
Evenings ( ...and early mornings) were spent relaxing in the hammocks overlooking the lake or not-quite-relaxing jumping between the cold pools and hot tubs.
Despite being incredibly relevant to my thesis project there was little support for attending the conference, thankfully this didn't stop SIUC from being an excellent host university and taking along a straggler like myself; I'm glad they did because it's been one of the best all round university experiences I've had the pleasure to be a part of.
If you've gone to university you may have experienced some nervousness approaching professors/researchers on their lecture subject matter. Now imagine that ×100 when approaching researchers you've never met, on topics you are far from familiar with, sometimes even with unpublished data. This is the daily poster session.
But you know what? These people are there to share, and I was there to learn. Even a lowly undergraduate such as myself was treated with patience and enthusiasm. And I'm all the wiser for it. The nervousness soon wore off and I found myself drawn towards the many posters related to deep learning; the amount of applications for machine learning is unreal!
The value of the conference became clear after attending many of the talks throughout the week. Talks are very different to lectures in so far as their primary goal is not to teach but to share. It is for experts, by experts. This subtle change is enough, in my opinion, to change the way the speakers communicate; they are more passionate and discuss meta topics about the field as a whole, for example announcing a call-to-arms for researching smaller sub-topics. This has been interesting to see and, as I've said, fleshed out my understanding of what it means to be a researcher.
The passion these speakers have has served as a reference point for my own. I now see what is needed to become a respected academic, informing my career goals; if I don't feel the same interest as them, is this really the field for me?
Oh boy, they keep care of you at these conferences. With free food and drinks, entertainment, and prizes provided by conference sponsors, what more could you ask for? (Maybe some more vegan friendly foods?!) If it wasn't for these I'm not sure I could have afforded the hotel or even local restaurants. Despite the open bar I chose (mainly) not to partake in the festivities, if not for the health or ethical (vegan ambiguity) reasons then surely the social ones; there was simply no need to get drunk, when everyone is enjoying themselves it's hard not to as well!
Of course the entire event is great for networking but the hospitality suites were where the bulk of it happened, revealing the 'office politics' side of academia and opening up prospective career oppurtunities.
The Return Home
As I've said, I'm incredibly grateful for meeting the obscenely lucky requirements to attend the ENC this year. If any students read this, I highly recommend finding a way to attend a conference. The experience has given me a lot to think about when it comes to my career goals and provided a wonderful final(ish?) chapter to my life as an undergraduate, not to mention all the great memories I now share with my friends.
Now to get back into the zone and get this thesis done!
The All American Weekend!
Saturday, May 12th 2018
What better to way to spend the last weekend before your thesis deadline (and viva) than a night out with the lads and a road trip?
The weekend started with a supply run... America has been a bad influence on me.
The Cabin in the Woods
Midway on the drive to a friend's cabin we stopped at Rural King, now for those of you who don't know, Rural King is the kind of shop where the first thing you see for sale is literally a wall full of denim jeans, followed shortly therafter by american flags. You know, the essentials. We were clearly at the right place, how could we have a truly american weekend without the american flag? Off to a great start, we continued our hunt for the next thing on the list: ear protection. For exercising, what the americans call, their 'second amendment rights'. And how could we forget watermelon? A perfect snack on a warm evening, a perfect prop for slow mo shooting. Win, win.
The night wouldn't be complete without a (vegan friendly) barbequeue, so our final stop was Aldi. Which, I can confirm, stocks vegan burgers, even in middle-of-nowhere America. Next stop was the liqour store: a bottle of whisky, some ice and a crate of beers later - combined with other drinks we each had laying around - and we were finally prepared for the night.
A cabin in the woods has many connotations for example: relaxing amongst nature, or the smell of oak and pine nuts. Howevern as we drove along the long, quiet gravel road it was hard to deny the 'moment before everything goes wrong' horror vibe that was going on (especially after a friend was explained how nearby was a place where one of americas top wanted was spotted). That was, until we reached our destination: our friends house, a homely and tranquil cabin on the outskirts of a national forest.
We combined our supplies from the above run with our friend's: a small armoury (by a Brits standards), and enough ammo to shake a stick at (as we Brits say). Although soon to be not-so-tranquil, the cabin stood amongst a large opening. Plenty of space for 'second amendment related' activities.
(Around this point I began fearing how much I like America, and began to double down on my British-ness)
There was no time for dilly-dallying, we were here to have fun. With no detours or delays we cracked open some beers, poured some whisky and got to work. Perhaps only pausing briefly to note the insane image of a handgun and ammunition placed next to a popcorn bowl on a dining table.
Having never fired a weapon before, I was in good hands; it is at this time that I should point out, my friend (whom owns the cabin), is a trained firearms instructor. The night was great - not stupid.
Poised and ready to fire, I toggled the safety, breathed, and squeezed as instructed. In the blink of an eye the 9mm round travelled from my position into the target (I think). With ear muffs on I turned my neck towards the others and mouthed "holy fuck!" with a huge grin on my face. My hands were shaking but it wasn't long until I was unloading bullets at a time. Who knew that shooting guns would be so therapeutic? Before we had realised it our drinks were empty and the sun closer to setting. Time for a refill and to pull out the big guns. Apparently that was just an intro!
Maybe it was the whisky, or maybe it was the cigars we had just lit up but my nerves were steady as we were talked through how to use a shotgun. Talking is very different from doing however; the force from firing the shotgun was unlike anything I've ever felt. Shocked and amazed, this time all I could manage was an opened jaw, wide eyed look of exitement as I turned my head to give approval. After some mental recovery, we honed our aim on clay pidgeons until the ground was litered with shells. It was at this point the american flag was donned, since it had not burst to flames upon contact of us brits we can can only conclude that, after almost two months, america had finally accepted us.
For celebration we practiced our sharpshooting skills while the grill warmed up. A .22 rifle left a few clean holes on one side of the watermelon and nasty mess on the other. Unfortunatley this is where my recollection of the night begins to wane. And perhaps some things are best left unsaid; needless to say great conversation, food and drinks, and cigars were had.
Cincinnati Road Trip
The weekend doesn't end there! Slowly but surely, the newly accepted Brits made their way home. With no time to be hungover, we quickly prepared for an over night stop in Cincinnati, where one lucky Brit would be more than metaphorically accepted by America, no, this weekend I saw a fellow prisoner of the motherland break free by finding employment in the land of the brave.
The road trip begins with disaster! The ex-POMs brother has stranded himself in an unfurnished apartment, in a small American town with no pavement or car, worse yet, intimidating figures have been knocking at his door. It was decided, we have to make a detour to deliver him some supplies.
Through the combination of the detour and starting later than expected, it was a tight window for the ex-POM to meet his future employer for dinner. That was before we realised we changed time zones, losing an hour in as instant. Despite this pressure, the road trip was a pleasant one, I got to see more of rural America, and as co-pilot, fulfil my duties as driver entertainer, navigator, and DJ. And compared to the drive to Orlando, this was nothing.
As we approached where the GPS told us the ex-POMs brother lived, we began to worry... there where well paved roads, and no intimidating figures wandering the streets, we were in suburban America and it certianly didn't fit the distressing description! This can't be the right place! As it turns out, perhaps we had been subject to some hyerbole story telling, as we arrived at the (correct) location a small child riding his bike waved and smiled, perhaps this rascal enjoys the childhood favourite game 'ding-dong ditch' I thought myself trying to rationalise the source of the door knocking, Alas, we may never know because at this point we only had time for introductions and to provide essentials like a blow up mattress (to be fair the place was truly the definition of unfurnished, poor chap).
Moving along, we were now close to our destination. However time was running thin, we barely had time to sneak into the hotel room (reserved for one) before having to drop our friend off at his inegurual office dinner. Driving around the outskirts of the city, I was impressed, and a tad jealous that my friend would end up calling this city his home. Buildings were nicely decorated, but stayed humble in size and design, giving a quiant, artsy feel. The ex-POM made note of how many trees were strewn about, which is a much needed contrast in any city.
While he went off and enjoyed meeting his new collegues, the rest of us found a nice mexican place to eat. Opting to sit outside on the patio, complete with a mural and fairy lights, as it cooled down for the evening only served to improved my positive impression of the city. Although, the rattling of old, loose fencing/fixtures from cats above ground level some might find unsettling! Done with our meal, we decided to take a walk in a nearby woods. The sun had set and the park lights reflected on the lake, reminding me of the University of Nottingham. Evidence to our poor coordination, I heard my name being shouted from the otherside of the lake, the ex-POMs meal went great but he was left to his own devices with no wi-fi (or american number) to contact us with, a lucky encounter! Time for a drink and to hear the details...
The next day we cleared out of the hotel after wishing our friend good luck with his tour of the office. This wasnt as easy as it sounds. Firstly, we had to return the keys, this was only difficult in so far as I had to remember not to look surprised when addressed with the wrong name. After that we had to escape the parking lot, which, as it turns out, requires the room key! Doh! Whilst waiting for a friend to return to reception, a rat scurried past the car, as if teasing us with its simplicity. The friend returned with a ticket but we had absolutely no idea how to use it. The pressure was on as another driver pulled up behind us. Giving up, we decided to get the driver involved and ask if they new what to do, luckily they were an employee so finally we managed to get out.
A quick drive and we found ourselves in downtown Cincinnati, first stopping at a park which offered stunning views over the kentucky river, questionable statues, and entertainment from the residential geese. Nearby was a conservatory with an unnecessarily expensive butterfly event on, so we passed on that. For those paying attention they would have noticed this weekend had run over into Monday, which for some reason in Cincinnati means a lot of the tourist spots are closed. What remained was the contemporary arts mueseum in the heart of town with interesting, interactive exhibits. Despite it being a sweltering day we then wandered around the city, checking out an old Irish pub, and a riverside park and bridge.
During the drive back to Carbondale, the sky was flashing with impressive heat lightning, the first I'd ever seen or even heard of the phenomena.
Tuesday 22nd May, 2018
Though I'm sure this wasn't a final fairwell, it was certianly a difficult one. Not only had I lost a British friend to the daughter-land but I was also saying goodbye to an amazing lab group that had quickly welcomed me as part of the family, not to mention all the characters (and free food) at my accomodation! In my short time in SIUC, when I wasn't tunnelled in on my thesis, I got the pleasure to see the campus transform from a dry desert to a surpsingly lush jungle, and experience a lot of what the deceptively quiet carbondale had to offer, again thanks to my friends!
I couldn't have asked for a more spectacular send off, one unlucky friend happened to be preparing for a move to Chicago, and I happened to have an outgoing flight from there. How could they resist my tried and tested services as road trip co-pilot? They couldn't! So off we went to Chicago, not forgetting to stop off to get some vegan friendly thai food on the way, or the chance of exploring the drivers home town! Due to the rest stop the trip went by in the blink of an eye and before we new it we had srrived in Chicago.
The plan was to get some food and then head downtown. However we ran into a problem... parking. As someone who has very little driving experience, I didn't know how stressful it can be, in Chicago I got a taste for the first time; it was maybe the fourth time we had gone up and down the same road that we managed to decipher where we could park, that was, after taking a breather at a petrol station.
Finding a vegan place isn't hard, or I should say, there are quite a few vegan spots in the city, physically finding the one I had chosen was another question. Confused by the signage of the densly populated Chicago, we accidently walked in and sat down at the wrong place, this was not realised until after water was served and the restroom used. Awkwardly excusing ourselves, we realised our destination was behind the restaurant. Soon after we were served with a glorious curry and dumplings.
Finding a place to park downtown was a breeze (if not a tad expensive), but just a small walk from millenium park. I remember being overwhelmed by the massive highrise buildings and how much they contrasted to my time in Carbondale. There was something going on on every street, which combined with the 'L', made for a very active atmosphere. Millenium Park, of course, was very pretty too, I'm not quite sure about some of the displays there (videos of peoples faces with fountains of water spitting out?!), but the 'Bean' and the city skyline at night more than impressed me. I know my friend will love moving here.
After a long and stressful day (one could see we were worn down) we still had the hardest part to go, driving to the airport and saying our goodbyes! Getting to the airport was easier said than done, perrhaps Chicago didn't want me to leave: work was being done on the highway, trraffic was a mess, and detours hard to navigate. Truthfully this was fine by me, my flight wasn't until the next morning, and I didn't want my time in America to end!
Sadly, all good things come to an end, and after tearful fairwells I found myself alone in the airport.