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.
As I've said in my post "The increasing irrelevancy of the 'university'", a university can be both a source of education and (more importantly), personal growth. One final opportunity for growth is spending the last months of my degree researching at 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: @graeme_ayn. I think the best way to do things is regularly updating the same page with these informal blogs; that way my essay/article style posts won't get drowned out.
I'll 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 explained about minimalism have already come true; a morning rush on the London Underground is not a place for heavy suitcases. 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 coincidently came in handy as the flight to Chicago was delayed for so long that staff were waiting upon arrival in St.Louis (we were on our next flight within five minutes - sadly the same could not be said about my colleague's luggage).
I suppose I'll also be writing from a vegan perspective; whether or not it's hard to find places to eat, cultural attitudes and so on. Unfortunately, I already have a story to start us off: having enjoyed long haul flights as a vegan before, I knew I had to inform the airline of my dietary requirements, so days before the trip I called American Airlines and explained the situation. After confirming that I required the vegetarian option, I checked, "Is that definetly vegan friendly as well though? Because there is a difference...", customer services replied, "Yeah, it says vegan/vegetarian on the menu". Fast forward to meal-time on my flight. "Beef or meatballs?". Ugh. I explained to the flight attendant that I had ordered a vegan meal, we discovered that the confusion arose from having my seats changed as I boarded. They placed a meal in front of filled with cheese. After more confusion, and being offered multiple meals that contain dairy, I was given five 60g boxes of salad. I had gone from vegetarian to raw vegan. On a shorter flight I would have considered it an upgrade, however, a meal like that is not calorific enough to satisfy anyone. I was annoyed that my first experience of American veganism was so bad.
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.
Another thing I'm trying is BestOnwardTicket.com; entering America without a visa requires proof of onward travel, but there are a few ways around this if you are like me and want to keep your options open: buy a cheap flight or a refundable ticket. I can confirm that after using this website, I received a valid itinerary within a reasonable time frame. Security didn't even ask me to show it.
The final leg of my journey took me on a Cessna light aircraft. A crop duster in comparison to the 747s I had just been on. Despite losing my hearing due to a cracked window, the flight was enjoyable; flying low, you could see for miles around, 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, the faint sound of a fire alarm going off in the corridor woke me up. Broken, I dragged myself outside to find the fire service and guests meandering in out of the building. Someone forgot how to use a toaster.
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 the 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 road got wavey. Of course, my excuse is I was riding a heavy mountain bike!
The ride was well worth it though as we were rewarded with a walk through a labyrinth of interesting geologic formations, with the names of old park rangers/conservationists carved into the stone on either side, a few of which shared my surname which was a pleasant 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.
Today was 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. So far in America, people get drunk, sure, but not enough to stop forming sentences and you can have conversations in the bars that aren't drowned out by music, making for a 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 pity because it has its 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, the conversation can range from work ethic and motivation to married life and employment.
Friday, 13th April 2018
I was surprised once again by this, at first, seemingly non-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 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, 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 your stuff over your 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 preparation for the conference. Making full use of our stay here, I was up early for the gym, stand-up paddle (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 jumping between the cold pools and hot tubs.
Despite being incredibly relevant to my thesis project there was little support from my home university 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 The ENC is one of the best all-around 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 to ask questions. Now imagine that ×100 when approaching researchers you've never met, on topics you are far from familiar with, sometimes even with unpublished data. That 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. The presentations are very different from lectures 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. As someone unsure about my career path thus 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 the path 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?!). Despite the open bar I chose (mainly) not to partake in the festivities, if not for the health or ethical (vegan) reasons then surely the social ones; there was just no need to get drunk, when everyone is enjoying themselves it's hard not to as well!
Of course, the entire event is excellent 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 opportunities.
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 participate in a conference. The experience has given me a lot to think about when it comes to my career goals and provided an incredible 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 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 thereafter by American flags. You know, the essentials. We were clearly at the right place, how could we have a genuinely 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, an ideal prop for shooting at. Win, win.
The night wouldn't be complete without a (vegan-friendly) barbeque, so our final stop was Aldi. Which, I can confirm, stocks vegan burgers, even in middle-of-nowhere America. Next stop was the liquor store: a bottle of whisky, some ice and a crate of beers later - combined with other drinks we each had laying around - 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. However, 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 explained how nearby was a place where one of America's top wanted criminals was spotted). That vibe disappeared though, when we reached our destination: our friend's house, a cosy and tranquil cabin on the outskirts of a national forest.
We combined our supplies with our friend's: a small armoury (by a Brits standards), and enough ammo to shake a stick at (as we Brits say). The cabin stood amongst a large (soon to be not-so-tranquil) opening. Plenty of space for 'second amendment related' activities.
(Around this point I began fearing how much I like America, and started 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. I paused briefly to note the insane image of a handgun and ammunition placed next to a popcorn bowl on the 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 (who owns the cabin), is a trained firearms instructor. The night was fun - not stupid.
Poised and ready to fire, I toggled the safety, breathed, and squeezed as instructed. In the blink of an eye, the 9 mm 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 massive 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 was setting. Time for a refill and to pull out the big guns. Apparently, that was just an intro!
Maybe it was the whisky, or perhaps it was the cigars we had just lit up, but my nerves were steady as my friend instructed us on how to use a shotgun. Talking is very different from doing; 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 and a wide-eyed look of excitement as I turned my head to approve. After some mental recovery, we honed our aim on clay pigeons until we littered the ground with shells. It was at this point the American flag was donned, and since it didn't burst to flames upon contact of us Brits we could only conclude that, after almost two months here, America had finally accepted us.
To celebrate we practised 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. Unfortunately, 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 overnight 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 a 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. 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 time frame to get to Cincinnati in time for the ex-POM to meet his future employer for dinner (and that was before we realised we changed time zones!). Despite the 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. Compared to the drive to Orlando, this was nothing.
As we approached the GPS location that 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 certainly didn't fit the distressing description! Perhaps we had been subject to some 'hyperbole storytelling'. We arrived at the (correct) location, a small child riding his bike waved and smiled, could this have been the intimidating figure alarming our friend? 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 indeed 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 inaugural 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 quaint, artsy feel. The ex-POM made a 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 colleagues, the rest of us found a nice Mexican place to eat. We opted to sit outside on the patio, complete with a mural and fairy lights. The cool evening only served to improved my positive impression of the city. Although, the rattling of old, loose fencing/fixtures from cats might be unsettling for some! After our meal, we decided to take a walk in the nearby park. The sun had set and the park lights reflected on the lake, reminding me of the University of Nottingham. I heard my name being shouted from the other side of the lake, the ex-POMs meal went great, but he was left to his own devices with no wi-fi to contact us, a lucky encounter!
The next day we cleared out of the hotel after wishing our friend good luck with his tour of the office. This wasn't as easy as it sounds. Firstly, we had to return the keys (I had to remember not to look surprised when addressed with the wrong name), and after that, we had to escape the parking lot, which, as it turns out, requires the room key! Doh! While waiting for a friend to return to reception, a rat scurried past the barrier, as if teasing us with its simplicity. The friend returned with a ticket, but we had 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 knew what to do, luckily they were an employee so finally, we managed to get out.
After a quick drive, we found ourselves in downtown Cincinnati. The first stop was at a park which offered stunning views over the Kentucky river, questionable statues of babies, 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 were closed. What remained was the contemporary art museum in the heart of town with engaging, 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 intense 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 farewell, it was undoubtedly a difficult one. Not only had I lost a British friend to the daughter-land but I was also saying goodbye to a fantastic lab group that had quickly welcomed me as part of the family, not to mention all the characters (and free food) at my accommodation! In my short time in SIUC, when I wasn't focused in on my thesis, I got the pleasure to see the campus transform from a desert to a surprisingly 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 driver's hometown! After the break, the trip went by in the blink of an eye, and before we knew it, we had arrived in Chicago.
The plan was to get some food and then head downtown. However, we ran into a problem: parking. With minimal driving experience, I didn't know how stressful it can be; it was maybe the fourth time we had gone up and down the same road that we managed to decipher where we could park (after taking a breather to de-stress at a petrol station).
There are quite a few vegan spots in the city; confused by the signage of the densely populated Chicago, it wasn't until after we had been served water and used the restroom that we realised we inadvertently to the wrong restaurant. We realised our destination was behind the restaurant and awkwardly excused ourselves. Later, we were served with a glorious curry and dumplings.
Finding a place to park downtown was a breeze (if not a tad expensive), and was 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. Something was going on on every street, which when combined with the 'L', made for a very dynamic atmosphere. Millenium Park, of course, was charming 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, perhaps Chicago didn't want me to leave because work was being done on the highway and the traffic was a mess. 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 though, all good things come to an end, and after tearful farewells, I found myself alone in the airport.