About Emma Young

Western Australian journalist with Fairfax Media's WAtoday, and entertainment blogger with a love for all things couch-related. Tea/wine/martinis mandatory. Aspect ratio important. Paper and electronic mediums accepted. Highbrow optional.

Em and Stu Do America Part 12: The Grand Canyon

On a side-hike up the canyon

On a side-hike up the canyon

Erica sends the raft backwards into the rapid; our lean, bronzed tour guide with the easy smile vanishes, the sudden animal ferocity of her stance like a whippet braced to face a lion. She throws her whole body against the rolling water, planting a thonged foot on the steel cross-hatch for leverage, whole leg shaking wildly with the strain, hauling back on the oars, head flipping to watch all sides at once as the raft spins, brown plaits whipping, teeth bared in a grimace.

All we can do is hang on and get out the way, bums perched on the forward edge of the cross-hatch, avoiding the planted foot and the hands that punch the hefty wooden oars forward and back a full metre or more each stroke. Our torsos are pressed nearly flat against the walls of icy water that slam over us as Erica heaves us into safety.

Erica in a more relaxed moment on a side hike!

Erica in a more relaxed moment on a side hike!

We poke our heads up, drenched and exhilarated as she guides the raft into calmer territory. White water transforms to a roiling emerald green, thick like churned jelly, bubbles rising through it like it’s just come off the boil. Erica re-emerges as a grinning human, pulling the boat around so we can watch the others come through, one by one. Each is a tense wait followed by high-fives, triumph, each ‘boatman’ yelling from raft to raft to debrief each other on the choices each made under pressure.

Hard to get pics of rapids because the camera had to go away usually! But this is a little "riffle".

Hard to get pics of rapids because the camera had to go away usually! But this is a little “riffle”.

Erica has spent 20 years negotiating the rapids of the Colorado River that runs through the Canyon, and come safely through Hance Rapid, one of the river’s most technically challenging, countless times. But the crew knows better than to underestimate it. Before the ‘run’, they ‘parked’ the rafts at a sandy lip and hiked up the cliff to discuss how it looked today, the order they would go in, approaches they might take. They advised Rachel, who was crewing the supply boat and who would run Hance for the first time. Her jaw set with tension, she quietly accepted all the hints her colleagues gave her and – of course – ran it beautifully.

Bill scouts Hance Rapid with his crew

Bill scouts Hance – not the river’s largest rapid, but one of its most technical – with his crew.

Not all the rapids are high drama, but each is a thrill-ride, not to mention a glacial head-to-foot drenching. And much of the trip is spent gliding quietly through a calm river so clear you can see a leaf float by ten feet down. Below us it is deep green, but ahead it has infinite colours as the sun and rocks change overhead. The Colorado is mint green at dawn, silver as the rising sun touches it, pink and red as it reflects the two-billion odd years of Earth’s story rising on either side of it. It turns purple as the reds mix with the reflected blue Arizona sky and gleams gold at sundown. At night it turns black and roars.

The colours of the Colorado.

The colours of the Colorado.

Above it unfolds a geological history lesson I just don’t think I would have grasped had I looked down from above on just one day. The canyon has stood in its present form for roughly six million years. Each day as we move through it, the walls get higher as a new layer of rock appears, each unique in appearance and origin. The guides are full of knowledge about the landscapes that these rocks rising above us once represented. They know just as much about the present-day ecology, the impact the controversial Glen Canyon Dam has had on the place and its native species. They identify for us the bighorn ewes and rams, desert spiny lizards, does and bucks, scorpions that glow under UV light. Once we even see a beaver, fur glistening with water. And birds! It is migrating season and condors, wrens, ospreys, Canada geese and more soar overhead.

The camps we pull up at each afternoon are pristine, respected so utterly that not so much as a peanut or rubber band drops on to the fine sand without being carefully scooped up and locked in the trash to be packed out at the end of the trip. It is carefully managed so that only so many people are permitted to be on it at once, meaning that of the annual six million people who visit the Canyon annually, only about 23,000 of these raft down the river.

Our group on a side hike.

Our group on a side hike.

Our six days is a half-length trip, Upper Canyon only – from the start at Lees Ferry, near Glen Canyon Dam, downstream for 88 river miles where we will emerge to hike up and out via Bright Angel Trail. The rest of the bunch will go onwards. They are mostly Americans from all over the states, mostly around late middle age, a fit and outdoorsy bunch, all very friendly and bursting with enthusiasm for the trip. There is one other international couple, a Swedish pair around our age who are also on extended travels. We all get close very quickly. There is something about squatting to pee in the river in front of each other that erases boundaries with lightning efficiency.

This is Grand Canyon Whitewater’s final trip for the season and we have lucked out. The weather, often extreme in the Canyon, is now a perfect Fall. Nights are a breezy 10 Celsius. Brilliant blue days reach 30-35. Owner Bill is on the trip himself and has invited pretty much his whole staff along for the ride, resulting in a luxurious number of guides for us all – every day Stu and I have a different guide, usually all to ourselves, and regret only that we couldn’t make it on to everyone’s boat in our six days on the water.

The boatmen get ready in the morning. Watching them repack the boats is like watching an intricately choreographed dance!

The boatmen get ready in the morning. Watching them repack the boats is like watching an intricately choreographed dance!

The boatmen are happy and relaxed, anticipating winters working on their side businesses or travelling. They all love the job, but it’s undeniably a difficult one, done in an often harsh environment and hard on the body. A 15-minute go at the oars that I was allowed in calm water made me realise rafting is not a craft for the faint-hearted.

Meeting them all and hearing their stories was one of the highlights of the trip. They are not just committed environmental advocates. Many have river research backgrounds. Erica is a fine artist, exhibiting regularly. Chelsea, LA-bred, has a background in ballet, acting and music. Brian, with more river trips under his belt than perhaps anyone in history, appeared in Into the Wild and The River Wild (both awesome movies… we have already re-watched The River Wild). Brian shares a vast ecological knowledge from his research background and also owns a ski outfitters’. J-Mo (StuMo’s American equivalent who reminds us strongly of Luke) has built 17 houses in his home town of Flagstaff. Walt is a music expert and owns a Spanish-language and outdoor adventure school in his home, Costa Rica.

Brian!

Brian!

The bunch share decades of experience of the Canyon waters and are prone to throwing concerts of an evening, singing Western classics and new local music, accompanying themselves with guitars, a mandolin and bongo drum – and, of course, a pair of spoons. Sometimes Brian will give us a natural history lecture; other times, a guest will stand up and sing a song or read a poem. We dance on the sand at night under a ripening moon in the shadow of rock walls more vast than we could ever have imagined. It is all touched by magic.

The coldest swim I've ever had in my life...

The coldest swim I’ve ever had…

On the final night the moon rises full, and we dance a conga line around Brian’s ingenious homemade ‘campfire’. Stu and I don’t really want to leave. All that is luring us out of the Canyon is the promise of more starry skies ahead in the West’s most renowned national parks – Yosemite, Sequoia, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches and the Rocky Mountains. We look ahead to these places with renewed vigour, and a renewed sense of all that can be possible in life.

But first, we must hike up and out via the Bright Angel Trail. And that is another story.

StuMobservations: Grand Canyon

  • Roadrunners are real.
  • Scorpions glow in black light.
  • Mice are jerks.
  • Beavers actually make little dams. Did not seem angry tho.
  • No bugs = no tent = sleeping under the stars.
  • Dilution is the solution to pollution.
  • Jar + lid with hole + paper towel + lighter fluid = camp fire.
  • Camp toilets are now called “Groovers”.
  • Every morning should start with the cry “HOT COFFEE!”
  • What did Stu get out of the Grand Canyon? Sand.
  • We have to come back for the second half. Who’s in?

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Em and Stu Do America part 11: New Orleans

It sure is.

It sure is.

Stu and I fall into the iconic French Quarter entirely unprepared for its notorious Bourbon Street: sheer overwhelm edged with a sense of barely controlled danger and Kuta-esque hilarity.

Street drinking is not just allowed but encouraged. Each corner has its own stench. Music pounds. Neon glows at night, glares in the deserted daylight. Revellers and drunks, locals and tourists, surge and stumble. They can walk the street or sidewalk, Bourbon Street being closed to cars, but construction everywhere forces them into each other’s paths. Cars on the cross streets waiting to cross Bourbon wait listlessly to inch through gaps in the crowds. Potholes are filled with murky maybe-water.

Realities collide!

Realities collide!

Stu and I soon re-employ the warning system developed in New York: code word “MUDDLE” a warning to leap on or off the curb over a muddy puddle of what could be water, but might just as easily not be. Bouncers yell drink specials from doorways.

Drinks of choice are a world away from the traditional Vieux Carre found inside the jazz clubs, and most notably include the Big Ass Beer (comes in own novelty 1L bottle); Hand Grenade (green mystery fluid served in plastic grenade); Hurricane (red mystery fluid); Fishbowl (red mystery fluid in giant fishbowl, later seen slung round neck of drag queen keeping her tips in it); and the ever-classic $1 jello shot.

Only in NOLA are even the mannequins falling-down drunk

Only in NOLA are even the mannequins falling-down drunk

Street performance abounds, but we learn not to linger and watch because they will demand payment. Tiny children bang drum-sets made from sticks and upturned buckets with prodigious skill. We learn not to stop and listen to anything everyone says because they will manage to get money out of you through a breathtaking mixture of opportunism, charm and aggression. Tall, scary teenage boys with muscles and hard eyes stand silently with snakes around their necks. Real snakes. Big ones. Wizened old blokes stand around with big colourful parrots. We are pretty sure it’s another moneyspinner, so we don’t ask questions. We just laugh, enjoy the ride and try to keep our feet and clothes dry – we are invariably on our way to a restaurant.

We have largely stayed out of fancy eateries in the USA, finding early on that generally the style of food is international and prices (once you add tips, taxes, exchange rate) are too high to be worth it, given the similar styles and class of dining available in Perth. This is why we have concentrated on the more iconic, regional and less costly American dishes.

Every day is Mardis Gras

Every day is Mardis Gras

But it’s always been the plan to let ourselves go in NOLA. It’s home to Arnaud’s, Commander’s Palace and Galatoire’s, Creole institutions. It’s my birthday week. It’s

Restaurant Week, when such places offer price-fixed menus that will let be high rollers for a week. We visit Goodwill. Stu gets a slinky black suit and I get a slinky black dress. We walk out $15 later and ready to get classy for the first time in months.

We’ve got a long list of cuisines and dishes to try, thanks to NOLA’s eclectic cultural history:

Not bad for a $7 suit.

At Galatoire’s. Not bad for a $7 suit.

Creole and Cajun (jambalaya, andouille, gumbo soup); the po’boy sandwich; the Italian Muffaletta sandwich invented here (filled with mortadella, salami, mozzarella, provolone, and a special olive ‘salad’ of olives, cauliflower and carrot, all in an oil that soaks deliciously into the big round soft Italian sesame loaf, cut into quadrants for easier guzzling).

And that’s not counting the sweets; we have to try beignets (deep-fried choux pasty covered in powdered sugar); bread pudding, the local dessert of choice; pralines, king cake, snoballs, mile high pie…

The Muffaletta at Central Grocery. Note how the oil that the vegies have been marinating in sinks into the bread.

The Muffaletta at Central Grocery. Note how the oil that the vegies have been marinating in sinks into the bread.

We also have a list of musicians to hear provided by a journalism contact of mine – pianist David Boeddinghaus we were lucky enough to see twice, once at the Bombay Club then again aboard the Steamboat Natchez, where he played with the fantastic trumpet player Duke Heitger, who had also been recommended. We didn’t manage to track down pianist Tom McDermott, but we made up for it with a dinner at the Palm Court Jazz Café, where the band sang me happy birthday!

Bloody Mary at the Commander's Palace jazz brunch.

Bloody Mary at the Commander’s Palace jazz brunch.

I’ve put a list of the winners food-wise at the bottom for the curious but overall the most spectacular meal was at Creole classic Commander’s Palace. The jazz brunch – where the band wandered in to each dining room and took requests – was was followed by a walk through the garden district: a far cry from the chaos and poverty of the French Quarter. A self-guided walking tour took us past some jaw-dropping homes, including the homes of Sandra Bullock and, drumroll, John Goodman! His house had double coolness, being previously owned by NIN frontman Trent Reznor.

Anne Rice's house, according to Free Tours by Foot.

Anne Rice’s house, according to Free Tours by Foot.

We also saw Anne Rice’s house, which looked just like you would want expect the author of Interview with a Vampire’s house to look. We ended with a walk through Lafayette Cemetery, crumbling and beautiful, evoking the spooky scenes from Bram Stoker’s original Dracula in which terrified men wait by the tombstones at night for the vampire to emerge.

Lafayette Cemetery

Lafayette Cemetery

On a sunnier note, we spent a day on the bayous, kayaking with Canoe and Trail Adventures swamp tours. An unexpected bonus in getting there was driving for nearly half an hour across the world’s longest bridge, across Lake Pontchartrain.

The vast and shallow Lake Pontchartrain is actually an estuary

The vast and shallow Lake Pontchartrain is actually an estuary. Feels like driving across the sea.

Our passionate local guide told us all about the ecosystem of swamps, bayous and estuaries, and the roles these wetlands – or rather the loss of them – played in the scale of devastation Katrina wrought in 2005. The wetlands are disappearing in Louisiana at a rate of a FOOTBALL FIELD EVERY 90 MINUTES, which sounds unbelievable but was confirmed by a visit to the Katrina museum. The museum featured apocalyptic footage of the floods surging round roofs of the citizens, and told the harrowing stories of overwhelmed and unprepared authorities herding 12,000 of the city’s least fortunate citizens into the Superdome. Here they lived for days on end, surrounded by their own excrement, in the suffocating heat, in the darkness, listening to the sounds of the roof disintegrating around them.

On the swamp!

Sign in back left reads “DEAD SLOW”, hehe. Front left you can see an osprey nest in tree.

And the worst part? Scientists had been warning for a long time that the risk of flooding was high and that the loss of the natural wetland buffer zones would mean the flooding would be catastrophic. And people wonder why I bang on about wetlands disappearing into subdivisions in Perth. We lack respect and understanding for the subtle roles ecosystems play in keeping our planet hospitable. Happily, New Orleans seems to have somewhat learned from its experiences, and there are wetland recovery efforts underway, but of course it will take billions and meanwhile the money is in the hands of politicians.

Anyway, back to dumb tourist mode: paddling behind our guide, we see two alligators! One a head, the other one a slinking tail! And then a turtle! Turtle gets all shy and belly flops ungracefully back into the water when we say hi.

Em does a momentary book nerd with statue of Ignatius Reilly, the main character from the Pulitzer Prizewinning New Orleans novel A Confederacy of Dunces

Nerding out with Ignatius Reilly, hero of Pulitzer-winning NOLA novel A Confederacy of Dunces

We love New Orleans, our most intense experience of America since New York City. Its cracked and crooked streets and paths are marked by flood lines and devastating evidence of rampant homelessness, but they are also full of beauty and colour and life, and above all music. Tubas wander the streets, taking their humans for walks. Jazz spills from restaurants, houses, bars, cars. We arrived wondering why people wanted to go back and rebuild after Katrina; but we leave understanding. There’s just nowhere else like it.

A week’s not enough, but we’ve got a date with Austin, Texas, and then… with the grandest of all canyons!

Stumobservations: New Orleans

  • The first night in any new place is spent finding somewhere to eat.
  • Rest of the week is spent discussing where we should have eaten on first night.
  • Light American beer has the same alcohol content as full strength Aussie beer.
  • Blood and Sand cocktail tastes exactly like its name: like you’ve tripped at the beach and smashed your face in the sand.
  • Do not put inedibles in my food. #Gumbo
  • Hand Grenades and Hurricanes are reminiscent of unrefined rocket fuel concoctions from early-days drinking.
  • Birthday drinks are even classier when consumed on a working carousel bar.
  • Birthdays last 36 hours when there is a 12-hour time difference.
  • 50 squats and 50 lunges are horrible. #Canyonprep
Beignets. Enough said.

Beignets. Enough said.

Winners food-wise:

  • Po-boys: Killer Po-Boys at Erin Rose – famous Parkway Po’Boys didn’t compare. 
  • Beignets: Café du Monde. It’s legendary for a reason. Bonus points for cafe au lait, the closest I have come to a flat white in a long, long time. We share a single portion, but get all giggly and high on sugar anyway.
  • Muffaletta: Sorry, Frank’s, but Central Deli and Grocery won this fight.
  • Best gumbo: Galatoire’s
  • Best bread pudding: Palm Court
  • Best meal overall: Commander’s Palace (Creole)
  • Highly commended Creole: Dooky Chase’s and The Gumbo Shop

 

 

Em and Stu do America part 10: Tennessee

Biscuit Love, Nashville

Five days in Tennessee were planned on the fly, given Hurricane Irma smashing our plans, but they were certainly a gift for us, after what was really becoming a bit too long sitting around in Florida. Thanks to the outflow of Irma evacuees, the 4-hour bus ride to Nashville from Atlanta ended up taking 8 hours, so we sure were glad to hop out of that Megabus and into one big fat Nashville party.

Everywhere you look are “pedal buses” (can’t think why no one has discovered Perth would be prime market) catering to an apparently booming bachelor and bachelorette party scene. Everywhere you look, hilarity and good-natured stumbling abound.

One or more of these goes by you every 30 seconds.

One or more of these goes by you every 30 seconds, complete with whooping and singing (see video at the end).

“Is it always like this?” I asked our Uber driver as crowds eddied round the car.

“Always, baby, always,” Yolanda told me.

We happened to coincide with Wizarding World Comic-Con, AND, a live discussion with Brian O’Halloran (Dante from Kevin Smith cult classic Clerks) and Jason Mewes, Jay of ‘Jay and Silent Bob’ who shot to fame in Clerks and remain a beloved element of most Smith films since. Yep, Mewes is just as silly and lovable as his on-screen persona and, amid teasing the sign language translators with his potty mouth, told some awesome insider stories about working with Smith and the gang, including about what it was like to meet the legendary Stan Lee and what it was like to work on the Mallrats set!

Stu and I both fan-girled

Stu and I both fan-girled for Jason Mewes, AKA Jay of Jay and Silent Bob 

Snoochie-boochies aside, Nashville was all about the music. Even their bus seats are upholstered with treble clefs. We visited the Country Music Hall of Fame and scored last-minute tickets to the Grand Ole Opry, a live country music radio show that has been going for the best part of a century, and was for many decades the principal way new music spread throughout the state and beyond. We wandered the streets – there is live music in just about every bar, all day, every day – soaking in the vibe.

The vibe continued all the way to Memphis, which is also all about the music, but with a stronger focus on the blues and rock’n’roll. The excellent Rock and Soul Museum continued our crash course in modern music history, continuing the story of how such elements as slavery, the cotton picking industry, the push for civil rights and the development of independent record labels and recording studios all helped usher in new styles of music for a new era, culminating in the birth of rock’n’roll.

So much country.

They also sell shirts in Nashville that say KEEP CALM AND CARRY GUNS :/ 

Yes, we went to Graceland and were amazed to find that even Elvis’ legendary extravagance was frankly rather elegant and restrained compared to the flagrant festival of consumption we see in many American households we pass through. Looking at his way-out but gorgeous furnishings really gave a sense of Elvis the person and was unexpectedly moving.

Memphis, not to be outdone by Nashville, also has live music streaming from every pub, particularly on the legendary Beale Street. The street is now a glitzy tourist trap rather than a beating musical heart, but is still worth a walk and a bar-hop, just for the bands. But you don’t have to be on Beale Street to hear a band in Memphis – we stayed not downtown but in Midtown’s Cooper-Young, an area that reminded us a lot of Perth’s inner-ring suburbs, and this was not only a welcome feeling but an awesome place to stay just for the wealth of music and food options to choose from.

Memphis had a lovely vibe - the suburb Cooper Young felt very Perth-like.

Memphis had a lovely vibe – this suburb, Cooper Young, felt very Perth-like.

Speaking of food: Nashville is famous for its hot fried chicken, and our biggest success in town was the heavenly Biscuit Love in The Gulch – well worth the wait. For those who missed a previous StuMobservation, Americans call scones “biscuits” and in the south, traditionally eat them with fried chicken and/or a kind of white gravy laden with sausage as part of a savoury breakfast. Crazy Americans and their delicious craziness.

Example courtesy of Biscuit Love.

Example courtesy of Biscuit Love. Sausage gravy can be seen in background. 

Memphis, on the other hand, is all about the barbecue. A quick lesson: in America, barbecue is the art of slow-smoking meat, particularly pork, until it is falling apart and flavoursome, and is close to a national religion. It also varies by region. In the Carolinas and Georgia we ate “whole hog” smoked in a vinegary sauce with the fat “chopped” into the final product. In Memphis, barbecue generally means pork ribs, either “dry” (rubbed with dry spice mix pre-cooking) or “wet rub”, basted with a liquid-based sauce during cooking then doused with BBQ sauce to eat. We won’t even go into the sauces right now. In Texas, it’ll be another barbecue story altogether.

Dry rub at Central BBQ, Memphis.

Dry rub at Central BBQ, Memphis.

The best food by far was the dry rub at Central BBQ (visitors, don’t listen to all the hype about Blues City and Rendezvous – go directly to Central). Banana pudding and peach cobbler are the big names in desserts in this part of the south, as well as the pecan pie – pecans are plentiful as they are grown in the south and they feature on most dessert menus. We hadn’t managed to find a peach cobbler, yet, but indulged at length in banana pudding (Central also wins for banana pudding). In case you’re wondering, we’re tending to share meals in order to limit the damage 😉

Elvis fabric-panelled pool room!

Elvis had a fabric-panelled pool room!

Meat aside, it was really beautiful to see cities nurturing and honouring musical culture, and it certainly made going out nicer – not just all about the booze, despite what the pictures might suggest!

StuMobservations: Tennessee

  • Would come back just for the pork.
  • The pork is so tasty it doesn’t need BBQ sauce.
  • The BBQ sauce they have goes really well with pork.
  • The pork ribs just fall off the bone.
  • You can get pork crackle as a side with your pork.
  • Central BBQ has better pork than you.
  • I ordered the pork sausage instead of dessert, they chopped it up and served it in a bowl with a spoon. #Porklife
  • We did other things between porks that weren’t boaring.

 

What we’re reading
Em: Here I Am, Jonathan Safran Foer
Stu: Blood of Requiem, Daniel Arenson

What we’re listening to
Shania Twain’s Come on Over as a soundtrack for a lot of punishing squats. We learned this album was the best selling record by any female artist of all time!

What we’re watching
Twin Peaks finale… what the hell was that?! We wanted closure, David Lynch! Also, the IT movie rocked. Everyone in the cinema clapped at the end. It was a lovely moment of solidarity with the Americans. Go see it.

Em and Stu do America part 9: Miami Beach

This is Miami. Even your bike has to look good.

This is Miami. Even your bike has to look good.

We’ve fled Florida and the Miami Beach we describe will be sadly damaged. Residents just got let back in to see their homes today. But we thought we’d do this post anyway to encourage – eventually – tourism dollars back to the area when the time comes.

We had planned eight nights in Miami and chose to stay on Miami Beach, specifically South Beach. Miami Beach is actually an island off downtown Miami and South Beach is the portion of it that the rest of the world imagines when it imagines Miami: the palm trees, Art Deco, fancy vintage cars parked on the streets, sun-bronzed people on rollerblades, neon and nightlife. We chose to stay “where the action is”, conveniently forgetting we are old farts in training who don’t appreciate “action”.

The deco district. A tourist trap, but such a pretty one.

The deco district. A tourist trap, but such a pretty one.

Miami Beach is expensive, and our inability to find somewhere close to South Beach within our budget led to our first negative AirBnB experience. We’ll save the hair-raising stories for home, but advise anyone needing budget accommodation in the area to search well in advance and take precautions. We would also recommend avoiding the Instant Book feature – take time to message the host first and check them out.

Miami Beach is scorching hot. Temperatures climbed above 37C by 10am. I have yearned throughout many muggy, cloudy eastern states for blue skies and white sand, a real summer holiday, but I realised that Miami, far closer to Cuba culturally than it is to the rest of Florida, is also a climate unto itself, with us arriving in the wet season, rather than summer as I understand summer.

Green lizard!

Green lizard!

Miami is exotic. Extreme humidity and frequent rainstorms allow for thick, lush vegetation, tropical flowers and palms everywhere, the smell of wet greenery thick in the air, lizards scattering at your feet; tiny ones, big ones, curly-tailed ones, bright green ones. There is a World Erotic Art Museum and gorgeous old art deco architecture everywhere, the preservation of low-rise heritage buildings throughout most of South Beach adding to the feeling that you have left the United States far behind. The famous South Beach itself is, to give credit where it’s due, the first Australian-quality beach seen so far in terms of white sand and clear water, though the water is very warm.

White sand, warm water, hot bodies.

White sand, warm water, hot bodies.

Looks are vital. The stores have big-breasted mannequins, and mannequins of little doggies to display the clothing choices for your doggy accessory. People-watching should be done in the afternoons and evenings. Before midday, empty streets are peopled by tourists, recognisable by their protective hats and clothing (residents walk around wearing as little as possible to prevent tan lines forming). We concluded locals have more in common with the lizards everywhere than they did with us – protected by their browned skins, they waited until the sun warmed their blood before hitting the streets each day.

But when they do it’s a sight to behold and they quite agree, taking so many selfies you’re as much at risk of collision on the sidewalk as you are on a street. They work out, half-naked, on full outdoor extreme gym equipment in the sun, doing one-armed pushups on baking rocks and sand. And bars and restaurants are all open virtually 24 hours, maybe to relieve the stress of looking so good. One Cuban we talked to, Jeffrey, said the women in Cuba were “needy”, explaining he meant expensive, needing a lot of investment in their hair and nails.

Where dogs are a fashion accessory.

Where dogs are a fashion accessory.

On Miami Beach we spotted lots of bare slow-cooking boobies, one skin-diver-suited man with a metal detector, one particularly gorgeous siren of a woman taking selfies with a full-on tripod and SLR setup, and of course, plenty of ‘boyfriends of Instagram’ situations, in which hapless men contort themselves trying to take the pictures their women require for social media.

One example was an older man in his 60s being instructed in photography by two girls in bikinis. Whether he knew them was unclear. Stu and I observed closely and are able to report for you the rules for looking hot in a photo (Emma models these in the gallery below):

  1. Pop butt upwards and forwards
  2. Somehow keep front knee bent?
  3. Ah! It’s by keeping feet together.
  4. Twist so boobs and butt face same direction
  5. Pout.
  6. Repeat until satisfied.
The only place I've ever seen a DD mannequin.

The only place I’ve ever seen a DD mannequin.

I also witnessed a hilarious ‘boyfriends of Instagram’ incident when I went kayaking around the Sunset Islands, four little islands in Sunset Bay off the main island. These are some of Miami Beach’s most exclusive addresses, home to the rich and famous. The immense, mostly Mediterranean-style homes are big enough to serve as hotels. Most are worth $15 million plus and one, the former home of Lenny Kravitz, sold last year for $25 million. It was a peaceful and beautiful time, me dragging my feet in the cool water, contemplating how much nicer it was to kayak past such a mansion on a Monday morning, instead of working to pay for one.

Presently I was joined by a man and woman on stand-up paddleboards. The woman gave the phone to her boyfriend to snap photos of her from behind. Geez, she looked gorgeous, slender and bronzed in a blue bikini, paddling between towering mansions, a Velcro strap around one tanned and toned ankle, blonde blow-waved hair shining as it fell past her waist.

Check out the size of the boats behind me!

Check out the size of the boats behind me!

Her boyfriend did his best to capture this moment on the phone as instructed as well as paddle to keep up with her. For my part, I tried to get my kayak as far to the edge of the canal as possible so that I wouldn’t wreck the shot.

My short kayak and I passed easily under the low bridge between two of the islands. The guy was busy checking he’d got the shot; the blonde, preoccupied, did not see the giant metre-wide pylons she was headed for and got knocked clean off the paddleboard, landing in the water with an almighty splash.

I managed not to giggle as I asked her if she was OK. I felt for her, losing that nice blow-wave, but I also knew that Miami Beach features “blow bars” where you can go and have cocktails mixed for you while people blow-dry your hair.

Super-chill Miami - the lovely bloke at South Beach Kayak skaeboards back and forth to the water with the kayaks.

The super-chill bloke at South Beach Kayak skateboards to and from the water with the kayaks.

But enough about the eye candy when there is food to be discussed. We ate and cooked as much Cuban food as possible: Cuban sandwiches (Cuban bread, ham, roast pork, cheese, pickles; Juji, it really depends on where you get them); Cuban espresso (Juji we couldn’t tell the difference between this and regular espresso).

We ate empanadas, linden flower tea, yuca fries, stuffed yuca, various meats with black beans and rice, guava pastelito (pastry), enormous avocados, tamales, cheap mangoes, street corner empanadas and plantains in all sorts of guises, sweet and savoury, including tostones.

We can recommend the Cuban and Cuban-inspired food at the Ocean Deli (cheap), Havana 1957 (mid-range), Puerto Sagua (cheap), The Cafe at Books & Books (expensive, but a great take on the Cuban sandwich, and the bookshop itself excellent) and Mas Cuba (mid-range).

Despite the use of non-regulation bread, or perhaps because of it, we found The Cafe at Books & Books was the clear winner.

Despite the use of non-regulation bread, or perhaps because of it, we found The Cafe at Books & Books was the clear winner for the Cuban sanger. That’s yuca fries in the background.

But the highlight was Moreno’s, owned by singer Jorge Moreno. It’s hard to find. You have to walk through the driveway of the Dorchester hotel and pass beneath an enormous twisty tropical tree that frames the restaurant awesomely but also shields it from the street. It outshone everything with its pastelito, its Imperial Rice – a must-have! – and its live Cuban band. A word of warning – it recently moved from its old location which has now been occupied by Mas Cuba, which has remarkably similar signage and styling to Moreno’s. We would urge visitors to ensure they seek out Moreno’s.

Another tip for tourists seeking nice bars and hangouts away from the hustle of South Beach – we found this No Nonsense Guide to Doing South Beach like a Local, invaluable.

Miami looks good, but it tastes better.

Miami looks good, but it tastes better.

The charms of Miami Beach take some time and detective work to uncover if you aren’t born to party and are on a strict budget. But once the place is back on its feet, we would encourage you to visit – it’s totally worth it.

StuMobservations: Miami Beach

  • The buildings are like an 80’s version of the future.
  • Rollerblading down Ocean Drive in shorts is acceptable if you have your own soundtrack.
  • $17US + tip for a bourbon and coke – not cool bro.
  • It’s like Bali but with black beans.
  • Do not put solids in my drink. #Mojito
  • Are selfies a hobby/sport/activity now?
  • I do not like pina colatas or getting caught in the rain.
  • Sex museums should have blank walls for time-outs/regrouping/safe eye-contact.
  • Miami Beach = 50% Eat and Drink, 25% Drink, 12.5% Eat, 12.5% Sleep.
  • Airbnb hosts ARE obligated to provide clean bedding.
  • Cuban food is now called Stuban food. (See Cuban Sandwich).
Stu with a $25 bourbon and Coke. We misread the menu. Note his forced smile.

Stu with a $25 bourbon and Coke. We misread the menu. Note his forced smile.

What we’re reading
Em: The Hostile Hospital, Lemony Snicket; French Women Don’t Get Fat, Mireille Guiliano; The Magic World, E. Nesbit
Stu: Blood of Requiem, Daniel Arenson

What we’re listening to
A southern crash course: Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers, Riders in the Sky, Elvis Presley

What we’re watching
Today we’re going to the movies to see IT! Very excited…

Em and Stu do America part 8: Special hurricane edition

This post was supposed to be about Miami Beach, but as Irma bears down on that city we thought we would write this instead.

It was pretty amazing to see all the army convoys and signage getting set up on the road north to Atlanta. A massive operation to evacuate so many people.

It was pretty amazing to see all the army convoys and signage getting set up on the road north to Atlanta. A massive operation to evacuate so many people.

We left Miami last weekend for a weeklong house-sit in historic St Augustine on Florida’s northeast coast, caring for two Scottish terriers and a vocal parrot named Dixie. But we barely got to do more than kayak on the canal looking, sadly in vain, for manatees before getting the news that a state of emergency was being declared in Florida. Our hosts told us they would be coming home to batten down the hatches and we were welcome to stay, but their advice would be to get out of Florida as soon as we could. So we celebrated Stu’s birthday on the 5th, Tuesday, with roast BBQ pork from my new Mrs Wilkes cookbook and cheesecake from the Cookbook of Juji, and got up on Wednesday to pack. But where to go? Our next booking was in St Petersburg on the Gulf Coast, home of the Dali museum. We had also booked our rental car until September 15, and the earliest we could return it to Atlanta for a refund was the 8th according to their terms. If we returned it before that we would be paying for a car we couldn’t keep, and we also couldn’t really make the drive to Atlanta in a day anyway.

Clyde and his little protege, Cassie.

Clyde and his little protege, Cassie.

Lo and behold, in comes a message from the lovely Lisa of our awesome Savannah AirBnB, offering us a place to stay for as long as they were able to stay themselves, given Irma was now looking towards that coastline too. We gratefully accepted, but Lisa and Tammy wouldn’t even take our money – and this really helped us, given we had been counting on the week of free accommodation in St Augustine to soothe the wounds expensive Miami had inflicted.

This beautiful couple insisted we were friends now, and so as friends, we left Florida then and there, rocked up with booze just in time for their pre-hurricane party at their backyard tiki bar on Wednesday evening.

The pre-hurricane party ended rather late.

The pre-hurricane party ended rather late.

Traffic had been heavy coming out of Florida, but Irma was still an abstract to us, and we slowly realised the reality of it as we sat listening to our new group of mates in Savannah discuss their plans. What would they do with their pets? Would they stay or leave? Who had a generator? What would their insurance cover or not cover if their cars, their houses got hit? Should they board up their windows? When? Now?

Meanwhile, Stu and I had no place to stay and no plan beyond that night and perhaps the next. As the night developed into debauchery I sought the help of those around me. Bethany had the strongest suggestion – if we had to leave Atlanta Friday, she said, bus to Nashville for a few nights, bus to Memphis. Then it was a hell of a trip to our next booking in New Orleans, but she flattened my idea of seven nights in Jackson Mississippi and I was happy to take her word on that.

Stu gets out before it hits.

Stu gets out before it hits.

We devoted the rest of the night dancing to old Broadway hits in the backyard. It was 2-3am before we went to bed and we awoke Thursday stupidly hungover to the news that Irma had killed people in the Carribbean and was definitely headed to Savannah. I blearily hit the internet and booked a bus for Friday to Nashville and an AirBnB that would do. Surely we could stay here another night. Tammy and Lisa as yet had no plans in place themselves with Lisa particularly occupied attempting to manage the wholesale shifting of her office, staff and company’s equipment to Atlanta, where word had it there was no accommodation left.

But an hour later we got word that an evacuation order would take effect for Savannah from Saturday morning. They would even be changing the flow of traffic on the interstate highway so all roads would lead west. Just imagine…

You can see here the signs taped on to the bowsers that just say "out of gas".

You can see here the signs taped on to the bowsers that just say “out of gas”.

Amid news of gas stations running out of gas and supermarkets water, we thought we would be idiots to wait another night and rely on getting to Atlanta on Friday. So we messaged the Atlanta host we had stayed with recently who was no longer doing AirBnB but took pity on us and smuggled us in for cash-money, unbeknownst to the snoopy neighbours. We’ll leave now (4pm) and be there by eight, we told her…

It took three gas stations before we found one with gas so we could fill the tank. The shelves were empty, the traffic insane, with traffics and breakdowns strung along the packed highway. It took us nearly seven hours to complete the trip even with no rest stops – we were just barrelling along this unfamiliar highway in the dark, sometimes at a standstill, sometimes going 112km/h – a white-knuckle trip for sure. We arrived around 11pm, apologising to our host, and fell into our bed.

You can just see the line of cars stretching out behind us in the mirror.

You can just see the line of cars stretching out behind us in the mirror.

We hope Irma will spare our hosts in Florida and our new friends in Savannah and we pray all Tammy and Lisa’s work on their beautiful home (especially the tiki bar – ha!) will be protected.

Headed to Nashville this arvo, over and out!

 

Em and Stu do America part 7: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

As lifelong fans, we are among millions of poor saps who will pay basically anything to see this beloved world brought to life for a day. The cunning folks at Universal Studios Orlando know this, and put half of it (Diagon Alley) in their main park and the other half (Hogsmeade), in adjacent theme park, Islands of Adventure. So if you want to see the lot, you gotta pay for two adults x two parks: total nearly $AUD500!

Hogwarts!

Hogwarts!

This is why it was the ONLY activity in a week in Orlando. It was no hardship to lay low and eat in, though, blessed with the second of three planned resort stays amid a sea of AirBnB. We rolled into town and aside from a Grand Canyon training hike, parked our arses poolside for six days.

And on the seventh day, God gave us Harry Potter.

OMG! We are at Harry Potter World! And it is ALREADY VERY HOT!!!!

OMG! We are at Harry Potter World! And it is ALREADY VERY HOT!

We started bang on opening time on the Hogsmeade side with the premier ride “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey”, reached through Hogwarts Castle. A half-hour wait in a line threading through the castle was made awesome by the atmosphere inside, complete with moving portraits on the walls, and holographic appearances specially filmed for the purpose with the movie actors, so they would pop up from time to time in the corridors and talk to you.

This ride was the highlight of the day, showcasing mind-boggling modern theme park tech – indoor rollercoasters combined with elaborate 3D simulations and real interior puppetry and special effects, including fog, fire and water, a completely immersive experience. The ride, in which you escape Dementors, play Quidditch and fly with dragons across the castle ramparts, was both scary and exhilarating – not really one for a child, unless you count the inner one.

Excitement level: rising uncontrollably.

Excitement level: rising uncontrollably.

We then waited perhaps 15 minutes to catch the Hogwarts Express, a real train and an experience in itself, to Diagon Alley at Universal Studios – a five-minute ride. On the other side, you go through a “London” street complete with Ministry of Magic phone box, Knight Bus with actor playing Stan Shunpike, and full-size facade of 12 Grimmauld Place. We stepped through the magical hole-in-the-wall to Diagon Alley, which centres around a beautiful full-scale Gringotts Wizarding Bank. It even has life-sized animatronic goblins intimidating you as you walk through the entrance hall in line for the ride “Escape from Gringotts”, a line that takes 45 minutes even soon after opening time and from the size of the waiting pens the lines clearly grow until they are hours long. These pens have to be kept in specially made yards behind the main tourist attractions as there is no space in the Alley itself.

You can totally imagine you are Hermione, impersonating Bellatrix, about to be sprung by this guy.

Intimidating. You can totally imagine you are Hermione, impersonating Bellatrix, about to be sprung by this guy.

The Gringotts ride, a simulation of Harry and the gang’s journey through the vaults on a rail cart then their escape aboard a dragon, is also very good in the manner previously described but should probably be done before the Forbidden Journey as, with expectations now sky-high, we found it shorter and less astounding.

We didn’t do the Dragon Challenge coaster as it catered more for children, but wandered Diagon Alley which has all the shops from the books and more. You can go to Ollivander’s and buy a wand, which can be used to activate extra little touches in the window displays throughout Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. We skipped the line and the expense and just watched other people do it.

The dragon atop Gringott's. Go to the end to see the video of it breathing fire!

The dragon atop Gringott’s. Go to the end to see the video of it breathing fire!

You can look in the window at Flourish & Blott’s, go to the magical creatures store, buy crap, get fitted for a robe at Madam Malkin’s, buy more crap, and even visit spooky Knockturn Alley with a Borgin & Burke’s, where you can buy darker-style crap.

We heroically resisted buying crap, but did do lunch at the Leaky Cauldron, a perfect replica where you can get eye-wateringly priced English pub grub as well as Butterbeer and pumpkin juice. While the food was ordinary the decor was spot on, the pumpkin juice delicious (a kind of spiced fruit juice, presence of pumpkin debatable) and Butterbeer, though sadly non-alcoholic, also unbelievably good. Then to Florean Fortescue’s Ice-cream Parlour for dessert, a flagrant money-grab with little atmosphere.

Inside Knockturn Alley

Inside Knockturn Alley

Heavy with sugar we ran through the Simpsons street at Universal, which includes a life-size Moe’s Tavern where you can get Duffs and Flaming Moes. We did the Simpsons ride through Krustyland, me trying not to hurl. All the rides are of the type described, with 3D simulations making you feel as though you are travelling very fast and far, much more sickening and overwhelming than an outdoor rollercoaster.

After a sweltering 45-minute wait we reached Platform Nine ¾ to get the Hogwarts Express, an experience that changes on the return journey (with Dementors!) back to Hogsmeade. Here we wandered through more shops selling crap, including Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes joke shop, and Honeydukes, which was beautifully done, and hard to resist! We poked our heads inside the Three Broomsticks, another perfect replica pub, a similar deal food-wise to the Leaky Cauldron, and entered the Hog’s Head, a darker pub where we obviously had to try firewhisky, a kind of spiced sweet whiskey brewed in Savannah specifically for the purpose of bringing the books to life in this park. Tasty, but pricey!

All aboard the Hogwarts Express... eventually. In the meantimre, look at Hedwig in her cage!

All aboard the Hogwarts Express… eventually. In the meantimre, look at Hedwig in her cage!

Exhausted and dripping, we exited Islands of Adventure by way of the Jurassic Park ride and Amazing Spiderman rides, both super fun, and by another 100 souvenir shops, further testing our resolve. We were utterly shattered, but all the money and waiting and sweat was totally worth it! And can you believe we didn’t buy ANYTHING? Our Money Mustaches grew long and luxurious that day my friends.

StuMobservations: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

  • Wands that activate various 10-second attractions can be experienced by following someone else’s kid around. Saved 50 bucks.
  • Still should have brought my wand though.
  • Ride simulators have come a long way.
  • Finally saw a fire breathing dragon! #lifegoalachieved
  • The Flaming Moe is non-alcoholic and doesn’t even contain cough syrup.
  • Providing in-queue entertainment is genius and should become industry standard.
  • You can view post-ride photo and have a laugh without buying it.
  • Matching family holiday T-shirts are not lame.
  • Putting cinnamon in everything does not make it ‘magical’.
  • Couldn’t decide on what to buy and came away with nothing.
  • The wait times displayed at each ride entrance are inaccurate.
  • Seeing a little girl point her wand at her brother and shout ‘Incendium’ is amazing.

What we’re reading 
Em: The Ersatz Elevator and The Vile Village, Lemony Snicket; The Apprentice, Tess Gerritsen; Rich Habits, Poor Habits, by Michael Yardney
Stu: The Long Walk, Stephen King; Eric and Moving Pictures, Terry Pratchett;

What we’re listening to
Cuban singer Jorge Moreno, who sings a lot about going to Texas and Mexico and how girls should just accept it when he doesn’t call, cause that’s just the way he is, baby. This is in preparation for visiting his Cuban restaurant in Miami Beach.

What we’re watching 
Game of Thrones finale… holy moly!
Miniseries of Stephen King’s The Stand (super good and classic eighties, with Gary Sinise and Molly Ringwald)

Em and Stu do America part 6: The Southeast

The view: great when you own it.

After so many big cities a house-sit at Lake Norman, in the small college town of Davidson, North Carolina, was just right: luxury townhouse, adorable dog, breathtaking view. Americans seem to lack Australians’ feeling everyone has equal rights to waterfronts, and fragmented public access sucks for a sweaty traveller trying to walk around rich areas.

But when you find yourself on the other side of the fence, exclusive waves lapping at your back steps, all seems well! And after gazing at this view with our adorable charge, Ollie, at our heels for a week we hired a Chevy to take us on to Atlanta, Georgia.

It's my blog and I'll add lyrics from obscure musicals if I want to.

It’s my blog and I’ll add lyrics from obscure musicals if I want to.

“Why Atlanta?” Ollie the dog’s mum and dad politely asked, and they weren’t the only head-scratchers. I’ll explain. To me, Atlanta was the setting of one of my favourite musicals, Jason Robert Brown’s Parade, which made me want to see the “old red hills of Georgia”. Note to self: walking up hills is harder than listening to songs about them.

Atlanta homes 5.5 million people. A lack of natural boundaries allowed massive urban sprawl (sound familiar?) and the city isn’t particularly attractive or pedestrian-friendly.

Downtown Atlanta

Downtown Atlanta

Lucky then we stayed within coo-ee of Olmsted Linear Park designed by the celebrated landscape architect who created NYC’s Central and Prospect Parks. The heritage homes alongside were jaw-dropping and the whole area, Olmsted’s vision of “the ideal suburb”, was another world to hot, grubby downtown.

Here we found the peace we never quite achieved in Central Park

Here we found the peace we never quite achieved in Central Park

While “embracing” civil rights is probably glossing, Atlanta was the only state that didn’t get too het up about the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The city self-proclaimed “too busy to hate”, eventually Atlanta led the south by supporting the achievements and messages of Martin Luther King, who grew up and preached there in the same church as his father and grandfather.

Atlanta now honours this history with the King Memorial and Center for Nonviolent Social Change, both by this church, and also the Center for Civil and Human Rights, a museum covering both the 1960s movement as well as global human rights situations today. Sobering, with terribly sad histories of the casualties of the fight for rights in the USA, but ultimately inspiring.

In memory of four little girls killed in an attack on a church during the fight for civil rights.

“They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism…” In memory of four little girls killed in attack on a church.

Now I’ve bored the casual reader with how worthy we are I can admit that we were really here because ZOMBIES. All who gave up on AMC’s The Walking Dead in Season 2 should rue the day. Stu and I have been steadfastly committed for eight years – longer than our relationship!

Atlanta, “Hollywood of the South,” is now one of the world’s biggest screen production locations, eclipsing both LA and NYC. The business now rakes in about $9.5 billion annually for the city, I hear, which offers generous tax incentives for studios to film there and hence has new ones opening all the time, such as Pinewood – maker of Harry Potter, James Bond and cash cow Marvel.

Way exciting moment for Team StuMy.

Here, in the first episode that screened in 2000, Rick – working out an apocalypse has happened while his back was turned – rides along the empty highway into Atlanta (right), observing the road out beside him, a parking lot of abandoned vehicles after everyone tried to get out of the city.

Movie tourism is burgeoning but we had eyes only for TWD, journeying downtown on a sizzling day to Jackson Street bridge. We had no CGI (or horse) to recreate the spine-chilling scene, but thought we did well to get this approximation.

And the real jackpot was Atlanta Movie Tours’ bus tour of Senoia, an hour’s drive south. The town is home to TWD studio and now many cast and crew. Apparently Norman Reedus, who Stu and I know as Stealth Mode but otherwise known as TWD’s heart-throb, has had to move four different times, because fans keep finding him.

The safest place to hide during zombie apocalypse is behind Stealth Mode. We took this shot in the house that was used for Morgan's apartment in Season 1.

The safest place to hide during zombie apocalypse is behind Stealth Mode. We took this shot in the house that was used for Morgan’s apartment in Season 1.

Most of the show since season 2 has been shot in and around Senoia ((Woodbury, Alexandria, the prison, the woods, the railway to Terminus, etc…) and the tiny town now supports numerous different TWD tours, with apparently insatiable tourist demand and endless sites to visit.

According to our guide Stephanie, a local mum whose awesome job for the past four years has been as zombie extra on set, TWD and related tourism supercharged the economy. A main street with a handful of shops has become a spick-and-span town, housing 50-plus businesses, with a big new shopping village opening now. Real estate is booming and you feel the love everywhere – just about every shop has a sign out the front telling you zombies are welcome.

Another freaking cool TWD setting.

Another freaking cool TWD setting.

We had huge fun getting insider info on the show, actors, makeup, sets and so on. And Katie Lou’s diner in Senoia, where we landed afterwards, offered the best example we’d yet had of the South’s signature dishes: slow-smoked barbecue meats. And oh, the cornbread! The Brunswick Stew!

Since we’re now talking Georgia food, I should skip to Savannah, where we spent several days hanging out with the coolest AirBnB hosts we’ve met, Lisa and Tammy, who installed a tiki bar in their backyard and party there with friends and guests alike.

Wait, first, just another bit of TWC. Look! The zombie-proof fence (Alexandria) is still set up in the town. People actually live inside there, including a family who has nothing to do with the show. Apparently they have to sign non disclosure contracts.

Wait, first, just another bit of TWC. Look! The zombie-proof fence (Alexandria) is still set up in the town. People actually live inside there, including a family who has nothing to do with the show. Apparently they have to sign non disclosure contracts.

Driving into Savannah was its own experience, mid-rainstorm, an endless avenue of enormous live oak trees draped in Spanish moss, stepping from the car into a steam-bath. Stu described it best: like driving into Jumanji.

The otherworldly feel continued downtown with historic buildings including Pirates’ House, whose past as a pirate magnet was made famous in Treasure Island – its author Robert Louis Stevenson actually took his last breath in an upstairs bedroom there.

Savannah's Forsyth Park

Savannah’s Forsyth Park as seen on a Stu-led walking tour.

Such buildings face on to 22 stately public squares, far more open space than any modern government would allow as developers circle such areas like sharks. One is where Forrest Gump sat, telling his life story.

Right, the food. Mrs Wilkes’ Dining Room was reluctantly opened by said matron at her boardinghouse in the 1940s when her cooking became so famous people started beating down the door. Since her death in the 1970s it’s been run by her grandson, who could not bear to let the legend go. Little has changed. There is no sign outside, so you find the right street then look for the line of people. You wait, sweating, half an hour or more. When finally admitted to the dining room (the first lot traditionally says grace after a dinner-bell clangs) you are seated with a bunch of strangers around a big table and given a tumbler of sweet iced tea.

Typical public square in Savannah

Typical public square in Savannah

This is minimally awkward as immediately an avalanche of dishes hits and it is all you can do to pass it around and get some of everything. No one is there for small talk. We ate fried chicken, two different corn breads, meat loaf, heavenly sweet potato soufflé, “red rice” with sausage, dill pickled cucumbers, squash casserole, barbecue pork, rutabanga, buttered cabbage, beans, creamy potato mash, and many more delicious things I cannot remember or identify.

Then, a berry pudding and a banana pudding were served. You will all be convinced of how good these were by one astonishing fact: Stu not only finished his berry pudding, but snatched the banana one from under my nose and devoured that too.

Pirate building. Piratical!

All for $22USD a head. Needless to say, I bought the cookbook. It’s being posted home for Juji to practice with until we return, demanding fried dishes. I should also mention that we have now discovered hushpuppies (balls of sweet dough deep fried) and grits, a wheat dish that should really be eaten for breakfast but because they are Americans, they put cheese on it.

On to Florida, with tightening waistbands.

StuMobservations Part 7: The SouthEast

  • The ideal number of US to AU power converters is 3.
  • 22 Garden Squares is about 12 more than necessary.
  • 100% of Mrs. Wilkes food consumed is StuMo approved, even the desserts.
  • Iced tea is stupid. Give me a second option.
  • Savannah is cool with open alcohol in the streets.
  • Stubbie holders are called koozies.
  • Pet sits need the option of keeping the pet upon completion.
  • ½ pound pulled pork, ½ pound beef brisket, two serves fries speaks to my heart.
  • If you order a sandwich they replace two-thirds of your meat with a bread roll.
  • Order rum, not beer, at a pirate house.
  • A walker (zombie extra) gets a $50 pay bump when they get killed.
  • There is only one set prop tank in Georgia, they just paint it different colours.
  • Popcorn container refills are $1.
  • Office chairs and small round tables make great cinema seating.
  • “We are having salad for dinner, what else does it need?” “Beer and potato chips”.
  • Put bourbon in your vanilla shake.

What we’re reading
Em: The Book Thief, Marcus Zuzak; The School of Good and Evil, Soman Chaibani; Man Size in Marble, E. Nesbit; The Miserable Mill, The Austere Academy and The Ersatz Elevator, Lemony Snicket; In the Quiet, Eliza Henry Jones; Swing Time, Zadie Smith; Kill your Mortgage by Hannah McQueen (facts are good too).
Stu: Rage, by Richard Bachman

What we’re listening to
The Farseekers, read by Isobelle Carmody
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, read by Jim Dale

What we’re watching
We saw The Dark Tower movie! In a cute weird little movie theatre in Davidson – cabaret-style seating but with office chairs. Rather weak made-up plot only vaguely resembling anything from the books. But a fun couple hours if you don’t get hung up.
Trailers! The Walking Dead season 8, IT, Ready Player One
TV show: Adam Ruins Everything. Like ABC’s The Checkout, for minimalist nerds.