A Travellerspoint blog

May 2012

Let him roam free

sunny

The next few days were good. The weather was not always helpful, but never downright bad. I walked a bit. I did a couple of 30-40mile cycles, after the first of which I was suddenly grateful that I did indeed have a car. The terrain was hilly and it was raining on and off for a few days. Whilst neither was a big deal, having a car mean't it was easier to buy groceries (a 40 mile round trip for anything beyond extreme basics), and also see allot more; heck, in truth, see anything apart from the single road nearby, and a few rough local trails I could walk along. Though I found the bus stop, I never once saw a bus. I started taking the bike in the car, driving off to likely looking points on the small map I had, and then parking up whilst I went for a cycle along a forest trail or a hike up a mountain, or sometimes, both from the same stopping point. But not simultaneously, naturally. That would be quite silly. And awkward. Especially when the weather was wetter or greyer, I just drove, enjoying the scenery and periodically stopping to take in a view, or just be. I was happier driving the gentle curving lumpy roads than on the Interstate where all other drivers seemed to be uniformly moronic, and i soon mastered the real meaning behind most American road signs (eg: what the locals do, instead of what they are supposed to do).

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Stream in the back garden

The Adirondacks (no, i still can't pronounce it either) were a welcome sight and place to be, although they were also mostly closed. Winter and ski season is gone, and summer season does not begin until labour day in a few weeks time. So I basically had the whole place to myself. I would not say that they are stunningly beautiful or a must see, or even in many places very different to places that I know: Large tracts could easily be part of Sweden or Finland or Germany or Britain; other bits reminded me of corners of Russia or Japan. But they were definitely at least very pleasant, and also absolutely what I needed at that moment. Though occurring due to pure dumb luck, I had definitely made a good choice.

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I stopped off at a waterfall offering “long walks” which turned out to be a mile long, and an extra long walk (1.3miles), but they were also on semi-private land and seemingly the only attraction open in the park. Despite that, I was the only visitor, but baulked at the 22usd charge and moved on. I wandered around the perimeter of Fort Ticonderoga, a key battle ground in both the Seven Years and American Revolutionary Wars, and was disappointed that it, too, was shut. I took a detour into Vermont, driving through the Green Mountain National Forest and spending my first night in a traditional American motel.

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Fort Ticonderoga

One evening back home there was a huge crashing noise in the back garden and I carefully peaked out, half expecting to see a bear attacking a rubbish bin, or maybe aliens landing. Instead, I saw an old drunk guy, bottle of spirits in one hand staggering around. He waved in my direction and headed into the woods, not to be seen again. Who he was, or where he came from when the next dwelling was several miles away, I have no idea.

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I have always enjoyed listening to foreign radio, and after some experimenting with a handful of stations, found that 'the Wizard' proved to have the most robust signal, and interesting music choice. Mostly classic rock, it was the adverts that I loved more than anything. I could probably write several posts just on American adverts, but will restrict myself to just a few sentences here: Mother's Day was fast approaching, and adverts of suggested gifts presents for the day featured prominently. Two of the more memorable ones suggested “accessorize your mum” (erm. What?), whilst another asked “what more could your mum want; buy her some of our finest Moodoo or Mulch”.

If I gave my mum a bag of sh1t for mother's day, my suspicion is that she might not be that excited and I might be in for a hard few weeks of grovelling (quite probably, in said sh1t). Perhaps it is a cultural thing.

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On the last day the sun was out and temperatures up. It was a glorious day for scenery, and for climbing some hills for the view. I really could not have been happier. That night, my friends again came up, and a wonderful evening was had. The following day after a detour through Schenectady for no reason except that I love the name. i returned the car, and was stunned to discover that I had somehow managed to drive almost 800 miles in 4 days, as well as all the trekking and cycling. I would have guessed less than half that. It had cost me about $90 in fuel. In England it would have cost more than double. Filling up on the last day, I remarked how cheap it was to me, and the woman in the gas station told me that prices had been reduced by 11cents than morning. That is about 7pence. In my entire life, I have no recollection of petrol prices in Europe ever going down by more than the occasional 1-2cents. Here it sounded routine.

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I was happier than I have been in a good while and feeling refreshed, and though I could have stayed for many days, maybe weeks, I have limited time at the moment and it was time to move onwards, to see how I now coped with towns and people, or whether I needed more time. I'm off to Buffalo in a couple of days, but first it is a wildly illogical but typically me detour back to New York City.

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Posted by Gelli 11:47 Archived in USA Tagged mountains roadtrip Comments (0)

Simples-ish

sunny

It had looked simple on paper. All I had to do was meet a friend at Albany International Airport, near his work, and from there we would go to his cabin in the mountains where I was planning on hiding out for a few days. I had successfully taken the megabus of doom (TM Helene Roberts) to the New York state capital of Albany, but at that point the paper had started to unravel slightly. I was trying to transfer to a city bus at the greyhound station, about 500m away. Unfortunately the Hudson river was in the way, and the only way across was a huge concrete 6 lane road high on an overpass, followed immediately after by a complex 4way cloverleaf junction with another major road. Despite the fact that Albany is an old city (settled in 1614) and I was stood next to it's Amtrak station (where it has been since the 1960's) in the adjacent city of Rensselaer, walking was not an option. It might once have been once, though probably not for many years. If I had felt more alive, energetic, normal; if it had not been raining and if I was not on a time budget, I would have attempted to beat the system. I can walk, even if they don't want me to. But in this case, I gave in and tried to find a bus across, something which should also have been easier. Once on the bus over the bridge I noted there was a footpath on side, but trying to work out how to actually get on or off it amongst the mass of concrete flyover-and-unders would have taken some time, and that I would not have made my hoped for 4pm connection anyway unless I had taken a taxi.

The bus driver was incredibly friendly and helpful. The staff at the Greyhound bus station were not. Enquiring where the bus stop for the airport transfer was was met with such bewilderment and incomprehension, I wondered if I had mistakenly asked them in Swahili where I should get the pogo stick to Ust-Kut (admit it – how many of you actually looked that one up?). I asked a shop owner, several taxi drivers (“we can take you...”), and then random people waiting near every bus stop, all without success. I knew there was a bus and that it was due to depart at 5pm; heck I even had an official timetable, but there the trail went cold, except that I knew that the 5pm was the last bus of the day. So I guessed a stop, stood in the rain and waited. 5pm came and passed. As did 5.30. By 5.45, I was about to give up and take a taxi when a 737 magically appeared. I was the only person to board, although it filled up quite a bit in town. By the edge of town it had emptied again, and the bus driver outdid his colleagues in being helpful and friendly, apologising that the severe delays were due to somebody visiting the airport earlier who had blocked up all the roads. He sounded Irish; apparently it was a Mr O'Bama.

At the airport, I had a coffee and my friend turned up. A happy reunion followed, whereupon he excused himself to go and phone for the bus. Erm. Ok. 20 Minutes later it became obvious that there had been a slight confusion in our communication. When he had told me “you don't need to worry about a car, there is a bus stop near the cabin and a bicycle there for you to use” I had assumed that mean't that I didn't need a car, whereas it actually mean't that he had already arranged a rental for me using an account he had which would be free. As the transaction unfolded in front of me at the rental desk at lightning speed in the encroaching darkness, I pondered for a moment – I haven't driven this year, and had planned not to until fully fit again: strange meds, zero concentration and buggered vision are rarely conducive to driving or safety, I had concluded in January – and then thought “s0d it”. I wasn't feeling too bad now, hadn't drunk anything, and would be driving mostly simple rural roads accompanied by a local who could translate all the strange signs and rules that I would doubtless encounter whilst having no clue about.

Three mostly uneventful hours later and I was somewhere in the Adirondacks, being introduced to my friends lovely fiancee who had driven up several hours earlier, sat in front of a roaring log fire she had prepared, having been told dozens of things about the cabin and local area, and eating home made taco's. When I awoke at 7 the next morning, they had long since left to drive the 3 hours back to be at their respective jobs on time, and I was on my own. It was then that I looked out of the window and saw where I was. It had been dark on arrival, but now I could see trees all around, a stream running through the yard, and a hill-mountainside rising up in front of me. I could not see any other sign of human habitation, and even the road was a good 10minute walk back up the drive-track.

This was good. Really good.

Posted by Gelli 23:16 Archived in USA Comments (1)

Noo Yoik

sunny
View QM2, Westbound Apr-May 2012 on Gelli's travel map.

On arrival, after dumping my stuff, having a coffee and setting myself up, I headed out. I had no real plan, but had pre-booked 4 nights to give me something to start from. I took the L train into Manhattan, and on a whim got off at Union Square. I saw I was on Broadway, so started walking. A couple of blocks up and I happened upon the Flatiron building. The discover that the building is not, in fact, flat, was an interesting one. I sat opposite it for about 20minutes, just gazing around, a grin slowly appearing on my face. Holy cow. I'm in New York! New York!!!!.

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My first impressions of New York had been that it was foggier and more Swedish than I expected. But then when all you can see is fog and ikea, that kind of makes sense. That image quickly passed, leaving me with more genuine first impressions. New York is somewhere that everybody knows. Even if you have never visited, you have seen it so much in Films and TV, read about it in books, magazines, travel guides and in the news. You already know mostly what you will see, what to expect. And though I did know and expect things, they still surprised me. The city was dirty, grimey. Lots of things seemed very run down: the subway though efficient, looks surprisingly neglected and worn down – even the nicest bits that I have seen look significantly worse than any parts of any other subway I have seen anywhere in the world. But what surprised me most was the rights of way: road surfaces and pavements were almost having a competition between each other to determine which could be worst. For a world-class, world-reknowned city, which is a tourist magnet and known as somewhere that everybody walks, and in a country where everybody (at least, that is how it is often portrayed - whether real or not, I don't know) is constantly on the verge of suing pretty much everybody else, the pavements and roads are truly, astonishingly and consistently awful. I have been into some of the poorest slums in Africa where “roads” are made of dirt, covered in garbage and rocks and full of holes, but I would say that many of them are safer to walk along, at least in daylight, in terms of sureness of footing. Every single step in New York needs to be carefully placed if you are to avoid rolling an ankle or breaking a leg. In fact it amazed me how few people I saw limping/on crutches, although there were 3 in the hostel one evening alone.

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The Empire State and Chrysler buildings peaking up in the distance, from Brooklyn Bridge

Once into the swing of things a bit, I found a wifi spot and sent a load of messages off to those in Europe who knew I was coming here to say I had arrived safely. To those I knew in New York, none of whom knew I was coming, to say that I was here. Otherwise, I did not allot. On the first day, I mostly just walked, and walked. Marvelling at, well, everything. By early afternoon, the sun had appeared and burnt away all of the fog. It was a glorious day. I gazed out from Battery Park finally seeing the Statue of Liberty clearly, and walked halfway across Brooklyn Bridge to a point so that I could see the QM2 at the quay in the distance, before she sailed again that evening.

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The QM2 at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, taken from Brooklyn Bridge

And that was basically that. My first day was the most fulfilling and successful. Days 2-4 comprised more walking, mostly in assorted parts of Brooklyn. I managed to meet up with most of the people I knew in New York, happily catching up with old friends, some of whom I have not seen in some time and all I know from assorted random places. People from New York State I met in China; an Irishman I know from Kampala, Uganda; 3 people I had made in assorted places in Sweden for different reasons; A fantastic Bolivian who I once did a few surreal jobs with in unlikely places and haven't seen for 10 years – I had not expected to see him but it was incredible to catch up with, although I may well not see him for another 10 years: a day later he flew out en route to Sri Lanka via Chile, Hamburg and Jakarta. And, of course, lots of new people to meet: people in the hostel, on the street and friends of friends, and I dropped into our office to say hello. I even had a couple of beers, virtually my first alcohol of 2012, at a bar part owned by some friends. Plus, I discovered the wonders of Deli sandwiches, assorted varieties of which I essentially lived off for the first few days.

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But I didn't really do anything. Yes, I saw some sights, and yes, I walked, but I didn't go into anything and didn't really “do” anything. I knew there will always be lots to do in New York, and in some ways I can't wait to explore properly, but perhaps unsurprisingly – and it was not unexpected to me at all – it was all just a bit too much. There was such a sensory overload of sights, sounds, noises; so many opportunities. So big; vast. So many people. So much, well, stuff. And I was just not up to it all yet. I had known that it was potentially the weak point in my plan to go and convalesce: turning up in New York for the first time is not conducive to convalescence. My head was beginning to swirl, I had gained an evil sore throat (probably from having stood in the cold fog for 3hours during arrival) and was again not sleeping well, partly because I appear to be in that state again and partly because the mattress was not great and both it and the pillow had plastic protective covers under the sheets - the bed both constantly, annoyingly squeaked slightly, and as it was warm, any sweat kind of made you stick to it. It was not comfortable.

By Monday, less than 72hours in and I could not wait to leave on Tuesday. I will come back in a few weeks, hopefully by then refreshed and back to something resembling humanity. I am really looking forward to it. But for now I am reverting to my only real plan, and heading out to find the middle of nowhere and a few days off nothing.

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The view from our office in New York. I'm used to seeing a car park, a field, or a tube embankment from my office!

Posted by Gelli 14:28 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Why me? Welcome to America!

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View QM2, Westbound Apr-May 2012 on Gelli's travel map.

I guess I should not really be surprised that the QM2 is in reality nothing more than a glorified ikea shuttle but it was still a tad surreal. With nothing more to be gained on deck I headed down to my cabin, shivering in the cold and soaked through : Fog, after all, is nothing more than a cloud which is too lazy to fly, and clouds are just water. I had a hot shower, and then went upstairs to join the queues for breakfast. I stocked up as much as I could and 2nd cup of tea in hand returned to the deck to survey the scene. After a week of essentially doing nothing except avoiding any rogue icebergs and shaking hands with rich passengers, the captain and crew had definitely earned their wages this morning. Daylight had by now fully broken, and though the fog was clearing, it was not an immediate process. Parts of Manhatten and it's skyline were now visible, though muted as opposed to gloriously lit up. The view including the top of 1 WTC which only 2 days earlier had become the tallest building in New York, and although the top was visible the middle section was still hidden by fog. The Statue was more obvious, though detail still not clear. Brooklyn Bridge was visible, and the fog was definitely clearing up, though slowly. This morning would not be a good time for anybody who planned a trip up the Empire State Building.

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That is the world famous vista of the Manhattan skyline. Yes, exactly. It mean's i'll have to come back and do it all again in order to get a good view! Note the top of the under construction 1 WTC just appearing out of the fog, with lower reaches still hidden

Standing on deck, It all felt quite surreal and I had one of those “I can't quite believe I am really here” moments that I occasionally have. It felt quite strange but I also felt pretty good, especially in comparison with how I have been for the last few months. I muttered a phrase that I never expected to say: 'Good morning New York City', shivered in the still early morning cold and started pondering the next few weeks.

I had packed the night before – slightly disconcertingly my bag felt both lighter and emptier than when I boarded despite having gained a bottle of bubbly – and after checking my stuff, I paid up and closed my on-board account (previous voyages have all been well into hundreds of dollars. This trip was the princely sum of $13.58) and was back on deck, yet more tea in hand and marvelling as New York City slowly woke up and began to appear, whilst simultaneously being happy to be here and wishing I was still in bed.

I had chosen early self check-out, which basically meant that I was amongst those allowed off first providing I was happy to carry all of my own luggage and accept that there would be no assistance available. As I had little stuff, that was no problem. Immigration took a bit of time, but I was eventually stamped in, welcomed and kicked out on to the streets of a dodgy part of Brooklyn at 07.05 am. For a few short minutes, I just stood and surveyed the scene idly wondering if a taxi might, indeed, be cleverer than a walk. Foolish talk; I was aching for a good walk, and the taxi queue was already over 100deep with not a taxi in sight. And so I took my first steps on my fourth continent - still no planes although I suspect that the remaining 3 will be beyond me. Sooner or later I will have to fly, and I guess that it will probably be this year – mentally visualised my route to the nearest subway and started trudging through Red Hook.

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No, I don't know why I always look so miserable in self portrait shots either

In such a rush before I had left England, I had not looked into arrival at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal and had only discovered whilst at sea that virtually no map or tourist guide on-board bothers to map that part of Brooklyn. It took me three days to find somebody who could even tell me where the dock is, and the only map of the area I could find was in a fellow passengers 1999 Lonely Planet that I had had a quick perusal of. From that I had gleaned that it was quite a rough old industrial area and the subway was about a mile/20minute walk away.

That, indeed, proved to be the case. Well done LP! What it didn't tell me was that the station – Smith & 9th – was shut for 9months for reconstruction. It also didn't tell me that all hell was breaking loose, as just as I came up to the station all the sirens I could hear around me simultaneously converged on the shop 50metres ahead, and the owner came running out waving a huge carving knife and shouting at all the police (who were running around like headless chickens with guns pointed at everything and everyone anywhere nearby, including me) “They went that way! They went that way!” whilst pointing off ahead of me.

Something about the scene told me that now was not the time to ask which the closest open station was. Happily, at this point the subway is elevated, so easy to follow, which I did. At the next stop, Carroll Street, I put my brand new US Dollar prepay debit card (I had thought I was being clever getting such a thing) into the machine to buy a ticket, whereupon it promptly got stuck. Completely stuck. 30Minutes, 7 people taking turns at trying to grasp the card and pull, lots of laughing and frustration and very, very careful use of a pair of scissors borrowed from the security office and I had prised it out. But the transaction had long since cancelled itself and I still had no ticket. I wasn't going to put another card in, so tried cash. I only had 50's. The price was $29. The maximum change given was $4. ****. So out I went, to find a shop and buy something – anything – in order to get change. That should also have been easier, but 20minutes later I had a bottle of coke and a subway ticket and was on a train going in the correct direction.

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Brooklyn Bridge. Another glorious view hidden by the fog!

By this point, I just wanted to sit down, have a coffee and decompress slightly – gather my thoughts again. So I got off in central Brooklyn, assuming that finding a starbucks, coffeebucks, mcdonalds or something – anything – would not be that hard. I had reckoned without downtown Brooklyn being mostly closed, despite the number of people wandering around, and when I eventually found a coffee shop it had nowhere to sit. So I gave up, found another subway station, and headed to the hostel I had booked. What should have been a 45minute-ish trip from boat to front door had taken over 3hours, but I had made it, they had my reservation and even bed available at that early stage, and their was coffee brewing. I was finally there.

In the following few hours I witnessed 3 accidents, saw/heard more emergency sirens than in an average few months in London and saw a building on fire. America was going to welcome me in the way it saw fit. Later that afternoon it culminated when I went into a phone store to buy a SIM card. The transaction was going fine until the door opened and a drunk &/or insane &/or homeless guy burst through shouting incoherently, his hands full of shit – literally, handfulls of shit – which he dumped on the counted before promptly vomiting over himself and everything nearby.

That night, I had an early one and was just dozing off when 3 people came in a few minutes apart. They started whispering to each other in English, which was ok. What wasn't was that after about 10minutes, one suddenly asked another if they were French. Upon discovery that they were all, indeed, French, the dorm light was switched on and a discussion suddenly commenced at a great rate of decibels. Why you whisper in English and shout in French, I don't know, but this persisted with increased levels of excitement until I decided to utilise my best French and told them all to shut the f*** up so I could sleep.

To be fair, it was probably the best first day I could have got, as it meant that my levels of expectation were near rock bottom. From here, things could only get better.

Posted by Gelli 23:17 Archived in USA Tagged arriving Comments (0)

Fog, Fog, Glorious Fog

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View QM2, Westbound Apr-May 2012 on Gelli's travel map.

It was an inauspicious start. After a few good nights, I had reverted to only very limited and poor quality sleep. I had finally dozed off properly and was in the middle of a very strange deja-vu style dream (I couldn't tell you what about any more – it is unusual for me to even know if I have dreamt) when the alarm went off at 04:20, and I dragged my sorry arse out of bed. But there was anticipation, excitement in my mood.

Even at this hour some other people were stirring, and I hurried up to my pre-planned vantage point on the front of deck 11, just below the bridge, to gaze at the glorious vista of New York lights in front of me. Or, I would have done if there had been any. In fact, there was nothing except fog. Lots and lots of fog. The fog was so thick that it was a struggle to even see the waterline below. Occasional glimpses of the water confirmed that yes, we were indeed still moving, but other than that, no clue.

Our fog horn went off at regular intervals, and even though we all knew it was coming it was still loud enough to make us all jump. Something in the back of my head told me that I had spent many hundred pounds and seven days on a ship, getting up at an hour which would be illegal in some cultures, just to see the approach to New York and all for nothing. The rest of humanity – and my friends – were probably correct. I really should just fly. Pah!

But at this point there was nothing left to do but enjoy anyway, and get involved in the kind of morbid banter with other passengers that only the Brits can in such a situation. By glimpsing occasional dim buoy lights to the starboard side, we knew we we're “in the channel” and on approach. Another dim light that we thought was a buoy turned out to be the stern of a harbour tanker, probably 100metres long and which we passed at maybe all of 25metres, yet only saw when we were practically alongside. We had passed half of the boat before we could see the bright light on it's front. The pilots boat travelling adjacent to us we saw only the lights of.

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There is water there somewhere, but the fog was so thick it was hard to work out where

As we approached the Verazanno-Narrows Bridge – a massive 2mile long/211m high structure that we passed under with only 4metres clearance – we saw nothing. We could hear the traffic on it about 20seconds away, but did not see it until we were virtually underneath it. My eyesight is one of the few things that really work and I saw it first: a ghostly line of lights at about head height. 2-3seconds later, everybody else saw it. A further 2 seconds and we were passing under it, almost as a shock despite it being lit up and on a clear day, being visible for many miles and minutes. It's sudden ghostly appearance *just* over our heads was both a bit spooky, and really cool. And at that point, we suddenly had precise confirmation of where we were.

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The Verazanno-Narrows Bridge suddenly appears at a distance of a few metres. On a clear day, it can be seen for miles, whilst (below) looking back as the ship sneaks underneath it

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On any normal entrance to the harbour, at this point the woman holding a torch would be dead ahead, the Manhattan skyline showing in all of it's glory. Today, nothing. As daylight slowly began to break and the fog marginally cleared, we started to see the outline of the lights of the Brooklyn shoreline. A few minutes later, a Staten Island ferry appeared just next to us. Still no woman and torch, no tall buildings.

Eventually, as we slowly turned past Governors Island, I spotted her. The mythical Statue of Liberty, a gift from the French (though how many American's know/admit to that is perhaps unsurprisingly quite small) maybe only a couple of hundred metres away, and only just a dim outline in the distance with a tiny light. Again I was the first to see her, but as we then turned away, many people who's eyesight was not perfect did not see her at all. Of the Manhattan skyline, there was still nothing.

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The least exciting photo of the Statue of Liberty that you will ever see, just glimpsed as we approached the dock. Again, on a clear day, visible from a much greater distance and looking much more spectacular!

We then slowly turned, backed and manoeuvred into out moorings at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal; at that point, looking out over Brooklyn I got my first view of proper land; of America. A few warehouses, some containers, a parking lot and my first American word. I actually laughed out loud when I saw it. Unmistakeable despite the fog, it proudly said “IKEA”...

Posted by Gelli 12:07 Archived in USA Tagged monuments ships transatlantic Comments (0)

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