Friday, 21 September 2012

Puerto Rico: La Isla Del Encanto...

From the breathtaking forts and historical sites of Old San Juan to the lush scenery of the El Yunque National Rainforest, I cannot believe how much I saw in just under one week! What does "La Isla Del Encanto" mean? Translating from Spanish, 'The Enchanted Island" showed me a magical time. Yes, I really need to go back to Puerto Rico! ¿Quién dijo 'Viejo San Juan?' I did!

Yes, United got me to the island in one piece! Landing into San Juan Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport made this trip feel so real, having this trip booked since April 2012, it was mad to think that I was finally in the Caribbean. I was very glad to be in Puerto Rico because I needed a holiday! The sights and feelings of the island were immense, I knew I had made the right choice to visit PR! As my taxi drove closer to my final destination I could feel the holiday vibe all around as I was approaching the old cobbled streets of Old San Juan! I would be lying if it was just the scenery I was looking forward to see in Puerto Rico, let's just say I had experienced several slices of PR magic before getting down to that United States Overseas Territory! Choosing Puerto Rico was a no-brainer, the autumnal chill was beginning to turn into winter in Newark, I would have been the fool not to make that Rican sweet escape! Let's get it, PR!

Settled into the slow pace of Old San Juan, I was loving life! I found this UNESCO World Heritage Site simply breathtaking with its Spanish Colonial buildings and feeling of yesteryear. Old San Juan will always be a favourite place of mine. I had to pinch myself to think that I was lucky enough to have the chance to hop on a plane and be in a place like this in less than four hours, something that I really do appreciate. One thing I kept in mind was that Puerto Rico stands as an unincorporated U.S territory so I was prepared to see a Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Wendy's and CVS Pharmacy along the way. Sure, those places came in very handy! I was ready to kick back and enjoy myself, even to get a full nights sleep for my working pattern constantly tests me. Puerto Rico, I found you at long last! Oh yes, my dear friend and airport colleague Thyciria Rodriguez already knew I was going to have a blast in her home isla, she taught me well that Puerto Rico sure keeps it real!

Equipped with my camera I embarked onwards to discover the streets of Old San Juan, it was a good job I had charged it beforehand, I had some serious scenes to capture! The architecture was simply beautiful and it was evident that 99% of the buildings were either looking in tip top condition or being restored to their former glory. I made my way to Castillo San Felipe El Morro first and then to Castillo De San Cristobal. I wanted to get the best out of the two great protectors of San Juan for this island nation has been ripe for the picking for many hundreds of years. The weather was just sublime, I had left the super cold temperatures of New Jersey to be greeted to the Caribbean breezes of Puerto Rico. I look at my U.S placement current home, I would rather be in PR! With those colonial wonders in my sights, life was sweet in Puerto Rico!¡El Morro fue simplemente formidable! Gracias el próximo siguiente!

The sun was amazing, the winding old streets of 'Viejo San Juan' gave me life and then some! Those forts were spectacular, showcasing the lengths that the Spanish went to protect San Juan from further foreign invasion could be viewed from all around. Discovering the underground passages and the rooftop lookout vistas was such an amazing thing to do, I declare it a must do when in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico looked as if it was on lock by the Spanish, the forts looked completely bulletproof, no lies! Yes, after witnessing the Puerto Rican flag fluttering alongside the USA flag was something else completely, something somewhere definitely told me this commonwealth nation stands proud for their flag, PR had its own star and stripes to fly proudly! I was in love with Old San Juan's slow paced rhythm, it was just the tonic away from my working life at Newark Liberty International Airport. My placement year has been something else, it's not over yet! ¡Mi vida!

Going hungry in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico would have been a difficult task as there was a wide range of restaurants to choose from. I for one didn't want to eat American food whilst I was in Puerto Rico as I aimed to sample the local cuisine to the best of my ability, for that I certainly tried my best! I must admit that I had one hungover Burger King meal, it was needed! I found one place in-particular that really gave me a taste of the island, Cafe Puerto Rico served wholesome and delicious Puerto Rican food. On my first visit I tried a plantain Mofongo served with chicken in garlic sauce and rice. I ate at Cafe Puerto Rico a number of times during my stay in Old San Juan, the flavoursome Latin dishes were so good I kept coming back for more! I am now thirsty for Cafe Puerto Rico's amazing Mojito, along with other cocktails but I would definitely recommend the Mojito! Me encanta la comida puertorriqueña! I did, yes!

Fancy a Daiquiri? Well, I didn't know that Puerto Rico is in fact home to one of the Caribbean's Bacardi Distilleries! I threw caution to the wind and took a ferry to Catano, a place that I vaguely knew the name of due to my research on Google Earth prior to my trip. After meeting with other people who were also in search of the mystery Bacardi Distillery it became clear that this place isn't too easy to find when you are your own tour guide. After driving just a little from the ferry terminal we reached the world famous Bacardi Bat logo at the main gates, how bizarre?! I made the most of my free sample which happened to be a Daiquiri, a very nice one it turned out to be! If I be honest the tour wasn't that amazing but it was all free apart from the ferry and the taxi ride, so I'm not going to grumble about that! Yes, Cataño served a sense of what I wanted to see in Puerto Rico, it was gritty and showed me a string normal PR neighbourhoods with countless street-side snack stalls!

I decided to step out of the protected city walls of Old San Juan in search to see another side of this sensational island. Taking a trip to the El Yunque National Rainforest and Luquillo Beach in search of something different. I can safely say the El Yunque Rainforest was amazing, being the only rainforest listed in the United States Department of Agriculture it was great to say I something more than OSJ! Surrounded by lush trees and plant-life I was loving the peace of El Yunque, it felt so far removed from the colonial fashion of Old San Juan. Waterfalls gently flowed in one direction whilst a secret visa of the vast rainforest provided me with a breathtaking shot! Climbing to the top of a watchtower gave me the chance to even catch a glimpse of Isla De Culebra, a place I wanted to see but it wasn't possible. The drive to El Yunque gave me another chance to see sights of the wider San Juan area. Servir selvas tropicales!

Concluding my lovely day trip on the final day of that Puerto Rican holiday at Luquillo Beach was amazing! Grabbing some sunshine on the beat was nice but gazing into the oceans view was much better, I could see for miles and miles into the Caribbean Sea! Feeling hungry I saw a beach food stall that had some chicken pastries for sale, getting one of those Puerto Rican snacks was a winner! Washing it all down with two free poured Bacardi Daiquiri's was just the ticket, the ladies at that seaside stall even ID'd me but according to United States law at 21 years of age I was legal to drink that blended drink! Catching their conversation it seemed as if their Spanish was more a Puerto Rican dialect, nonetheless it was great to hear their own form of PR Spanish! My five days in San Juan, Puerto was amazing and better still I didn't need to leave the United States of America, well almost! Would I return to the enchanted island? Is that even a question? Oh, Just try and stop me B!

Puerto Rico Lo Hace Mejor!

Joseph Harrison

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Evita: My Broadway Experience!

Have I said to much? There is nothing left that I could say to you!? I'm only joking for those lyrics make up the headlining song 'Don't Cry For Me Argentina' from the musical of 'Evita.' I have been busy recently, going to shows, music concerts and taking Caribbean holidays! For this moment I'm going to look back on my evening spent at a Broadway show! How I love the theatre!

From the moment I arrived in New Jersey, USA the idea of going to a Broadway show was at the top of my to do list. This milestone event in my journey finally happened in September of this year and I can say that I waited for a show to remember! Like the London's West End, Broadway has a wide array of shows that definitely capture the eye! Selecting one particular show to be amazed by was simply too easy. The headlining star influenced the choice for sure! I chose 'Evita' a story about the heroine 'Eva Peron' which, tells the troubles and triumphs of her reign as one of Argentina's most inspiring women who captured the hearts of the people of Buenos Aries, Argentina. I must admit that it felt a lot more glamourous attending a Broadway show in the heart of New York City's Theatre-land, being in the centre of Times Square must have something to do with that? Yes, within all the crazy I felt blessed that evening! Go!

Showcasing at the Marquis Theatre in the heart of 'Times Square it did not take a lot of thought to just book my tickets for the show within a second. I will be completely honest I couldn't wait for my Broadway experience for I wanted something different to do with my time in America! I will be frank that I paid through the nose for this specific ticket, but somethings in life are not for free! Settling down in my seat I had chose a really good seat, the Marquis Theatre felt a lot smaller compared to some of the grand Victorian theatres I had been to shows in London, but Broadway was going to be whole new experience for me. Everybody was dressed well, turned out in their best wear it was nice to see because when I have seen shows in England some people really don't care for the occasion. I had worked the early shift so I had trouble waking from nap, getting my life together I ran down Ferry Street to get the PATH train to 33rd St then the NYC subway to Times Square. Naps are life!

The one and only Ricky Martin had the role as 'Che' the narrator, using the medium of song and dance Ricky Martin played a sizzling part throughout the show. I will be honest and say that during some parts of the show Ricky Martin sang better than the leading lady Evita who was played by 'Elena Rogers.' To be honest this role possessed a different quality to something that I have never seen before. Evita proved to be a worthwhile choice for my Broadway selection. I cast my mind back to the beginning of the show, I had heard whispers from the lobby that Ricky Martin wasn't performing, but those whispers were utter rubbish for the pop singer made his cue during the first part of the show. I would have felt cheated if there was going to be a understudy play 'Che!' It was safe to say that ninety percent of the theatre bought their tickets to see Ricky Martin! Puerto Rico's best export after J.Lo! Viva Puerto Rico! Dios mio!

The show itself was broke up into two acts, the same as any 'West End' shows in London but the first act seemed to be shorter than the second half. 'Elena Rogers' played her part magnificently and executed the headlining songs perfectly such as; 'Don't Cry For Me Argentina' and 'You Must Love Me', that were performed beautifully and truly left the audience wanting more! After seeing the musical I really wanted to watch the film of 'Evita' that features Madonna so I can appreciate the headlining songs as she performed them during her 'Sticky and Sweet Tour' in London. You know my views about Ricky Martin but I believe that his performance was out of this world! This show truly helped depicted the struggles and victories of Peron's Argentine rein. Why had I waited until September to see such a show? Broadway doesn't usually wait for anyone but I feel like I was meant to see that show when I did. Evita was probably going to be my only Broadway show, I was on a mission! I had a lot to achieve!

A hotel? Yes, this Times Square theatre is placed in the centre of the Marriott Marquis hotel in the heart of Times Square New York City. It was very strange to think that this theatre probably was once a standalone building before the hotel was built around it. The proceedings between acts worked differently compared to the usual West End theatre show in London as the audience did not all leave to have drinks and talk about the show, something I did find quite strange indeed! I think back to this night and I know that I am so lucky to have been to a Broadway Show in New York City! One thing to notice is that the American theatre goers didn't really share the same gusto and appreciation for a show that we British exercise. I believe that its only right to show your appreciation to the cast at the end of the show by cheering and clapping, for the show I saw was really good, however the clapping didn't match! Follow our lead!

Are American casts just not into performing an encore? It's very obvious that us Brits are more familiar with the arts compared to our American counterparts, so we know how to react appropriately during a theatre show. I enjoyed the show and the efforts of Mr. Ricky Martin but after the cast took their final bows they didn't give the audience an encore or even another round of bows to encourage more clapping from the audience. I can now say I have been to theatre shows on both sides of the pond, experiencing Broadway had to be done but I expected more from the atmosphere as everything is so hyped up. Nevertheless, those main numbers impressed me much and the story of Evita will always be a great one to watch for more times to follow. I'm gutted I never got tickets for the Broadway version of Priscilla, but that's just so! After my night at the theatre it was time to leave the glimmering lights of Broadway for my Newark neighbourhood, the show must go on! Oh, NYC!

Broadway! Broadway! 

Joseph Harrison

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Alba: Sgeulachdan Mu Dà Bhaile...

Here is a tale of two cities, a very memorable trip shared with two sensational friends. This tale began on the eve of my twenty first birthday. Scotland being our destination and me being the diva that I am we took the train to Glasgow. As I mention the expression 'we' this escapade wouldn't have been anything without Filipa and Ines, my Portuguese lovelies. Go!

Hello Glasgow! A city so bizarre I'm finding it challenging to begin with the best part because Glasgow showed us some pretty unique sights and sounds. From the swish Clydebank area which looked quite picturesque in the early evening sky to the nightlife of Princes Street there's something for everyone, well not for the faint hearted. I'm a person who prefers to fly to a destination, but in this instant our mode of transport happened to be a very speedy and punctual Virgin Train from Birmingham New Street station. From our mid-morning arrival the sights of the main historical area was accomplished quite swiftly. Climbing to the top of the Necropolis beside Glasgow Cathedral gave us a panoramic view of Glasgow's cityscape, we stumbled upon that house of worship by chance, leaving the charming buildings around Queen Street. Getting to know Glasgow more it was clear to see that it had an honest vibe. Yes, Glesga!

Honestly, Glasgow fared to be a great place to observe the local people with their shopping bags going about their business, a fascinating observational picture it did paint. Jeremy Kyle would have had a field day by the general feel of the city. The folk of Glasgow certainly have a flare that matches the feisty nature of this Scottish city! I had never been to Glasgow before my second trip so I was looking forward to something unexpected because I had heard a few things about this city. Glasgow certainly had its own personality that's for sure! Looking back at our time in Glasgow I feel the amount of walking we all did was crazy, but its the best way to see any city! Glasgow presented itself as a modern European city but I wanted to see more, I know I will return in the future for another visit. Our hotel was a trifle difficult to find, regardless of that it was conveniently located from the Buchanan Station, making our connection to Edinburgh seamless. Glaschu, gabh às leis! GLA 'get mad with it!'

As day turned into night the banks of the Clyde river took our fancy. Amongst the hubbub of the city a walk along the banks of the Clyde gave us the opportunity to see a different side of the city of Glasgow. From the groups of teenagers drinking their bottles of 'buckie' Buckfast to the positively ridiculous, for which I'm not going into. By the look of the younger Glaswegians I should have joined them and got my Buckie on! Whilst sampling the flagship McDonald's restaurant we learned to adopt an air of caution due to witnessing a group of severely intoxicated middle-aged women threatening to beat each other with their stilettos heels. I guess we shouldn't of been surprised about the antics of Glasgow's city folk because we had a show! It was hilarious! We needed a place of refuge to finish our memorable day in Glasgow, Times Square called our names, we needed a strong drink to toast our Glaswegian day!

Times Square, you say? Yes, I believe that Glasgow boozer was a sign because I'm now living across the Hudson River from New York City in Newark, New Jersey. The atmosphere in the city centre during the early evening was electric, the pubs were bursting at the seams, people were on their best drinking form! I knew in that moment for my return trip to Glasgow it will definitely be a messy affair filled with drunken antics and crazy! The riverside surprisingly had a modern feel to it, although it was shrouded in shadiness in parts it was nice. The Glasgow Green didn't present itself to us, that's another sight I'll need to see! We had seen so much packed into our epic day of exploring, since stepping off our Birmingham train we took in the Georgian splendour of Scotland's second city, seen a drunken brawl in McDonald's it was definitely eventful for one day! Calling it a night a little bit too early for my liking, it was time to rest before our early morning Megabus that to Edinburgh.

Our Megabus from Glasgow's Buchanan Station whisked us three excited tourists to the nearby city of Edinburgh, would we have the pleasure of witnessing another drunken McDonald's brawl? Thankfully not! Edinburgh fared to be an adventure which I partially remember bits of maybe due to the amount of Whisky I consumed on the eve of my birthday. Feeling fresh from our super long day in Glasgow it was time for us to discover a new city. The architecture and history that Edinburgh possessed was mesmerising. Edinburgh is beautiful, so I knew that the girls would love this city! Yes, I had been to Edinburgh once before with during my time at City of Wolverhampton College during our memorable Residential Study Visit, but for Ines and Filipa, it was a first time discovery! No Royal Yacht Britannia the second time around but I loved spending some time in Scotland's showcase capital city! It's official, I can't keep still! No way!

No visit to Edinburgh is complete without a shopping trip at the 'The Whisky Experience' to purchase some supreme liquor. With so many brands I was literally spoiled for choice! The vibe in Edinburgh couldn't be more different compared to Glasgow, even with the chilling temperatures the culture and history of this city proved to be on point. From the cobbled back-streets to the typically tourist gift shops we loved this city for sure. I could feel that the girls were enjoying themselves in the land of the legend brave-heart! Not feeling too content that our tourist attraction mission had been accomplished we visited the marvellous Edinburgh Castle, a site that gave a feeling of strength and heroism but we didn't feel brave enough to pay the entrance fee, so we admired the grandeur of the castle from outside the walls. Princes Street took me back to my college trip for sure, the hustle and bustle was a great part of during that Edinburgh rediscovery. Caisteal Dhùn Èideann, carson cho daor?

Our final evening loomed, the eve of my twenty first birthday needed to be fabulous! After having our tea at McDonald's for the second time in two days, we had a great appreciation of Scottish fast-food. The best thing about Scottish McDonald's was the Iron Bru option, something we don't get in England! We made our way through the main streets of Edinburgh with the joys of festive season in our hearts and minds. The Christmas lights gave Princes Street a great seasonal feel in the air as we made our way to the Travelodge hotel that proved to be basic but comfortable, we're students with a low budget so don't judge! We all retired back to our hotel rooms to watch some television, queue me to open my bottle of Hankey Bannister Whisky! After numerous Whisky and Lemonade's and with the night's X-Factor finished it was time for myself, Filipa and Ines to find a place to sample a slice of Edinburgh's pub scene.

The night was ours and we were ready to find a nice pub to drink in my 21st birthday in true Scotch style! One pub caught our eye, we chose to trust the 'Royal Mile' which in actual fact showed us a great time. From what I can remember the early hours of my twenty first birthday was fantastic! I must have sank a few doubles because the next day I was feeling quite tender, let's just say I just wanted to get back to Birmingham but the wait for our train seemed to drag on and on, it was my birthday so I had permission to be dramatic! Scotland treated us to an amazing whistlestop trip, as mentioned before I will be returning to Glasgow in the future as I feel there's more to see. Edinburgh was great to revisit but I think it would be better to take a chance on another place in Scotland opposed to making a third visit to the Scottish capital. Nevertheless, Ines and Filipa had a wonderful time exploring Scotland with me, they had a great time too! So, Aberdeen or Dundee next? Alba, bidh mi air ais! 

Tha Alba Brèagha!

Joseph Harrison

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Auschwitz Concentration Camp, Poland

Nestled in the small town of Oświęcim, Poland, not to far from Krakow are the remains of Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp. Once a place that witnessed unspeakable persecution and unthinkable activity towards to a marginal group of people now stands a dedicated state museum, preserving the struggles of the prisoners from Adolf Hitler's reign of immorality. Why?

Walking through the main gates to be greeted with the camps infamous sign reading the words "Arbeit Macht Frei" which translates from German into English as "Work Sets You Free." I couldn't begin to think how sick and twisted that motto stood to be, let alone how the thousands of people were sent to this extermination camp. Human life is precious, we fight each day to preserve the right to be who we truly are so why did a group people decide to turn humanity on to its head? The freezing temperatures dropped below comprehension with each step that I made closer to the former Concentration Camp. I had a thirst to understand more about the reason behind the attempted extermination of the Jewish race, I wanted to capture a notion of the camps legacy to see if we've really progressed or is humanity still frozen? The extermination camps of yesterday possessed a close connection, I wanted to confirm. 

As the visit progressed it was strange to think that this environment plays a integral part in educating the visitors to the camp. I for one learnt a lot from this trip, so much more than in my history lessons at school. Each building faced me with a display board that outlined the purpose of the building, informing the visitor for what they are to see inside. One thing I found astonishing was that the presence of barbed wired made me feel quite restricted, proving to be an unimaginable task to visualise the feeling of being confined into a restricted space. Were we tourists? I'm not going to answer that because its not relevant. Each building told a story, some of tragedy and pain because non of the prisoners should have been murdered for their faith or sexual orientation. I'm Gay and I can't begin to imagine being sent to such a place for a part of my life that doesn't cause the next person pain. Lest us remember those strong people that fought to survive the regime! True heroes! 

Photography was strictly prohibited within the buildings, In my opinion it was only right to respect the situation. The displays ranged from the collection of belongings which were acquired from the prisoners that covered all kinds of personal items. All of which would have been used to the advantage of the occupying force. The magnitude of personal belongings that were taken didn't leave much to the imagination. Looking at the displays with a basic sense of thinking it was mind-blowing to see what had been salvaged for the purpose of the museum, in a way it gave a sense of awareness and educated the viewer to think about the life we live. Pictures and stories of important figures that spent their time as prisoners at the camp made you think that nobody was spared from the being sent to the camps not matter their wealth or notability. The harsh reality was that this happened during the 1940's! We must never forget!

Through the different exhibits I saw the building that held the hospital wing that played an immense part in the barbaric acts that the Nazi's subjected the prisoners. Dr. Josef Mengele performed unspeakable medical tests and experiments to see what effects would be found for his supposed studies, no more should be mentioned. Women, men and children were transported for their ghettos in cattle wagons along a never-ending rail network that eventually took them to the many Concentration Camps including Auschwitz. Most commonly the Jewish prisoners were separated between the genders, tearing families apart to a very uncertain fate of starvation and abuse. I saw inside the incinerators that would burn the deceased prisoners of war. The narrow space of the once burning furnaces translated how emaciated the prisoner would have been at the time of their death. I was left speechless and horrified by what I witnessed that morning, I won't forget! Even hell wouldn't do for Mengele! 

The second site of the wider Auschwitz-Birkenau area truly put the whole trip into some-kind of sobering feeling, people visit places that stand for good things and in this case some places that have a darker past still appeal. As the cold winds bit our faces we could not simply imagine being in a position where would have to function on a daily basis, not knowing what event would occur next. History's a very strange thing but I believe the preservation of places such as the former Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp educates and informs people of what took place. From the infamous brick buildings of Auschwitz's main camp I wasn't prepared for the baron landscape that faced me at Birkenau, the train tracks still remained when I visited the second camp My guide stressed that not much had changed since the liberation yet some barracks had been restored to create the image of yesterday. The day was testing us! 

Birkenau had a different feel for it was so much more isolated from even the smallest village, its a place I would certainly urge to visit for its wise to have been faced with the counts of murder that went on at these camps. We all have dislikes in life and we can exercise negative attitudes towards specific groups within our society, but to orchestrate a mass cull of people who were Jewish, Homosexual and who didn't fit the bill within Hitlers ideal of the Nazi empire, its unforgivable! I know a distant connection from the paternal side of family suffered at the hands of the 'final solution' so my Auschwitz experience will stay with me forever, no matter of time will ever erase the scenes of starvation, death and brutality because it was unsettling. It's a sobering place to revelation why that moment in time ever happened in the first place! Make your journey to Oświęcim, Poland to see how one race suffered at the hands of the Nazi's. The Holocaust wasn't necessary! No, no! 

Remembered, Respected and Revered ... Never Forgotten!

Joseph Harrison