It was only the night before that we realized we wouldn’t make it to the airport the next day. Our four flights, five hotels and poor bank accounts were potentially ruined, all thanks to this one small lapse of judgement. October break was designed to be a nine-day period where overworked students could recharge, return home, relax and maybe even watch that Netflix show their friend recommended weeks ago. However, for four exchange students at Vassar, whose homes were a minimum of a seven-hour flight away, October break turned into one of the most expensive and tireless weeks of our lives.
One English, two Japanese and one Andorran knocking on their car-owning friend’s door for a lift down to Newark airport probably wasn’t the most pleasant sight at 10 a.m. on a Friday. However, since we had failed to consider that a 9:45 a.m. Chinese exam would infringe upon our tight margins to board our flight on time, and since that car-owning friend was particularly nice, we were left with no choice. Luckily, we arrived at Newark Terminal B with a couple of hours to spare in which we decided to mull over our plans. First stop: New Orleans.
Known as Jazz City, you can hear New Orleans before you see it. After a quick taxi ride, a slow and painful check-in, we went to explore the melodies of saxophones and keyboards coming from the French Quarter. Admittedly we did watch two episodes of New Girl first. The French Quarter, settled by the French in 1718, has always been the historical heart of the city. Echoing its francophone heritage with a tinge of Spanish and Creole, the area’s white houses have changed only a bit over time. The buildings had been seemingly left to be overgrown by tropical plants. The oil lanterns, the narrow roads and odd cracks all romanticize the decayed beauty of the city. But at night, you forget about the decay, as the people make the streets come alive.
Night, in New Orleans, started at about 5 p.m. Before the sun even set, people started lining the famous party road, Bourbon Street, drinking Cajun cocktails and New Orleans Style Hurricanes. Nightclubs and jazz bars blared out competing music into the street and people were packed shoulder-to-shoulder on balconies throwing colourful necklaces below. Complete with the odd sighting of a horse-drawn carriage, New Orleans seemed more like a ghostly fantasy world. To some, this ghostly fantasy is just another Tuesday.
Ghost tours are popular thanks to the city’s rich and dark history, paired with a prominent tarot card reading culture. However, even after our share of ghost tours, we failed to buy into the supernatural stories. Our skepticism persisted even when one of us received a mosquito bite and the tour guide claimed it was Jose “Pepe” Llulla, a 19th century dualist, poking around with his sword. After an alligator swamp tour, a museum trip, a number of Creole inspired dishes and several visits to stores designed to attract student tourists like us (the number of potential desk mementoes was overwhelming, but unfortunately my poorly packed bag only had room for postcards. Maybe that was a blessing considering we had already spent more than enough), we had to leave New Orleans for our next stop: Orlando.
Compared to the blending of cultures in New Orleans, Orlando was a completely different experience. I still have no idea what is in the city of Orlando, because like most travellers, we were only interested in the theme parks. After hiring a car, we made our way to the first stop: the Kennedy Space Center. It was a whistle-stop tour of NASA’s greatest achievements and more grounding failures. The park had such an inspiring charm to it that I felt inclined to ditch my plans to become an English major and become an astronaut instead. The next day, we visited Universal Studios and were immersed in a world of plastic fantasy rather than the dark historical past of New Orleans. Here we were in a tiny New York wondering what ride to go on next, whilst one hundred meters away was a mini London and within that was the world of butterbeer, wands and overpriced Harry Potter hoodies. It was an exciting tour of some of our favorite franchises. However, after one too many rides on the Rip Ride Rockit, I no longer wanted to be an astronaut––I simply wanted to sleep.
Our next and final stop was Miami Beach. Why Miami Beach? Well, it’s near the Bahamas and apparently the Bahamas have sunny, tropical beaches. While Miami did have beaches, it was certainly not sunny. After we checked into our hotel, which promised a stunning view of the city skyline, it became apparent we needed to buy raincoats because we couldn’t actually see the city skyline from our sand-dashed window. Rather quickly, we learned that Miami is classified as having a tropical monsoon climate, and a high percentage of the rain falls in October. It was abundantly clear we were tourists once we had bought bright red ponchos and were sitting on the beach wondering what to do with ourselves. After we had a wet, sunset boat-tour of the skyline and some millionaires’ houses (such as Jennifer Lopez, Shakira, Shaq and Matt Damon––sadly, none were in), we drove out the next day to the southernmost point in the US: Key West.
It was a four hour drive from Miami, which we broke up by stopping on various keys (small islands of an archipelago all connected by bridges). The drive was long, but the views made up for it. One bridge was seven miles long and surrounded by an endless ocean view. Another key, just a small island, looked like a miniature paradise. At an elevated point, you could even see the water surrounding the palm tree-laced beaches.
By the time we arrived at Key West, our trip had essentially come to a close. It was approaching golden hour and there was not much more to be done since we had to be up early for our flight the next day. As we pulled up to our final destination, we were met with a lackluster sign announcing we had made it to the United States’ southernmost point. Yet, in spite of the uninspiring arrival, things began to look up. Once we bought some lemonade from a beach bar, and found a dry spot on the sands, the sun broke through the clouds. As we sat watching the waves rolling in from Cuba, we thought it would be good to do a little travelling again sometime.