Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Wishful Wednesday Travel Photo

Like many people - I'd rather be out travelling the world - but more often than not I'm stuck in the office working to pay for my jaunts.

So to keep me going I've come up with a weekly travel photo spot aptly titled 'Wishful Wednesday'.

This is where I wish I was today....

Times Square, New York City

Got any great travel photos to share every Wednesday? Email me and I'll add them! (With a credit of course!)

Monday, September 27, 2010

Touristy Tours Part 3: Boring But Practical Graceland Tips

My last post was an emotional journey through Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley.

This post is a little more mundane – it’s the boring but basic things I’d recommend you do to make your rock ‘n’ roll pilgrimage to Memphis, Tennesse as smooth as possible.

Beale St Blues
Whilst conducting my recent jaunt to the home of The King I stayed in Downtown Memphis, where there are plenty of really good hotels at affordable prices - most will have rooms for under $100 a night. I would recommend staying Downtown for the atmosphere and convenience (it’s close to the famous and fantastic Beale Street). That is unless you’re really set on staying at the famous Heartbreak Hotel, located just behind the main Graceland entrance, which is also a unique experience, and the choice of many die hard Elvis fans. Just beware, if you’re staying at the Heartbreak Hotel, there isn’t much else to do in the area except tour Graceland, and Elvis Presley Boulevard is pretty seedy either side of Graceland. However, you’ve also got access to a free bus, which will take you to Downtown Memphis.

Personal jet anyone? The King's 'Lisa Marie'
If you want to do the musical double (both Graceland and Sun Studio, birth place of rock n’ roll) downtown Memphis is a great place to stay.

Sun Studio is about a 15 minute walk from the hotel area of Union Street. A tour of the famed recording studios, which gave birth to records by Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins (otherwise known as the Million Dollar Quartet) is worth the visit. The building is steeped with musical history - you can just about feel it in your bones when you arrive. When you’re finished the guided tour (I challenge any music lover to take the guided tour and not get chills listening to the very first rock ‘n’ roll recordings!) a bus will arrive. It does a loop between Sun Studios, the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, Heartbreak Hotel and Graceland – and it’s free! You get to ride to the spiritual home of The King in air-conditioned comfort, while watching an Elvis movie or show special on the flat screen TV.

Sun Studio -  birthplace of rock 'n' roll
Once you arrive at Graceland’s main building (which is across the road from Elvis’ actual home), everything is very user-friendly. Tickets are the first port of call, and you have a few options. The mansion tour tickets are around US$30 for adults, a few dollars cheaper for seniors and kids. For a couple more dollars the Platinum ticket includes the mansion tour, tour of Elvis’ two custom aeroplanes, the car museums and several other exhibits. For the serious Elvis fan there’s the VIP ticket, which includes everything in the Platinum plus a special extra exhibit at the mansion, front of the line access and a keepsake pass. You can be a VIP for around $69.

From the ticket building you can hop in a bus and meander slowly across Elvis Presley Boulevard and through the colonial style (musical) gates of the Graceland mansion grounds. The stately home is fringed by rolling green lawns and large lush green trees. More about the amazing tour here.

Once you’re done in the mansion – there’s still plenty more to see. If you’re an Elvis lover, you’ll want to set aside a whole day for Graceland – it’s not just a tour of Elvis’ former home – it’s also a multiple-museum experience.

I’d recommend hitting the mansion first, as it gives the necessary context for the Graceland museums, which include his car collection and seasonal exhibitions, showcasing Elvis’ infamously flamboyant wardrobe and possessions, including his Convair 880 plane and the smaller Hound Dog II Lockheed Jetstar aircraft.

The Elvis car museum
There are multiple souvenir stores, filled to the brim with Elvis paraphernalia and as corny as it can feel – it is also deliciously exciting for any Elvis-lover.

After all the tours and sight seeing – there is one thing I implore you to do before you leave the hallowed grounds of Graceland. For the love of god, eat a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich (you can get them for about $4 at the diner near the main buildings). See how The King lived and eat what The King ate! It’s the only way to experience Graceland.

Got any tips from your Graceland experience? Any questions? Let me know!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Touristy Tours Part 2: My Mecca - Graceland

When a place has more than one song written about it you can pretty much guarantee it’s a place worth visiting.

Graceland, the stately mansion of the late, great Elvis Presley, located in Memphis, Tennesse, definitely fits into that category.

Yes, Graceland is touristy within an inch of its life. Yes, many, many people have been there before you and will go there after you’re gone. And yes it is a place where you’ve got no choice but to take a tour, but I don’t think that’s any reason not to experience it for yourself.

Places well visited are well visited for a reason. While it’s great to trek to far-flung exotic locations and experience things that few people have, I think it’s also just as fulfilling visiting a place which is well trodden by the shoes of tourists.

I will confess right now that I am an Elvis Tragic. It’s my father’s fault. I grew up listening to the crooning of Elvis Presley; in our family car, in the house and whenever an Elvis Special or movie happened to be on TV. Graceland has established a place in popular culture and the experience is worth it, even just for pop culture’s sake.

As I climbed the front steps of Graceland and entered the mansion I felt an excitement which literally gave me goose bumps. Here I was entering the home of Elvis, a place I had dreamt of visiting for many years, but in an inner contradiction I never expected, I also felt like I was invading Elvis’ privacy a little. After all, so many private things would have happened to Elvis that house, not to mention his actual death. It was definitely a little eerie standing in the foyer, knowing Elvis had passed away almost directly above where I stood, in the second floor bathroom.

That feeling dissolved a little when I continued past the foyer and into the front rooms. Firstly you’re confronted with the formal dining room and lounge room. The lounge is characterised by a multi-coloured stained glass door way ironically featuring peacocks, electric blue curtains and white-as-snow couches. Once you continue past these first two rooms, you view the famous kitchen of Elvis, where his mother lovingly baked for him and where he consumed many an artery-hardening peanut butter and banana fried sandwich.

Next is the outrageous Jungle Room, which Elvis created in part for his beloved daughter Lisa-Marie. The room is a sight which must be seen to be believed; it features bright green carpet, ornately carved wooden furniture and a waterfall.

The Graceland mansion experience has the ability to be very tacky and a little bit morbid, but the tour is tastefully done. Well, tasteful Elvis-style. The interior has been criticised as being everything from ‘white trash’ to ‘garish and gaudy’ but you can be sure there is nothing else like it. In fact, I was surprised at how much it felt like an actual home, as opposed to a house, despite the flamboyance. The upstairs area of the mansion is blocked off as a mark of respect; Elvis only ever hosted visitors downstairs, so no one goes upstairs. I found this soothed my feeling of voyeurism.

The tour continues into the downstairs area where you see Elvis’ TV room, complete with three screens, a bar and canary yellow walls. From there it’s through to the billiard room, with a real tear in the table still visible from a rowdy game of pool. The room’s walls are covered with multi-coloured material, arranged in a truly psychedelic concertina pattern. It almost hurts your eyes to look!

It’s then out onto the back lawn of the mansion and into Elvis’ father’s office, the former firing range (Elvis had a love for guns and law enforcement in his later years) and the well know racquetball court, which has now been converted into a record room, displaying an array of awards and famous Elvis jumpsuits.

From there you’re led into a series of rooms which serve as a museum of sorts to Elvis’ life and achievements. Several displays of The King’s awards, records, movie posters, famous costumes and even his wedding suit for his marriage to ex-wife Priscilla litter the walls. This part of the tour removes you from the intimacy of the rest of the mansion and takes you into the tourist-like experience, which is a little less confronting than the inner rooms of the house.

The mansion tour is of the audio type – and I have to admit, I was a bit apprehensive about that. Audio tours can be very good or very, very bad. It’s a LONG tour if it’s bad. Thankfully, my fears were unfounded. It’s a big call, but this was one of the best audio tours I’ve had the pleasure of listening to. The majority of the tour features Priscilla and Lisa-Marie’s recollections of the Elvis they knew and their life at Graceland, in between smatterings of Elvis songs, which is a unique twist to the experience.

I’m normally very torn between living in the moment of visiting a major tourist attraction, taking in the sights and sounds, and snapping away like a tourist possessed. I like to document the places I’ve been, but with some moderation. But Graceland was different, I succumbed to the touristy impulses and I snapped away like my life depended on it!

The relentless picture taking continued until the final part of the tour – Elvis’ Meditation Gardens and his final resting place. The gardens feature a serene-looking meditation area and fenced pool – but also the graves of The King himself, his parents and grandmother.

Whilst standing at the grave site, I couldn’t bring myself to take a single photo. In that moment, I felt like it wasn’t appropriate. I wasn’t begrudging those around me, who had also likely travelled thousands of miles to be there, of taking all the photos they liked. But I just couldn’t do it. I was also shocked to find I was getting a lump in my throat. I am a major Elvis fan, but I had always associated an emotional reaction to a tourist attraction (even a grave site) with obsessive, slightly loopy fans. Now I was an obsessive, slightly loopy Elvis fan.

But really, isn’t that the great thing about travel? Sometimes it’s for seeing and experiencing new things and sometimes it’s for breathing new life into old childhood memories. I never thought I would say it, but my tour of Graceland was definitely a spiritual experience, of the rock ‘n’ roll kind.

Standing there paying my respects, I suddenly realised why hundreds of thousand of people made the pilgrimage to Graceland every year. Not just because they loved Elvis’ music, but because to them, Elvis represents a time in their life, a memory; some long forgotten emotion.

That’s why Graceland is a Mecca for many, a pilgrimage worth making for any music fan, Elvis Tragic or not.

In my next post, I’ll lose the emotional ga ga about Elvis and give you some practical tips for your own pilgrimage to Graceland!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

September 11: One New Yorker's Perspective

I’m sure almost everyone remembers where they were when they heard about the World Trade Centre terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

Downtown Manhatten
I was in my university dorm room watching the late news. I can’t remember the exact time but it was probably around 11pm in Australia. I watched the TV screen in disbelief as the live pictures rolled in, the second plane flying into the second tower. It was, as so many people have described since, like a scene from a movie. Surreal, unimaginable and unbelievable.

It’s a perspective that so many people who saw the footage of that day share, but what about the people who saw this disturbing chain of events unfold right in front of them, in real-time? They were the ones there at Ground Zero, tasting the rubble dust and smelling the smoke.

In 2001, I didn’t know anyone who lived in New York. I didn’t hear anyone’s story first hand. Sure, I read a lot of stories, and there were so many compelling, horrifying stories of loss and grief.

I met my American friend Judy in 2003, while travelling in the United States. She had lived in New York City for many years – both loving and disliking the city equally at times.

I saw Judy again in June this year when I visited her in NYC. I had known her for seven years and had never heard her firsthand account of that day. Over a few red wines, in a New York City bar on the Upper West Side, Judy told me her experience. It is a story I will never forget…

It started like any other work day. I arrived at my Downtown office building, just a few blocks away from what is now Ground Zero.

As I walked towards the main entrance to the building I saw a few of my colleagues and one of them said “A plane has just crashed into one of the World Trade Centre Towers”.

I immediately realised something was wrong, but a couple of workers outside the building didn’t even blink. They continued to walk into our building, unphased.

I raced inside and grabbed a phone. I called my mum in Florida and told her “I don’t know what’s going on but a plane has just flown into one of World Trade Centre Towers. No matter what you hear, I’m ok” and I hung up. Just minutes after that all phone communication in Downtown Manhattan was cut off. I stood with the small group which had gathered outside the entrance to our office, and as we stood I watched the second plane fly into the second tower. Words will never describe how surreal that sight was. The minutes which followed are ones I’ve thought about many times since, but it still seems a blur.

We watched as the towers burned and billows of smoke poured from the gaping holes in both buildings. It was then we all noticed what no one wanted to say. People had started to jump from the buildings. The strangest thing happened…I started to talk. I talked through what was happening to the people around me, like a running commentary. I still don’t really know why I did it. It was as if it was a memorial to each person falling from the building; some one at a time, some in pairs. Any maybe it was also a way to make what was completely incomprehensible, somewhat real.

I later found out that some of our colleagues who worked in one of the towers had escaped in time, before the buildings fell. A manager had made the split second decision to tell the workers to leave, despite everyone being told to stay where they were.

It wasn’t long after that the first tower came down. And then the second. By that stage we all knew something incredible was unfolding and no one knew what that meant for the city. Pretty soon after that we were evacuated from the area.

Judy’s story is just one person’s experience of that day. It probably isn’t that dissimilar to other firsthand stories we’ve heard many times over in the media, through TV news, books and movies. It is dissimilar to some of those stories, in that Judy is still here to tell her experience. If she had caught her normal train and headed to work at her regular time, she would have been in the subway station when the planes hit. On that particular day, Judy had a meeting she was unprepared for and went in early to work.

Nine years later, New York is still an incredible city. The whole world witnessed the guts, glory and steely determination of New Yorkers in the days, weeks and months after September 11, during the slow recovery process.

9/11 changed many people’s lives – especially those living in New York City. Judy, like many others living in Manhattan, gave up her successful corporate career and set off around the world, backpacking to countries as far flung as Australia and New Zealand.

She told me she knows a lot of people who made similar decisions about the direction of their lives in the aftermath of that day. She still gets an annual call from her friend she experienced the evacuation with.

The thing that really hits home the reality of that day in 2001 is Judy’s view of what she lost that day. When I asked her how many people she knew, colleagues or friends, she lost that day; she said to me ‘only a few’.

That response will stay with me forever. It truly shows the magnitude of that day - that someone will consider themselves fortunate to have only lost a few people from their lives. Many people were not so fortunate. And may they always be remembered.