Thursday, 26 April 2012

The more I see the less I know

So here I am. The first chance to update my much neglected and poorly named travel blog in a very long time, due in part to my own laziness and in part to a distinct lack of travel. The eagle eyed among you will know that I´m currently on a field trip in Barcelona, in northern spain. It´s been an eye opening few days, to say the very least!

 (Quick note before I get into the flow of it, the computer is in Spanish (surprise surprise), so any typos or awful spelling are going to be glaringly obvious and for that I apologise. I´ll correct it all when I have access to a computer that doesn´t think I´ve fallen asleep on the keyboard.)

I´ll start at the very begining, walking through deepest darkest stoke on trent at 3am with my ruckslack slung over my shoulder early on Monday morning. I´d talk about the journey, but I slept soundly on the coach and plane, so my recollections of Liverpool Airport are hazy at best. We touched down in Barcelona 11am local time and caught a bus through the bustling city to our hostel, 5 minutes from the main square in the city (Place de Cataluña) and 30 seconds from the main road and thouroughfare (Las Ramblas). It was at that moment, tired and hungry, that we took our first (of many) walks around the city. We stuck in the Old Town, the narrow streets, old buildings, buskers, sights, smells and sounds all adding to the vibrant, happening feel of the city. The following few days all added to this romantic, classical view of modern Spain, narrow streets, hill top forts, Cataluñan flags and Paella. We eventually checked into the hotel room, had our first siesta, then headed out to the seafront, Montjuic and the old Olympic Stadium. After a lengthy walk up the hill, we had our first breathtaing panoramic shot of Barcelona. Although not containing as many high rise buildings as other large cities, the city has enjoyed several periods of massive growth, sprawling across the plains in every direction, contained only by the mountains and the sea (awe inspiring pictures to follow).

Tuesday rolled around, and we headed up to Parc Guell, designed by none other than the famous Gaudi. As expected, it was rammed full of tourists. Unexpectedly, a large section of it felt more like a half built rounders pitch than a park, but that´s something for an essay, not here! As soon as we were off the beaten track, the crowds died down and we could enjoy the green oasis in the middle of the teeming city. The afternoon was spent wandering around the various areas and districts surrounding the old town, preparing for another day of work.

That night we did not go out, enjoyed a cup of hot milk and a cookie and were all in bed before 10pm.

With some mysterious headaches and lighter wallets, we headed out on wednesday to carry out our own research on one of the neighbourhoods, ready to compare to another later in the week. Actually taking time to observe the city, rather than just dashing from one tourist destination to another gave us a real opportunity to learn a little about the historical city, how it´s grown and the people in it. A person really could give their life to studying the city, there is always something else to discover and another little narrow street and market to explore (would you believe that Tourism Barcelona aren´t paying me a penny?? Shocking).

It was today that we began to see a different side to Barcelona, the one not advertised in the tourist booklets. Or rather, 50 yards away from where the tourists are milling around and the hawkers (who are selling these stupid in mouth bird whistles) are plying their trade. We´d noticed the "Tourists go home" banners around some of the seedier neighbourhoods earlier in the week, but it hammered home most when we were moved on by the police for our own safety.

Through the week, both in our work and our leisure, we´ve been exposed to the "other" side of Barcelona. The nightlife, especially on budget we had, was more reminicent of a first night bar crawl in Zante or Kavos than of a classy night out in a big european city, right down to the overpriced drinks and free shot offers that vanished as the night went on. It does go to show that there is a cheap, tacky side to every wonderful city.

Although only 2 full days have actually passed here, I can safely say that I love Barcelona. It has elements of many other cities, the narrow streets and vibrant nature of central London, the sweeping boulevards and tree lined avenues of Paris, the grid like pattern of many American cities and the staggering views of Stoke on Trent the towns and villages in Switzerland and Northern Italy. I can´t wait to find out what the next few days will bring.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

I didn't know Men could build such things

It's 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark... and we're wearing sunglasses
Although I was neither wearing sunglasses nor carrying half a pack of cigarettes, this is the thought that went through my head this morning, as I headed off to Chicago, The Windy City.
Having just this minute returned from a long, epic day, I'd rather blog now than put if off until tomorrow, striking while the iron is hot, so to speak. It was an early start, up at 5am for the long drive to a friend's house in the suburbs of Chicago. The drive up was dark, cloudy and rainy, but I slept for most of it, so no complaints here. 3 and a half hours later (not including the time difference) we were sitting in her kitchen enjoying a beautiful breakfast, prepared by her mum. Then we geared up, got on the train and headed to downtown Chicago.

Stepping out of the station, I was in awe. I've seen skyscrapers, the few in London, a few in Singapore and a really really long road with them on one side in Beijing, but nothing could prepare me for this. I had to crane my neck to look up at the sky. Since it was a cloudy morning, some of the taller buildings literally disappeared into the clouds. Stuff of Hollywood. We walked to the Willis Tower (which is apparently the proper name for the Sears Tower) and booked tickets for later on that day, praying that the mist and clouds would lift, then ventured out into the city. It was incredible. Standing in the Millennium park, with enormous towers reaching into the clouds on 3 sides and Lake Michigan on the other, the sheer magnitude of the city was really put into perspective. This was only the start of what would unfold to be a truly memorable day. We walked through the park and down onto the Lakeside, then eventually alongside the canal system to the "Magnificent Mile", a mile of shops and generally awesome things on Michigan Avenue.

All the time, Chicago's role as the backdrop for arguably the most epic film ever written, The Dark Knight, is evident. The canals, the towers, even the multilayered roads and big iron bridges. At one point I am fairly sure I saw the building used as Bruce Wane's penthouse. (As a side note, it turns out that Wayne Enterprise Headquaters is the same building as where the final showdown takes place in the Blues Brothers. Awesome eh).

At the far end of the Magnificent Mile, at the foot of the mammoth John Hancock building, the weather took a turn, the skies began clearing and grey turned to blue. Joyful. After a quick shop (one of the downsides of a holiday with 6 women and no other guys) we were strolling through the city in glorious sunshine. We eventually made our way back to Sears Tower, where another incredible chapter unfolded.

Oh. My. God. I knew the tower was big. Seeing it in the sunlight only confirmed that. But I had no idea HOW big it was until I was up there (even after measuring myself and figuring out that it was 232 Joe's tall). Standing on that top floor made me see the sheer extent of the city, and despite being 103 floors up, really bought me down to earth.

Let me skip ahead to later that night. It was just past midnight on Eastern Time (Indiana and Illinois are in different time zones) and we were somewhere between Chicago and Indianapolis. The guy driving told us, "don't worry about the lights, they're just wind turbines". We'd seen one or two on the way in, and were expecting the usual little clusters on windfarms. As we came over the top of a hill, what we saw stunned us. Blinking red lights, marking the top of the turbines. Flashing in unison. As far as the eye could see. Easily 5 miles in every direction. It looked like something from War of the Worlds, hundreds if not thousands of these lights, extending for at least 5 miles in every direction. This hammered home the sheer scale of the USA and of the world as a whole.

I'm still lost for words.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Doing the Time.

Where do I begin? So much has happened in so little time!

On Parole

Thursday morning in Muncie, Indiana. Left the ball state campus and headed into the centre of the Rust Belt town. It's weird, I've left one dilapidated, former industrial city and flown half way around the world only to replace it with another. Spent the morning shadowing a probation officer, which was YET ANOTHER amazing few hours. Philip Johnson, a seventy something probation officer was another of the most down to earth guys I've ever met. He's given 30 something years to being a probation officer and is waiting to be told that he can "just go fishing". But for someone waiting to retire, he makes the most enormous difference to the people he works with. A former alcoholic now 25 years sober, he works mostly with guys and girls on probation who have suffered from substance abuse, he levels the playing field with them and looked to be helping people genuinely turn their lives around. The 3 people who came in seemed genuinely upbeat and happy. One guy came in with his daughter asking about a new job he's thinking of taking up as a bar tender, a woman came in who was over the moon with how she'd turned her life around, and a final guy, which moved me particularly, had a new job and was eager to update his file to include his first ever mobile phone number. Moving morning spent with some inspiring people.

After saying goodbye to Phil, I headed up to a nice little fishing themed restaurant called the White River Landing, where I devoured a highly reconmened, delicious (if slightly small) Chicken Ranch Pizza. It was amazing. From there we headed back to campus to have a tutorial/lesson/meeting with the man in charge of a programme based in the Southside (the projects) of Muncie. We heard a great deal about the issues in the area, what's currently being done and about the emerging gang problem. We then split off into smaller groups where we discussed various viable options to quell the gang problem. It felt brilliant to be putting all the things I've learned from lectures and tutorials and essays and reading from the last year into something applied. We settled on a few solutions, but whether the "Muncie Weed and Seed Project" will adopt them we shall have to see...

Headed over to the gym with the National Guardsman and Footballer again, this time for a horrific arm session. Now I'm not normally one to focus on a single part of my body in a workout, normally aiming to hit everything every time I train. So this hurt. Lots. Seriously it was days ago and my arms still feel like rocks.

"About as bad as it gets"

Woke up this morning feeling apprehensive. Quite rightly so I think, seeing as we were due to spend the day in Pendleton Maximum Security Correctional Facility. This facility, 30 something miles north of Indianapolis holds 2000 inmates and in the past held John Dillinger (one of the few places he didn't escape from, but that's another story). We drove for an hour to the prison, where we underwent a fairly comprehensive drug search. To keep this in perspective, I cleaned the bottom of my shoes to make sure there was no drug residue. I left my wallet in the car because 90% of American money has traces of drugs on it (apparently true in the UK too, but gonna look into that a bit more) to make sure that the Drug "Sniffing" Machine didn't pick up anything out of the ordinary. After everyone had been scanned by 2 intimidating machines and patted down, we went in.

I'll be honest, it was one of the most intimidating experiences of my life. We saw everywhere, the cells, the mess hall, the library, the recreation area, the dorms, the school, the good behavior block, the infirmary, Solitary. Heckled the entire way round (mostly the girls I was with, but pretty sure I got some too) the whole time was nerve wracking. But worth it. Seeing people doing the time for some of the most horrible crimes imaginable shows, that however flawed the system may be, parts of it work.

The afternoon had some surprises of it's own. We stopped at a buffet on the way home (so- much- food.) and the girls disappeared off shopping. Earlier on in the week we met a veteran cop, with 32 years under his belt. I met him again for a cup of coffee and picked his brain on some of the finer, less classroom oriented points of policing the scum of the US. This is a guy who has policed some of the worst parts of the US, and picked up plenty of stories and scars to prove it. Learnt more than I ever though I would. He passed on a few things to me, one being a police patch from the Anderson Police Department, a tradition among police and something I was proud to be included in.

There are more stories, but not the sort of thing I want to blog from beyond the back of beyond in Indiana. It's also getting late over here, and I need to be up and perky in the morning for a trip to...wait for it...CHICAGO. That's right. Joe is going to the Windy City. Expect LOTS of photos and some more awesome stories.

Take care everyone.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Transgressions and Touchdowns

Another out of this world day in Ball State today. Grabbed a quick bite to eat before heading to Delaware County Court for 9 O'Clock to sit in on the morning session. We saw 11 cases in the circular courtroom, ranging from pre-trials, Bond setting, Fines and Convictions. The severity of the cases ranged tremendously, from people missing court hearings and being discharged from probation up to battery and worse. Massive array of punishment dished out by the judge; fines, 10 years in Prison and Warrants being issued among them. I don't know exactly what to say about the experience, but it felt strange looking in on some of the most defining crossroads in people's lives. The whole morning, including the session and our discussion with the Judge, one of the prosecutors and 2 probation officers gave a whole extra perspective on the criminal justice system, one far more complicated than the one of the police, where the job is simply to catch the bad guy. A great deal of seeming unnecessary bureaucracy, but it all serves the purpose of ensuring people have faith in the institution. I don't really know what to think of this stage in the process, but there must be a better way.

After our morning in court, we headed into "downtown" Muncie to eat, ending up in a very arty café called 2(0h!)4, where I devoured not only a delicious chicken bacon wrap wrapped in spinnach, but the various exotic burgers and sandwiches the others ordered. Suitably full, we mooched around Muncie for a while before coming back to campus. I ended up going to the gym with one of the American guys. Here's a tip for everyone, training with someone who is serving in the national guard and aspiring to join the field artillery is ALWAYS going to be tough. After a brutal chest workout, we threw the American football around on the INDOOR football field. Ended up getting back to the hotel room exhausted, got some salad and water down me before getting BACK to the gym to do it all again, this time with a 240lb football player in the mix. After the gym I helped the two guys get ready for a tournament this coming sunday, ran some offence and some defence for them, catching everything that came my way and shutting down my man on D. Watching them throw the ball around was a thing of beauty, both of them far better than anyone I've ever seen back home. Although I suppose it's part of the culture, most english kids can kick a ball around, they can toss a funny shaped egg to each other really fast.

Ended the day on a massive high, all of us went up to IHOP, the International House of Pancakes, where a massive quantity of food was consumed. Gonna get a good sleep before work shadowing in the probation office tomorrow! Will upload some more photos soon, not taken enough today! Take care world.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

2 Incredible Days

Wow. Two utterly incredible days in Muncie. Don't even know where to being.

Day 2 - Dog Days

After a long flight we all handled the jet lag really well, we got our sleep patterns in check quickly and were firing on all cylinders for a busy day at Ball State Uni. Woke up to a thunderstorm of epic proportions, but it cleared up as the day went on. We had a great reception in the BSU Alumni centre, breakfast of fruit and tasty American cookies. Various members of the Criminal Justice and Criminology Department talked to us about our week and we had a chance to talk to them and discuss Criminal Justice, although for the most part we just told them how excited we were to be there. Eventually headed off on a campus tour and omg the place is huge. 21,000 students. It defies the imagination. Highlights were the library and the gym, the later being a 33 million Dollar development with a suspended indoor running track around 6 basketball courts, climbing wall, indoor sports field and 3 floor fitness centre. Puts anything in Keele to shame. After being stunned into silence by the sheer scale of the uni, and how anywhere could have a running track indoors, we headed over to meet a police canine unit.

It was incredible. After a talk from the chief of the Ball State University Police Department, Officer Stafford came in with Tara, the drug-sniffing-criminal-tracking-arm-biting-totally-adorable Belgian Malinois. The dog was amazing, with the trainer/Handler/Owner explaining everything and answering all our questions. The most bizarre thing (and there were many, many bizarre things) was how the Dog only understood Dutch, so this Cop had to give all the commands in Dutch. It also wasn't a crazy well trained untouchable police dog, you could play with it and it was awesome.

After a great indoor session, we headed outside, where the handler put a tracking collar on the dog (not a collar with a GPS, but a regular leather collar so the dog knows it's time to track (almost as amazing as how the dog didn't know it was looking for drugs, it just assumed it was sniffing out a tennis ball (which they used to train her by lacing it with the smell of drugs (which the dog loves (the ball, not drugs)))). We didn't have to go far, with some poor unfortunate other cop having to hide around the corner. The dog was unleashed and went for him, grabbing hold of the biting arm on the cop. Incredible show and massive learning curve. Went out for mexican later that night.

Day 3 - I call shotgun

After the trip to the massive gym the day before, I was up early to get training. My back is FINALLY better, so I headed over to the ball gym (a smaller gym closer to where I'm staying) for a cheeky morning workout. Felt great, then headed back to shower and grab an awesome cheap breakfast before a long day. Had talks with 3 different people over the course of the day, all from different Criminal Justice agencies, one was a Victim Advocate (who worked with victims of crime to guide them through the court process etc), one was an investigator with Muncie Police Dept. who specialised in Domestic Violence and the last was a CASA, a Court Appointed Special Advocate, a volunteer who guided children through the court system. Harrowing, but inspiring.

After lunch we headed off to various police departments to spend the afternoon riding along with a cop. I went to the university police (BSUPD), whilst others went with Muncie Police Dept. and Delaware County Sheriff Dept. I was a little sceptical at first, not entirely sure what to expect from a police force that only operated on campus, but soon learnt it was much more than that. They hold jurisdiction in the entire county, so we were gunning up and down the roads around campus dishing out speeding tickets, pulling over hillbillys with expired licence plates and helping track down some punk who robbed Wal-Mart. The cop I was with (Eric (or Officer Reffit) was a sound guy, we talked sports (the Rugby/American Football discussion mostly) and Bear Grylls (who is apparently a MASSIVE celebrity in the US, along with Piers Morgan). Before we headed out we had a guided tour of the station. A fantastic afternoon.

After the police headed home from the afternoon patrol for a training session, we (the wonderful people of Keele and the BSU Criminal Justice programme) ended up having pizza in one of the classrooms (in some stupidly laid out building, where I ended up having to ask some lucky american girl for directions). We had talks from a few people, 2 professors outlining the upcoming plan for a graduate exchange programme between the two uni's and a very brief history of policing in Taiwan before moving on to the final unexpected speaker. Mark, the bulky grizzled all american who we'd assumed to be another lecturer from BSU, turned out to be a cop. Not only a cop, but one that had been undercover in the narcotics industry for 26 years. Served for 32 years and picked up some grizzly injuries. Guess that's the way it is in America. Utterly incredible to meet such a character.

After such an eye opening day, we headed over to a sports bar in Muncie (45cent wing night = Heaven). One of the girls we were with managed to slip into conversation with the waitress that all British people are left handed and she believed us. She was very sweet, but quite ditzy and one shade of orange away from umpa lumpa. Great night. Welcome to America.

Hoping to get to the mega-sports complex in the morning before a morning at the courts. Will let you know how it goes. Missing you all loads, take care team!

Monday, 4 April 2011

One Hell of a journey - A Journey of Epic Proportions

Well here I am, room 334 of the hotel in Ball State University, 7.30 Am Eastern Time. Yesterday (all 40 something hours of my waking day) was incredible. Don't even know where to being. After Mens Rugby winning Club and Team of the Year and the presentation ball (Just another excuse to suit up), Got in so late I had to pull an all nighter before heading off to Birmingham International Airport (Not East Midlands, wouldn't want to go there). Slept through take off and next thing I know we're somewhere over the Atlantic just beyond Iceland. Killed time on the flight alright, slept, read, enjoyed the surprisingly delicious airplane food (note to everyone, fly Continental Airlines, nice food, good selection of entertainment and happy American Air hostesses). Incredible views over Newfoundland, Labrador, Quebec and Upstate New York, photos to follow. Our final approach into Newark airport was immense, the sprawling city of New Jersey below us and Manhatten out of the left hand side of the plane. I didn't get any photos (some moody teenager wouldn't take photos for me (sucks being on the wrong side) but caught a glimpse of the skyline, Empire State Building included! Saw the statue of Liberty too, it's bigger than I imagined. You see Manhatten so much on TV and in films, but nothing quite prepares you for the real thing. After much tubulence, we landed in Newark, went through customs without any mishaps and caught our connection to Indianapolis.

Quick word about our connecting flight. It was tiny. I had both a window seat and an aisle seat. Slept through takeoff (again) and next thing I know I'm looking out the window at 30,000 feet at American farmland. Jaw dropping, pics to follow.

Nice smooth decent into the space age Indianapolis Airport (built about 2 years ago), where we ended up killing plenty of time before our shuttle picked us up. Tried a Hershey bar (omg delicious) and some American Pizza (also amazing). Picked up by the shuttle and got a guided tour through Indianapolis from an Architecture Professor (saw the Colts Stadium and various incredible sights, will put the photos up tonight.

Incredible drive across the plains of Indiana, could see for miles in all directions. Got to Muncie, checked in, then had a genuine American Taco from Taco Bell with the American's we're staying with. If there isn't one already, we're gonna have to open a franchise back home. There's potential there. Ended up going to eat properly with them and a joint called Chili's where the waitress loved my accent. It's gonna be a good week. Had a nice stressful journey Home driving my mates Truck. Being an Automatic AND Left hand drive was alot to handle :s

Well, gonna go grab a MASSIVE breakfast, big day ahead, tour of Ball State, possibly a tour of Muncie then a demonstration and session with the Muncie Police Canine Unit. Will let you all know how it goes this eveining!