Howdy, last post before Spring Break! Since the last post was long and mostly about studying, here’s another about purely recreational activities.
Four of us rented a car (from Budget) and drove to Indiana during our second weekend here. The trip was my idea because, as anyone in my family knows, I’m crazy about cars and wanted to see the world’s most famous race track, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The drive from Ann Arbor to Indianapolis takes around 4½ hours. I was the only 25+ in our group, so I took on the driving duties (rental agencies really hate young drivers here). Driving in the USA isn’t much different from Finland, long stretches of straight Highways and Interstates with mostly fields between cities just like back home. Only difference is the amount of people doing stupid sh…things on the roads, a testament to America’s lenient Driver’s License regulations. Gas is cheap by European standards (around 0.48€/litre), the cars use a lot of it and (optional but highly recommended) insurance often doubles the price of a car rental, so it’s only slightly cheaper here than in Europe.
So anyway, the Speedway. Unfortunately there was too much snow to take a tour of the track, but we managed to visit the Hall of Fame museum constructed inside the track’s circle (it’s a big track). Might have to come back for the 500 some day…
The museum was a petrolhead’s dream, with the winning cars from most Indy 500 races lined up, from 1960s to this day. As an extra, they happened to have a special exhibition of the Camaro Pace Cars from all the eras. I think we spent around two hours in the museum. Warning: Wandering into the gift shops can get expensive…
After the Speedway we headed into the city. Indianapolis is one of those Midwest cities that doesn’t get mentioned very often, I’d think not many tourists come here other than for the races. The city seems nice and friendly, though most places were closed as we arrived quite late during the weekend. We visited the Indiana War Memorial, dedicated to soldiers and sailors that have fallen in America’s wars. It was a long climb to the top, but the view was worth it!
After the Memorial we managed to quickly visit the Circle Centre Mall. It’s pretty well equipped, though we only grabbed some (average) fast food and got in the car back to AA. As I said, Indianapolis is a nice city, but a few hours were really enough.
A week after Indiana we took the Detroit Connector (http://detroitconnector.umich.edu/) to Detroit (duh) to see the 2018 North American International Auto Show. It’s been my dream to attend for many years, so was great to finally make it!
The exhibition area itself was only slightly larger than our Messukeskus, yet the amount of cars from different manufacturers was mind-boggling! Both European and Asian automakers were present, but I of course spent most of the time checking out the American metal. Took around three hours here, after which we went to check out the Motor City. Tasted a Coney Dog (hot dog with savory meat sauce, a Detroit specialty) at Lafayette Coney Island, one of the most popular places for Coney in the Big D. Tasty!
It was cool to just walk around and see the sights. Detroit has clearly been getting better since it’s downfall in the last Financial Crisis, although many run-down buildings and abandoned construction sites can still be found even in the downtown. There’s a lot more homeless people on the streets than in other places I’ve seen, so Detroit’s renaissance hasn’t yet reached everyone.
We visited GM Headquarters at The Renaissance Center on the riverfront. Most of GM’s present range was on display, along with some classics and a whole lot of memorabilia from over the years. I feel they could do even more with the building, currently the exhibition floor is populated by fast food chains and a Marriot hotel takes much of the space. It’s still a formidable HQ and worth visiting if you’re in the neighborhood, although their gift shop wasn’t good enough to separate me from my money.
As Detroit is a huge city and we were moving on foot, most of our time went to NAIAS and the RenCen. While walking around looking for the Opera House, we stumbled upon…
Since we were in Detroit Rock City, of course we had to go in! The HRC finished our night nicely, the good service and cold beers were just what we needed to rest our feet after the long day. They had a cool KISS-themed wall, too.
Finally, we took advantage of Ross’ extended weekends and took a four-day trip to New Orleans, Louisiana for the legendary Mardi Gras. We flew with Spirit airlines (https://www.spirit.com/Default.aspx), (probably) the cheapest and least reliable airline in the US. They’re notorious for cancelled and delayed flights, but we got lucky and everything went well both ways, and for cheap!
It was quite a shock to go from the freezing temperatures of Michigan to under the palm trees of +20c Louisiana. A positive one, though! The six of us checked in to a nice AirBnB close to the French Quarter (the most significant area for tourists in NOLA), where most of the parades took place.
New Orleans comes across as a very different from most American cities, mostly due to the well-preserved Spanish/French creole architechture and gourmet. Louisiana has it’s own style of cuisine, mostly seafood and stews called ‘Gumbo’. Make sure to try beignets, a french-style delicacy almost always made to order. You should definitely try as many dishes as you can and stay away from the big chains!
New Orleans’ nightlife was something else! We spent a lot of time and money to review the establishments around Bourbon and Frenchmen Streets for future generations. The streets were packed, everyone was in a festive mood and, unlike in most of the US where open container laws forbid public drinking, in the French Quarter it’s OK to walk around the streets with a drink in your hand! Hopping from bar to bar and finding something to eat in between was easy and most places don’t mind if you bring in a drink from the outside.
New Orleans has been called the birthplace of Jazz, so visiting a few clubs was a must. Fritzel’s European Jazz Bar was the best, in my opinion. They have their own house band, who are awesome, the place is cozy and wben the band is playing usually packed. We got lucky and found a seat, so stayed for a whole set. Maison was another quality club with live music (on Frenchmen St). They’re more of a dancing place, where Fritzel’s is a more classic sit down and relax kind of place.
The parades themselves were unbelievable and really need to be seen in person. They are going on from January forward, though most are concentrated on the first two weeks of February. The best time to visit is the second weekend of February, though we were there on the first and still had a good time! The parades are almost always huge, though not all have the huge constructions. Most schools in the area had their own shows and the biggest ones are organized by local enthusiast (and everyone is a Mardi Gras enthusiast in the Big Easy). The International Krewe of Chewbacchus had 900 participants and took way over an hour to pass our spot in all of its Star Wars, Harry Potter and Space Viking (etc.) glory!
Finally, atypical of an American city, there are a couple of shopping malls inside the city itself. I grabbed some Mardi Gras souvenirs and visited an outlet mall, The Riverwalk Collection (https://www.riverwalkneworleans.com/). Worth dropping by if that’s your thing, walking distance from the river side of the French Quarter.
New Orleans was definitely one of the coolest things I’ve seen in the US yet. I highly recommend visiting for anyone who’s into partying, festivities, jazz or just architecture and exotic cuisine. I will probably be revisiting the Big Easy in the future, either during Mardi Gras or not.
So, an exchange semester in the US is not all studying. Going to places is a huge part of the experience, though it does require lots of hard work to clear the weekends of school work. Being such a huge and diverse country, USA is a great exchange destination for someone who wants both a top-notch school and an exciting environment.
That’s it folks, I’m off to New York City for Spring Break (yup, more travelling). I’ll be writing about it and the mid-term season when I get back, see you then!