Andrea and Bettina from Germany, rexing after snorkling in the Florida Keys

"HOT PURSUIT IN SOUTH CAROLINA "

This is an extract from one of my stories. It begins in September 1992, in India House backpackers hostel in New Orleans, after I had spent several weeks hitchhiking from British Columbia, Canada.

My bed was in a narrow hall next door to the main building. I shared this space with thirty-five other backpackers. It was 'cooled' -for want of a better word- by a single tiny airconditioning unit at one end. My bunk was at the opposite end. The thirty-six of us shared -yes, believe it- one single bathroom, and to make it worse, the one toilet was in that bathroom.

Looking back, I don't know how I managed to stay there for five nights, but I did. The first couple of nights, I was still wary to venture downtown, and I wasn't going to leave without experiencing the famous N'awlins nightlife. The days were too oppressively hot and humid to do anything but drink beer in the air conditioned TV room, so that's what everyone did. On the third night, I teamed up with two Kiwis and two Aussies and we headed for Bourbon Street.

A Louisiana barman with a New York attitude!

Bourbon Street is closed to traffic at night, and transforms itself into a writhing sea of bodies moving up and down, stopping in at this bar, then that one, or not even bothering; just refilling a huge plastic cup from beer stalls along the footpath, then rejoining the parade. Music of every variety pumping from the various bars and restaurants, smells of Cajun cooking wafting out onto the footpath. New Orleans joins the ranks of cities like Las Vegas as 'a city that never sleeps'. My money ran out not long after midnight, and I returned to the harsh reality of India House.

I was awoken soon after by someone shaking my bed. It was Cosmo, wanting a cigarette. He had just arrived in New Orleans and (as you would) had checked into India House. He asked the receptionist if a Stephen Savage had been through there recently and she told him my bed number. The next day, I went on a swamp tour. Louisiana is full of wetlands, swamps, bayous- call them what you like; I've canoed through one.

The Crocodile Hunter, eat your heart out

Cosmo was also bound for Florida; he told me he had a lift lined up with an Australian guy on the weekend. I was hoping to get moving sooner than that, so I wrote up a 'ride wanted' notice. As I was pinning the notice on the corkboard, I saw a notice on the 'rides offered' board: "ride offered to Miami. Leaving Thursday. See Betina or Andrea." There were several small groups of guests scattered around the tables of the common room.

"Is someone here Betina or Andrea?" I called out to the room.

"That's us!" came the reply from two very cute girls at a far table. European. Possibly Scandinavian.

Cosmo took no convincing at all, and next thing you know, we were all piled into their enormous blue station wagon and New Orleans was disappearing in our rear vision mirror.

The immense Chevy
It was a Chevrolet Caprice Classique; about twenty feet wide and twice as long, and handled like a boat. She had no air conditioning and the southern air was hot and heavy. I could feel the skin on my face drying and my lips burning.

My hair was sweaty and knotted and stinging my eyes. We drove and drove. None of us had anything on our agenda between there and Miami so when night fell, Cosmo and I took turns at driving while the girls slept. We finally reached exhaustion at 3:30am in St. Petersburg, where we slept on the ground for a few hours. Mosquitos woke us at dawn, and we continued on to Miami.

We found a great hostel just two blocks from Miami Beach; only twelve dollars each in a four person room. With air conditioning! The beach was great and the water, although tepid, was a welcome relief after the long hot sticky drive. And I think we all slept a little in the afternoon sun. That night, Cosmo and I cooked up a stir-fry for us all, and with a carton of Budweiser to get us started, we hit the nightlife of Miami Beach. There was an obvious police presence in the area; in fact, less than a block from the hostel we were nearly caught up in some sort of 'raid'. It was a narrow, dimly lit street, almost small enough to be called an 'alley'. There seemed to be a few groups of young people meandering along and some people stopped chatting. In hindsight, none of us felt the least bit uncomfortable with the alley, until suddenly everybody seemed to turn and run at us. In that couple of seconds, the fifteen or twenty people in that alley transformed into a crowd of hundreds, then scattered in every direction. There were teenagers sprinting up side alleys, others throwing things in rubbish bins as they bolted past us. Then up ahead, a small open roofed four wheel drive skidded into the alley from a side street and hurtled towards us, engine racing. We moved closer to the wall. Then I realized something: we were the only ones not running! As the vehicle screeched past us, the policeman on the passenger side was standing on his seat, holding onto the frame of the windscreen with one hand and directing a powerful spotlight with the other. It was like watching a shark chasing a school of small fish as the remaining runners reached the brightness at the end of the lane, and scattered left and right. The police vehicle came to an abrupt stop, its progress blocked by traffic. We looked at each other and shrugged, as if to say, "What else would you expect in Miami?" The alley was deserted as we made our way to the beachfront.

The Esplanade was immedialtely familiar from movies and TV shows like Miami Vice. It is bright lights and loud music, glitz and glamour, a string of up-market restaurants, bars and open-air clubs, with each particular brand of music oozing into the next as you follow the procession of tourists and would-be movie stars from one end of the strip to the other.

We all slept in the following morning. Betina and Andrea were keen to go to Key West- possibly just because it's the southernmost point of the United States.

Homestead, just south of Miami, was the area hardest hit by Hurricane Andrew

It was a long drive, but interesting crossing through all those tiny islands joined by long narrow bridges. We snorkled, and sunbathed, and slept under a bridge.

Once back in Miami, Cosmo and I picked up a driveaway car and headed north. The girls were off to Orlando. I had been pulled up for speeding so many times in America, and always let off, so with Cosmo asleep on the floor in the back, and the four lane motorway stretching out ahead, the accelerator slowly crept closer and closer to the floor.

We stopped briefly to check out this backpackers hostel in Brunswick, Georgia.

The van was big and wide and heavy, and loved the wide open road. Elbow out the window, wind in the hair, we were headed north! Something caught my eye in the rear vision mirror- flashing lights. Five police vehicles, all with blue lights flashing, were snaking through the freeway traffic and they were moving!

"Heh. I wonder who they're after?" Thought I, in the brief moment, as I moved into the slow lane to let them pass.

"Holy shit, they're after me!" I lifted my foot and indicated that I was pulling over. "Hey Cosmo, you'd better wake up. Someone wants to have a yarn with us.

I stopped, turned the motor off and put my hands on the steering wheel in clear sight. Cosmo was still on the floor, mumbling. Vehicles were skidding to a stop behind me, doors were slamming.

"Get out of the car; keep your hands where we can see them!" came the voice over the loudspeaker. I obliged, but I didn't expect the scene that unfolded in front of me. I probably froze for a couple of seconds while I took it all in. There were cops in camouflage overalls with shoulder holsters, there were cops kneeling behind opened car doors with pump action shotguns aimed at me, cops leaning across car bonnets with pistols trained on me, there were police dogs, there was even a video camera on one guy's shoulder. I was in the middle of something I didn't want to be in. Three or four cops were approaching the van from either side, crouched SWAT-style. In the back of the van Cosmo was just starting to wake up. I saw his head rise slowly, rubbing his eyes.

"There's another one in the back!" came the cry, "there's another one in the back!" and everone ducked for cover. Everyone except for me that is; I was rooted to the spot. Cosmo woke up real quickly, and put his hands up to the window. It was quickly ascertained that he was harmless, and he soon joined me on the roadside, while the police put their dogs through the van. 'Turns out they're some sort of federal multi-jurisdictional task force set up to stop the flow of South American drugs through Florida and up the east coast. They were mainly aiming at cars with Florida number plates, but when they clocked a young guy in a big van with Florida plates doing eighty miles an hour, they must have thought they'd hit the jackpot.

Standing there, watching the dogs sniff through our belongings, I started to think- if you did want to transport drugs up the coast by road, what better way than to hide them in a vehicle and have that vehicle transported by a driveaway company. If the drugs are found, it's the poor schmuck driving who takes the fall.

"We've found something!" called a voice from the car.

I felt sick.

A cop emerged triumphantly holding a small empty plastic bag. It was mine; one of a pack of twelve I had bought the week before to protect some of my personal items in case of rain.

"The dogs don't lie." said the cop. No-one seemd to believe me, but they decided to 'let me off'. But then there was the matter of the speeding offence. I was doing eighty-three when they clocked me, and accelerated when they gave chase; so I was told. That carried a penalty of one hundred dollars. My entire remaining funds for the States was down to $140, so I was hardly going to part with a hundred of it without a struggle. Besides, my flight to London was in a week's time.

"I haven't got a hundred dollars on me, but I'll send it in." I suggested.

"That's not how things work in South Carolina, son. Either you pay the fine, or you come to jail."

"Jail? How long for?"

"Thirty days, or until you pay the fine." He seemed serious, but I thought I'd try one more bluff.

"I think I might have fifty dollars."

"Fifty to go."

He was serious. I paid the fine. We continued on our way, and made it to Washington DC that night, where we slept in the van. The next day, we took photos of the Whitehouse (and the homeless people in the park opposite), checked out all the memorials and visited the Smithsonian Institute and any other museums that were free. The highlight of DC for me was the guided tour of the FBI headquarters.

The driveaway van
The next morning we delivered the car to its new owner, a car yard in Warwick, NY. It was Friday. I had four dollars. My flight was booked for Tuesday night. I phoned Virgin Atlantic Airlines. All earlier flights were fully booked; even overbooked, I was told. My only chance - and it wasn't a good one - was to wait at the airport several hours before each day's scheduled departure. That way, my name would be first on the list of standby passengers in case there was a cancellation.

New York hostels were the most expensive we had come across, with nothing in town under twenty dollars a bunk, and most of them not fit for human habitation. Neither of us had showered since we'd left Miami, so Cosmo lent me enough money to stay in a hostel that night. After that I was to spend my nights at JFK airport, catching the subway into the city each morning to sneak a free shower at the hostel, and join Cosmo for a day's sightseeing, returning to the airport in the afternoon. That is, unless fate smiled on me and an empty seat suddenly was found. Saturday, we walked all over town, and took the ferry to Staten Island. It goes directly past the Statue of Liberty, and at 50c, is a bargain alternative to actually visiting the statue. No luck with a flight that evening. Sunday, we spent most of the day in Central Park and its surrounding areas. Back at the airport, my patience and persistence paid off. Just minutes before the plane was due to take off, and I had given up hope- doomed to spend another forty-eight hours in the airport.

"Would passenger Savage report to counter fourteen."

There had been a no-show. When I woke the next morning, I would be in London.

Visit my favourite books page for some recommended reading relating to this trip through the United States. Roll your mouse over the cover photo for a brief description. Click for more details, to purchase online at a discounted price from Amazon, or to view other titles. (if you buy a book, or any other product from Amazon, through this link on my site, I get a small commission- even more if you buy the book you clicked on. Go on, buy a book today!)

tips

Check out the quality of accommodation being offered before you make a decision, especially if it's in the 'bargain basement' price range.

Make good use of 'rides offered' and 'rides wanted' boards in hostels. It will be the cheapest, best way to get around. ( That is, unless you end up in a car with a boring Pommy wanker like Nigel, the guy who teamed up with Betina and Andrea just before we left them in Miami. In a postcard I received later that year, the girls said they had thrown Nigel out of the car on the second day.)

When in South Carolina, make sure you have enough cash to cover on-the-spot speeding fines. While the cop is writing out your ticket, stand on his left hand side - away from his gun! Otherwise, he gets nervous.

If you're on a budget, take advantage of anything free, such as museums, memorials or art galleries. Some such attractions are free one day a week, or certain hours each day, usually late in the afternoon. It's worth finding out in advance.

If you ever have to sleep at JFK, there's only one comfortable, safe spot in the whole airport. Upstairs opposite the cafes, there's a hallway leading to another building. Near the entrance to this hallway there's a large pot plant in a long rectangular tub. Behind this planter, there's just enough space to stretch out your swag and get a few hours' sleep. If the evening security guards bother you, just wait till five minutes to midnight when they change shifts, then take up position. If questioned, tell the new guards that the others said it would be okay for you to sleep there.

No matter what anyone says, you can almost always get on an earlier flight if you persist and give a sad enough story. Almost always!

'must see' places :

Yes, New Orleans, and while you're there, a bayou

Miami Beach

'The Keys'

In Washington DC; the Vietnam War Memorial, the Whitehouse and the FBI headquarters

In New York city; just walking the streets through the different neighbourhoods

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