Landing In Chicago
Updated: Apr 4, 2020
Last week I had laid out part 1 to my Chicago blog. After an intense first experience of the Philadelphia airport as well as the dreaded American airlines I was finally on a flight towards Chicago. I bumped along in a lightning storm and tried to ride out the turbulence. With my fear of pains coursing through me every 10 minutes I would stop playing fruit ninja to go to the bathroom. Here I would look at myself in the mirror and repeat over and over again “you’re not going to die Josh okay you’re not going to die.” Every time I sat down I couldn’t relax, trying to sleep would have been impossible. So I repeated this process of up and down infuriating the guy that was sitting next to me. Every beep, movement of the plane or person looking out the window gave me shivers, each time I sat up convinced this was it.
With sweaty palms we came into land and I breathed for the first time that night. I then laughed at myself, of course I wasn’t going to die, I mean I wasn’t even that worried…
So here I was again in a new country. My second attempt at traveling solo. Although I knew this to be true I didn’t feel alone, my aquarium Instagram followers were following along with the journey. I had supplied the necessary hype over the past few weeks and the time had finally arrived. One thing about me is that my memory is not the greatest, I tend to overthink and my mind is constantly flooded with ideas so all my memories of this trip are a little hazy. Saying that I was only here for 3 days, 1 day to explore the city and 2 days for a new aquarium show called Aquashella. So in no particular order I will tell the story, hopefully the photos I have jog my memory!
My aquarium obsession had yet again taken me to a new country, this time I was also fuelled by wanting to meet Ryan who I had become friends with online. We both planned to go to the aquarium show. Now, I had been to Interzoo during my time in Germany which is the biggest aquarium show in Europe but Aquashella was a different animal all together. It was a new concept running for it’s first year and it was more like a festival. Imagine a place where all the fish nerds can come together and feel young and cool. I had one day to travel round Chicago prior to the show and see what it had to offer. Being 19 at the time I couldn’t drink so I would have to wonder round on my own (I have to confess I drank a little moonshine at one point, of course I remember this detail…) I headed out into this new and exciting city straight to the bean.
The bean is one of the most famous landmarks of the city, a sculpture by Anish Kapoor. It’s huge reflective surface was surrounded by lots of tourists snapping a photo of their reflection. From here I wondered off without an idea of where I was headed. I walked to the city lookout and up I shot in a fast lift to the top. Which brings me to my second fear which is lifts, they terrify me just slightly less than planes. We went quickly upwards my ears popping on the way and I was expecting to be like Charlie bursting out from the chocolate factory. Again I ‘somehow’ survived and from my new viewpoint I could look out over the whole city. The grey cloudy sky gave the city a depressing vibe but juiced up on the buzz of seeing a new country it wasn’t enough to dampen my spirt.
I enjoyed the impressive view regardless. After running round a few times refusing to pay for the $1 telescopes they seem to have at every viewpoint in the world I decided to get photo from one of two glass boxes than protrudes off the side of the building. Standing in the box you can see the drop beneath your feet. For some reason this doesn’t scare me at all, I’m rational sometimes I’m sure of it. While waiting in the cue to go in I started chatting to a Thai girl who had the same camera as me. We were both the same age and she too was traveling solo, I think I may have fancied her a little bit too which is always dangerous. I had luckily made a new friend at the perfect time. I stepped into the glass box and she snapped some photos of me with my camera. After I had returned the favour I headed off out the building.
I was a lot less confident back then than when I travel now and I think I worried about hanging around too long. I scolded myself as I walked down the city street thinking I missed an opportunity to explore the city with someone but just as I was about to go down a side alley I bumped into her again so off we headed to see more of urban Chicago drenched in clouds. We wondered round the famous sights before I headed off to meet Ryan for lunch. As I was walking I was somewhat nervous, there’s something strange about talking to someone online for a while then finally getting the chance to meet them. Not only that but I had a lot of admiration for this guy, in a way I looked up to him. He runs the largest aquarium Instagram page and so I thought of him as some sort of fish guru.
After some time spent eating and exploring parts of the city we headed back to the bean for some well needed photographs. If you have met me travelling you may be shocked to see me with a huge mound of curly hair sitting on top of my head. Looking back on it I would now describe it as a bird’s nest (yes I got a perm.) I’m also pretty sure I walked round with a man bag, the essential accessory to any wannabe fish gangster. If the police stopped me they would be disappointed to find nothing but a notebook, some pens, my phone and a DIY fishkeepers t-shirt. Here in lies the problem. That was all I had brought out with me and of course I had forgotten my wallet. So not only did Ryan have to pay for my lunch but also my train ticket home, talk about embarrassing…
We parted ways after talking over the plan for the show tomorrow. I headed back via a fish shop to take a few snaps of their displays for Instagram. It was called the Old Town Aquarium and I felt like I was in my element. They knew all about the show building up my excitement for the day tomorrow and so I headed back with no money. I sat within my hotel room till the early hours of the morning on the phone to the bank to unfreeze my card and to my girlfriend to have an argument. What a way to end my day. I leant over and tried to flick the right switch to get the lights to turn off and so I was plunged into darkness with little want for sleep. The adrenaline was running through me, tomorrow I would be at the festival!
I arrived early to join the vendors setting up for the show and felt a sense of being behind the scenes. Back when I was younger I used to help my dad doing some behind the scenes work for ballet shows in London. This reminded me of that excitement, getting ready for the event to come. I felt so lucky to have this opportunity especially in a new country. It wouldn’t have been if not for Ryan and together we headed round talking about the display tanks all around the festival halls. As everything started to come together I realised that this was nothing like any show I had been to in the past. Outside the front of the building an inflatable clownfish sat in the middle of the car park, the Aquashella logo across it’s belly. I stood next to it for a snap as it loomed over me.
On the top of the entrance was an octopus, it’s long tentacles dangling across the front door. This is where the cue had begun to form. People we’re cueing far earlier that I was expecting and the atmosphere was electric. In through the front people gave in their tickets and I was introduce to George who ran the show with one of his friends. I must have seemed so strange and maybe even a little bit skittish as I tried to nervously describe myself. To this day I don’t know why everything prior to me traveling in Australia made me nervous? In fact I think it was mainly people that made me nervous, weird creatures humans are. Once the tickets were handed in you came through an aquarium archway filled with neon fish and into the front entrance hall.
The entire festival was a combination of music, fish inspired UV artwork and aquarium displays. The UV lighting made all the corals pop and the colours brought everything to life. The front hall was filled with UV artwork by local Chicago artists and you headed in along the fluorescent carpet. After this the show consisted of 4 rooms, the middle room, 2 marine rooms and one freshwater one. The middle room came first with a number of aquarium displays, a DJ who also was running a radio show throughout the festival, a cylinder tank holding delicate seahorses which now and then would switch off causing everyone to panic and a t-shirt store. The t-shirt store was run by Ryan and his girlfriend Haley. I helped out as much as I could with my awful selling skills and when Haley kindly took over running the store (she probably realised I wouldn’t make any money) me and Ryan went back to exploring the other rooms.
The majority of the festival consisted of marine tanks (think marine = the ocean, freshwater = rivers, lakes etc.) which I had never kept before. Partly due to them being a lot more expensive to set up but also due to the complexity needed to keep everything alive. Ryan having kept marine before talked me through what everything was. I had never seen so many different types of corals in all shapes and sizes. Each vendor had different varieties they had grown, it was like a cross between a genetic engineering lab and a candy store. As I grabbed some photos on my camera me and Ryan started uploading posts to Instagram to showcase the event.
I could spend my whole life here I thought! Over the next few days I gradually explored each stall finding a mix of fish, corals and new technology. UV glasses were handed out to enhance the viewing of the corals bringing out the vibrancy even more. I learned about some of them and found out they can even begin to attack each other if a coral encroaches on another’s turf! I followed round and listened to talks or watched aquariums getting set up. A common thing I love to watch when heading to an aquarium show is the aquascaping event. Aquascaping is where a tank is designed out, whether it be building a coral scape or making a freshwater tank with soils, rocks, wood and live plants. The planted tanks people can design would make your mind boggle, whole landscapes underwater.
The final room of the show was a little side room dedicated to freshwater where I felt most at home. Having kept freshwater fish for a while I knew all about the fish they had on display. If you have read my blog about my trip to China you will know about my addiction to freshwater stingrays so I headed straight over to look at them. They had discus, stingrays, plecos, flowerhorns and lots of Malawi cichlids (I don’t expect you to know what I’m talking about.) As we explored round the room we came to a tank with plecos.
Plecos are kind of like the prehistoric creatures of the fish world, they look like dinosaurs! They come from rivers and can live to 25 years old growing to a great size. In an indoor pond at the centre of the room was a giant pleco covered in armoured scales. The owner picked the fish up so we could see and I took a video for Instagram. Some plecos like this one can breath atmospheric oxygen so it’s safe to take them into the air for short periods of time. Seeing this was probably the best fish highlight of the trip.
Over the course of the two days I met some more of my fish idols, explored every area of each room and got to spend more time with Ryan. As with all my trips it’s the people that make it and again I was so lucky that it all came through someone I had met through my Instagram. Ryan, Haley and I had a great time at the show and even found a cool little smoothie shop on the way back from having dinner together. We were the last customers around late at night so we chatted away before heading back to my hotel where Ryan and I watched fish videos and talked about all our fish-related plans. I was honestly convinced we would take over the world.
After saying goodbye to all the wonderful people I met on this trip, the festival had sadly come to an end. After only 3 days in Chicago I realised I hadn’t been here nearly long enough. I grabbed an uber pool back to the airport where all the other Americans in the car obsessed over my British accent and asked me what London was like. I got on my flight home worried as per usual but this time I had a lot more to think about. After my second trip abroad on my own and from seeing the amount of kindness people had while traveling the world I was determined that this was something I wanted to do more of. Not just a few days here and there but a longer trip, one where I could I could keep on travelling without knowing whether I would be getting a plane back home.
In my next trip blog I’m going to talk about what plans I came up with and how I began the most exciting trip of my life. Well so far…