Category Archives: ‘mind the gap’ journey 08-09

Texan stereotypes – and light and dark in the Big Easy

It was what you might call a Texan stand-off. Justin, my partner on this trip of trips had just turned into my partner-in-crime. Lulled into a meditative state by the endless grasslands by the side of the open road, he had failed to notice the needle creep up to 97 mph.

The blue and red flashing lights of a black and white saloon appeared in Justin’s rear-view mirror. He eased the car onto the hard shoulder, trying to calm my fraying nerves.

The driver-side window framed State Trooper Roberts’ impassive face perfectly. The Texan sun glinted menacingly off his Rayban sunglasses. Images from “The Dukes of Hazzard” TV series flickered through my mind. Trooper Roberts made us aware of the error of our ways in that familiar Texan drawl, but it was impossible to detect any hint of emotion in his official words. Might the God of leniency be on our side?

“Suuur, you were doing nahnty sehven maaahles an haaaahr. We gotta take you to see the JUUUUDGE.”

I was alarmed. This was alarming. There were alarm bells ringing. “Juust follow me, Okaaay?“

Two fraught miles later, we pulled in outside the Judge’s office in Clarendon, Donley County, TX. My alarm dissipated, as the judge put her own Texan drawl to work. While keen to impress on us the severity of the crime, she also turned out to be just as interested in discussing the challenges of cotton farming, and getting back to the washing from which she’d been rudely dragged away.

“What d’ya think, Trooper? Should we give these guys a break?”

Thankfully, Trooper Roberts took our side, explaining in effusive terms how polite we (well Justin, really) had been. In an admirable display of Texan kindness, the fine was halved and we were on our way.

Those Stetson Stereotypes

It was Jeremy Paxman in his book “The English” who pointed out that, uncomfortable as it may seem,  stereotypes tend to exist for a reason. Namely that there’s more than an element of truth to them.

Texas is a state that can’t help but live up to its stereotype.

From real cowboys in the Amarillo Stockyard auctions to state Trooper Roberts and his generosity the image of a rough tough people with big hearts has been splendidly confirmed. Even at Billy Bob’s Honky Tonk in Fort Worth’s Historic Stockyards district (which given the gratuitous use of the word “Historic” you might expect to be a touristy mush), we were confronted with delightfully intense Stetson-clad couples indulging in a spot of line dancing. I briefly considered starting a conversation with  one of the tougher-looking cowboys with the line “Has anyone told you that you look like Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain?”, but decided against it. I would like to see my family in Scotland at least once more before I die.

For Thanksgiving, we had another dose of the legendary hospitality that is Texas. In Colorado, we had crossed paths with a young couple from Dallas. I mentioned that we were going to be in the area for the day of Thanksgiving. In no time, we had an invitation to spend it with his evangelical preacher father and his 15-strong family.   There are places where Americans worry about the heritage of Thanksgiving. Not in Texas. It was a dinner which gave us a real insight into how far the Church permeates the lives of many families here.

Freedom Fries

With a history which includes a period of independence in the early 19th century, the locals in the huge state of Texas are proud of what they see as hard-won freedoms.

And right now, there’s a bunch of them that think they may have to fight for those freedoms again.

Take Greg for instance. We met him in a bar in Fort Worth, a former cowboy town now hardly distinguishable from the urban sprawl of Dallas.

Greg was angry.

Having lost his engineering job with Halliburton, he had managed to ease the pain by indulging in a three-week Ollie-Reed-style bender, and a quickfire affair with a 19-year-old girl whose fiancee was overseas with the army (yes, it was complicated). Strangely, Halliburton wasn’t the object of his anger. The anger was reserved for the politicians.

“We waana buury our politicians in our backYAAARDS!” he told us with piercing eyes. “Haver you heard of the noo Tea Party guys? Ah’m one of ’em! We was on the streets with fifteen thousand others laaast week!” Given the speed at which we were careering along Fort Worth main Street in his pick-up truck, I felt rather as if I might end up in a backyard.

With Steve Earle‘s “Copperhead Road“ (an anthem for disaffection) still booming in my ears the following morning, I jumped onto google. All was confirmed. There’s an undeniably fundamentalist streak to their manifesto, which echoed another movement that I’d seen on the streets of Denver – “End the Fed”. They’re arranging events on the streets inspired by the former Republican candidate Ron Paul’s recent book calling for the re-establishment of “sound money for America”. In Denver, the leafleteers walked the pedestrian malls with faces covered behind bandanas.

Even the quiet, kind Christian family that hosted us for Thanksgiving in Dallas talked of the potential for “civil disobedience” (when things “go against God’s law”) and a coming Cultural Civil war. It would be fair to say that Obama is “unloved” in these parts.

While these are all isolated examples, they are not unique. Part of the purpose behind this roadtrip was to get away from the easy attitudes of the East and West coasts and see the deep interior of America. And since leaving the sea a fortnight ago, we have rarely got into a taxi or met someone in a bar who hasn’t swung the conversation round to the disgruntlement they feel at what they see as the government’s interventionist agenda.

How mainstream Americans come to terms with the shifting sands at the top of the global pecking order will be fascinating to watch. It’s hard not to contrast American bewilderment with the growing confidence I saw in China earlier in the year. More on that in due course.

N’Orleans – a tonic for the Soul

Eight hours after leaving Dallas, we arrived in New Orleans, the Big Easy. Armed with recommendations for how to make the most of this incredibly vibrant city, 48 hours here have whizzed by. The contrast with Texas and Colorado has been stark. The sense of energy permeating the streets is infectious – the idea of sleeping suddenly seems faintly ridiculous.

I was lucky enough to join one of the huge parades here yesterday, venturing into areas of the town where the positivity of the bands and the thousands of people dancing on the streets obscures the occasional dilapidated building that serves as a dark reminder of the tragedy of Katrina in 2005. (A journalist I met on the parade published these fabulous pictures).

Justin didn’t quite make the parade – his mega-metabolism sustained him through to 9.30am imbibing with the Nowhere chapter of the freak/mutant/punk Black Label Bike Club. New Orleans being a village, we bumped into them again last night. Their incredible Tall Bikes and activist attitude are imbued with a strange mix of hope and despair. The BLBC (see this video) represent a dark, but somehow more creative, response to America’s dilemma here. Words just ain’t their style.

We are now in Alabama, where we’ve already met the archetypal large-scary-man-who’s-stockpiled-50-AK47s. Another fascinating experience. But that can wait for another day.

Toodle pip!

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LA stories, Arizona space, and Songs of the Open Road

After 367 days on the right side of the world map (Euro-centric ones at least), I returned to the left side aboard a flight from Auckland to Los Angeles last week.

Since the flight conveniently coincided with my birthday, I had a total of 44 hours to contemplate the transition into my 39th year – the first sixteen hours with friends in Auckland, twelve turning back time on the plane, and seventeen in Los Angeles and San Diego. It has been a remarkable twelve months.

The last 33 days of this journey will take me – and a friend, Justin, who I met in India two weeks into my trip – on a Road trip from Los Angeles in the West to New York in the East. Our route (click here for a map) will take us through 16 states, mostly in the South.

It wasn’t long after leaving LA that we came across the first mammoth trains and huge trucks that criss-cross this country on a daily basis, a sharp reminder of the obsession with overland travel and transport here. Like many people, my experience of the US has been shaped until now by the Eastern and western seaboards, but the interior is where it’s at. Seeing the beating heart of America – a year on from the financial disasters of October 2008 and Obama’s triumph the following month – should be fascinating.

LA, baby

Leaving Los Angeles was harder than expected. It is one of those cities that has a habit of consistently living up to the its popular mythic image, and over a couple of nights in hip Venice Beach, the city of Angels didn’t disappoint. There was the girl who was enjoying being out of work because “I can catch up on all those things I didn’t have time for – like my divorce…”; the guy struggling to see his kids because his ex-wife “is tryin’ to make out I’m a drug addict, man – I mean I’m recreational, but…”; the tale of another guy whose marriage broke down because “Marty’s kinda into rough sex man… he’s sorta a fan of the chokehold, you know what I’m sayin’?”- and too many other fantastically LA stories to mention.

Despite the allure of this far from angelic beacon of naughtiness, we finally dragged ourselves onto Route 66 on Monday, after picking up a third member of the Big Mama Roadtrip, another Andy, who flew out from Scotland to join us for the first week.

We broke the journey out of California with a night at the beautiful Joshua Tree national park, a place that lives deep in the psyche of any westerner in their thirties, thanks to the eponymous 1987 album by U2. Immediately some of the contrasts in this vast continent became apparent – it was wonderful to experience the beauty and open serenity of the park, and instructive to see the ordinariness of the people of the local town, a million miles from the urban swagger and self-consciousness of the LA set.

On the open road

This is a roadtrip, and already the time on the road has been as memorable as the time off it. The awe-inspiring size of the vistas over the deserts of Northern Arizona; magnificent natural structures carved out under the sea 570 million years ago in Monument Valley on the way to Utah; spectacular stone bridges created by the pressure of the Colorado river system; and views over to the early snows of the mountainous West. Above all, it is the space and size of the landscape that has struck all three of us.

In the conversations that I have managed to have so far, the ongoing challenge of reviving the economy has vied with proposed changes to the Healthcare system for number one gripe. I never expected to be talking about the NHS in a hot tub in Utah, but that’s where the debate’s at right now. This in turn has led to the amazing Google-ish revelation that the British NHS is in the top five employers in the world. The top five are:

1.  Peoples Liberation Army (PLA), China, 2,300,000
2.  Wal-Mart Stores, United States, 1,800,000 employees
3.  Indian State Railways, India, 1,400,000
4.  National Health Service (NHS), UK, 1,300,000
5.  Deutsche Post, Germany, 502,545

With the healthy scepticism that Americans have for government and bureaucracy, I suspect that kind of statistic is enough to scare most Americans stiff and scupper the chances of any bill. But we shall see.

We are now in Moab, known as the adventure sports capital of the USA, a stunningly located town with two more massive national parks on its doorstep. Tomorrow we enter our third state Colorado heading via Aspen to Denver, from where we will start a different adventure – down through the heartlands of Texas to New Orleans. 

To close, the opening lines of a poem that I was sent nearly a year ago as I set out on my trip. Walt Whitman is the poet who captured better than anyone the free spirit of America and its land. These are the opening lines of his “Song of the Open Road”:

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.

Toodlepip!

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The hitch-hikers’ guide to whitebaiting and thermal pools

A chance encounter with a hitch-hiker leads to a true dose of Kiwiana… [go to http://luddo.com for version with pictures]

The hitch-hiker’s jaunty thumb loomed out of the gathering gloom and drizzle of a spring evening as I drove into the small west coast New Zealand town of Haast.

I took a snap decision. I had been driving for four hours. A bit of company couldn’t hurt. There’s only so much stunningly distracting scenery one man can take driving on his own.

“Pop your bag in the boot,” I said trying my best to appear nonchalant and an experienced picker-upper of hitch-hikers, and blocking out the images of knife-wielding Hollywood psychos swirling around in my head.

My only previous experience of hitch-hiking had been from the other side of the kerb in 1992 – on a charity hitch-hike from St Andrews to Paris. I had managed to persuade a pretty blonde to accompany me. I vividly remember her rugby-playing boyfriend sitting in my room the night before we left, fixing me with a piercing stare while toying with a dangerous looking metal cosh. He asked me, somewhat menacingly, whether I wanted to take it. I declined, but took the hint and returned said blonde in tacta – after we had won the race. (I like to think the victory was all down to my brilliantly devised strategy. It probably had more to do with the pretty blonde.)

With a distinct absence of pretty blondes hitching on the West Coast of New Zealand, I had to make do with Tim (pronounced “Tum”), a bearded and bandana-ed 22-year-old Kiwi.

As we gingerly edged our way towards a friendship, my paranoia faded away. I asked where he was heading; Tim told me that he was on his way to the family hut further up the coast to help his cousin with some whitebaiting.

My ears pricked up. Whitebaiting? I had been told by more than one person that this strange, lonesome form of fishing was a quintessential part of West coast New Zealand life. As I was travelling without a plan, it felt like another of those no-brainer opportunities for me to chance my arm.

“Errr… I tell you what. I’ll drive you there if there’s a spare bed in your hut?”

Within moments, the deal was sealed, both parties convinced they had the better rub of the green. We headed north…

Petrol? Or Petrol?

… only to head south again moments later. Oops. In all the excitement, I had forgotten to check the fuel gauge. Return to Haast without passing Go.

It didn’t take long to discover that Haast is one of those villages where the locals delight in obstinacy, doing their level best to make any visitor feel very unwelcome. The local garage owner commenced proceedings, taking great delight in telling me to go forth and procrastinate (despite the prominent “24 hour garage” sign).

Next stop the local pub, one of those dingy open plan establishments clearly dedicated to hardened drinking where the bar staff seem, miraculously, to be pulling more pints per minute than there are people in the pub.

“Any chance of some petrol?” I asked tentatively at the bar. A likely lad sidled over. “How much d’ya need?“ I told him I needed about ten litres. He looked puzzled. “Aw, mate, I don’t have REAL petrol, I thought you meant weed…”

This wasn’t going too well.

Despite his insistence that we’d be better off forgoing the petrol and sharing some “petrol” with him in the local hotel, we resumed the search, eventually procuring enough to see us up the road from a petrol station down the road that any one of our interlocutors could have told us about in the first place.

We headed north once more.

A ba(t)ch, a spot of whitebaiting, and some hot pools

A few hours of night-driving along roads of diminishing size and quality, and we arrived in deepest darkest west coast New Zealand, near the wonderfully named Hari Hari (though not before witnessing a typically stunning sunset).

I collapsed into bed, still unsure what the following day would bring.

As I dragged myself from the halls of slumber the next morning, I found myself in a small two room hut.

One of the cousins was making tea in the tiny kitchen. “Welcome to our Bach!“ he said as I accepted his offer of Fisherman-strength Tea.

The “Bach”, (pronounced “Batch”) is an institution in New Zealand. Originally short for “Bachelor pad”, baches are small holiday homes (most often basic huts) and normally in a remote corner of the country, presumably to encourage suitably bach-like activities.

Which in New Zealand includes whitebaiting.

It works like this – juvenile whitebait, having been conceived in the river, are then born out in the ocean, before heading back up the rivers to start the cycle of mating once again. They aren’t the smartest fish in the river, so catching them involves positioning a net in the right part of the stream, and watching them swim in. Prized for their delicate taste, New Zealand whitebait fetch as much as NZ$120 (about 50 quid) per kilo.

As a result, a fierce tradition of whitebait fishing during a short (Southern Hemisphere) spring season has developed here, with ramshackle “stands” (jetties) on the best stretches at the mouth of some rivers.

A quick introduction to the three cousins – Ryan, Jazz and Jeff – and we were off to the river to indulge in this wonderfully passive form of fishing. The cousins were helping out on “Ivan’s Stand”, a highly sought-after spot on the river owned by 70-year-old Ivan Orlowski.

I had lucked out again. Ivan was a living goldmine of New Zealand culture. After 40 years in the whitebaiting game, he happily watched as the cousins and I pulled in over 5 kilograms of whitebait during the day, an average daily haul for the season. Over more strong tea, Ivan delighted in having an ear to chew off with his stories. Once he had established that I wasn’t with the Inland Revenue (cash sales), he opened up with tales of the rough timber-milling past, the challenges of the holiday-home fuelled present, and pondering on the future of these remote west coast communities. There is such a strong sense of tradition here that it is hard to see it changing that much.

It had been a great day – but the best was yet to come.

A well-earned therma-rest

As we returned to the bach, the cousins gleefully packed shovels, a frying pan, some beer and some sausages into the car, and we headed further up the Whanganui river, tramping across fields to reach our next destination.

Small pools gave off tell-tale whisps of steam at the side of the glacial stream, evidence of untouched thermal springs.

Suddenly it was clear what the shovels were for. Half an hour’s digging in the hot sand and we had our pools.  We slipped into the wonderful warm water as the drizzle fell around us, jumping into the freezing stream (with the aptly bone-chilling name of “Amethyst”) at one point before returning to the thermal haven.

There have been so many other wonderful experiences in New Zealand – catching up with friends from India in Dunedin, watching dolphins off the Catlin coast, seeing rare bird and marine life up close on the Milford Track, spending time on a Maori dairy farm in the North Island.

But sitting in a natural hot spring in the midnight rain beats them all. It was truly one of the most memorable moments of 12 months of travelling.

So go on. Next time you see a hitch-hiker, pick him (or her) up. You never know where you might end up.

Toodle pip!

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Filed under 'mind the gap' journey 08-09, All posts, Australia and NZ '09