Category Archives: USA ’09

Minding the Gap – a life’s work

It was on the way out of Washington DC when I first saw the ad looming up from the side of the Freeway.

“MARRIED PEOPLE EARN MORE MONEY.
Marriageworksusa.com.”

I wasn’t quite sure what to think – the barefaced appeal to commercial self interest was, I have to admit, a little shocking. Middle America is surprisingly full of (often privately-funded) adverts for organisations like this (often torn apart on the internet by well-argued pieces like this).

I was tickled, therefore, when we finally arrived in New York City later that day, to meet two sassy urban girls who sheepishly told us that there are plenty of people in New York that are living proof that married people really do earn more money. The going rate for helping someone to procure a Green Card through a sham marriage is, apparently, 10,000 dollars.

And not uncommon.

Oy vey Oy vey… New York, New York

It’s in the nature of big cities to detach themselves from their host country and establish an identity of their own. None does this better than New York.

Our drive across middle America, for instance, had proved that the central states can be a little sleepy – even soporific at times. In sharp contrast New York, meanwhile, truly is the city that never sleeps.

But there are other differences – as we sat having one last drink with a middle-aged woman in SoHo’s amazing Balthazar bar, conversation turned to the nature of this global city.

“Oh yeah, six months in New York, and you’re an honorary Jew,” our garrulous acquaintance told us in her classic New York Jewish accent. “Come owan! The Empire State’s even lit up blue and white for Chanukah…”

And it’s true – Jewish influence pervades the city. Michael Bloomberg, mayor since 2001, even renamed one of the ten avenues that slice the city top to bottom as “Yitzhak Rabin Avenue”.

Given that this journey has enabled me to experience a number of the world’s faiths – Hinduism, Buddhism (Tibetan and Chan), Sikhism – it seemed apt that the second last night of my trip should be spent in a deeply celebrating Hanukkah in the home of an Orthodox Jewish family, friends of Justin’s cousins. The sense of a tight, family-based community was palpable.

The contrast with the middle states couldn’t be more stark, where we had heard all kind of subtle and insidious slights directed at Judaism – and indeed any other non-Christian religion – with an alarming frequency. The pervasive nature of Christianity here over four weeks has been one of the surprises of the trip, way beyond expectations.

“Return”

I’m now back in London, 13 months after arriving in Bombay. The last month driving across the US has been a fantastic way to set in context some of the changes I’ve seen across the world in the last year. That will take a while to process.

It has been a privilege to share the road-trip with someone else – Justin and I met briefly in India in late 2008, stayed in touch by email, and it happened to work out that we both had the time for this journey. That’s travelling for you. The month has been packed with experiences that many would give their right arm for.

* * * *

A few years ago, someone said to me “Mind the gap between the life you’re leading and the one you want to lead.” This year has been all about closing that gap. In that sense I feel I’m at the start, not the end, of a journey.

Lots has changed. Nothing has changed. But one thing’s for sure – what I’ve done and seen in 2009 is now part of me. And that’s a Good Thing.

A blogging intermission is now definitely in order. So, for the last time for a while…

Toodle pip!

Andy

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The pros and cons of roadtripping

“I hate being late. It’s just one of my things…” said  Justin.

Drive 5000 miles across America with someone on a road-trip and you get to know them pretty well. Speed, I had discerned, most definitely was one of Justin’s “things”. Our encounter with the Texan judge had done nothing to deter him from his desire to live life in the fastest lane. We were now in North Carolina, and still travelling at speeds that even Jensen Button would baulk at.

As the familiar flashing lights and siren appeared out of nowhere, I had a strange sense of déjà vu…. 

“D’y’all know the laws in this state?”

The politeness card was played again. “No officer, we’re from England and I know I was driving too fast, I‘m terribly sorry…”

And trumped. “I gotta tell ya, at that speed, y’all’re goin’ t’jail.”

Gulp. There was something worryingly serious about this guy. Pause. Long pause. There was only one thing for it. Justin pulled out the Ace in the pack – the “School play” defence.

“Umm, officer, I’m so sorry, but we were heading to a school play at the Nags Head Elementary… I know we were driving too fast, but we woke up a bit late, and we’re really sorry…”

Bizarrely, this was in fact legitimate. The night before we had indeed met a troupe of childrens’ actors and actresses and really were heading for their performance at a local school.

None of this however cut the mustard with the officer involved, who played his Joker – a pair of handcuffs. 
The rest of the tale is too long and convoluted for this blog; suffice to say it involved a trip to the Dare County Detention Center, a bail bond, a 24-hour wait for the court case, a friendly magistrate, another reduced fine, and much wiping of brows.

And no school play. 

The pros and cons of Road tripping (with apologies to Roger Waters)

If encounters with the legal system of the USA have constituted one part of the road-trip experience, the people who we’ve met have played no less a part.

Anger has brewed up in lots of different ways – since the last post, we’ve come across Scott from Alabama who was ready to use his fifty stock-piled AK47s to take the battle to those he thinks are destroying his country by backing off from continual confrontation; and East-coasters Ted and Tony in North Carolina who were more sanguine, but no less depressed about the future here. It’s really not at all clear what comes next. But it’s unlikely to be pretty for quite a while. Lots to think about.

Travel brings its own rewards though, and the kindness we’ve encountered along the way will live long in the memory – sleeping in sofas in Venice Beach LA, staying four days on a yacht in Charleston courtesy of Cap’n Will at the local yacht school, scoring great deals in great hotels. (No jail cells, despite Justin’s best efforts).

5.500 miles on the road has allowed for aural pleasure (please be careful at this point if reading this blog aloud), with music ranging from classic Americana to Indian Kirtan to African beats to bizarre Scottish eighties underground bands. We’ve even heard and made friends with a musical star of the future – you heard it here first – John W Lee is going to be BIG. Click here for his music.

The prize for soundtrack to the trip though goes to Johnny Cash – click here for “I’ve been everywhere”.

I write this from Washington DC, and head tomorrow for New York, the last stop before hopping over the Atlantic to check on the UK, 400 days after I left heading East in November last year. Should be interesting.

Toodle pip!

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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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