The US of A

Firstly I must mention that mince pies and christmas puddings (they call it plum pudding here) are virtually non-existant. I was very taken aback by this, as surely anyone whose first language is English enjoys these Christmas traditions. I am not a fanatic lover of these delights, so it wasn’t a great tragedy for me, but traditions can be comforting in themselves.

Sitting on the train crossing from Canada to the US was a somewhat peculiar experience for me. In so many ways it brought me back to my travels on the Trans-Mongolian, except everything was different. Outside the landscape was entirely white and Siberia-esque, due to the snowstorm the day before, yet on board the train there was plenty of leg room and the ticket attendants were unfamiliarly friendly. It took a long time to cross the border, more than an hour and a half I would say, compared to crossing back into Canada on the Greyhound which took all of 15 minutes. The US government now owns prints of all of my fingers and thumbs. I wondered if they only took prints of foreigners coming into the country, and I soon found out that every citizen has been through the same process which occurs at school. Totally absurd, I thought, it’s like the government is asking for people to commit a crime…

I hadn’t expected the US to be so different compared to Canada, people were so friendly it is like they’re trying to ram the kindness down your throat. Every time I sneezed, I’d hear a “God bless you”, if I said thank you, I’d then hear a “you’re very welcome”. Very pleasant, but bizarrely aggressive when they’re yelling at you.

New York was what I expected it to be. Dense and not as amazing as everyone makes out. To be honest, Hong Kong is much more impressive. I was fortunate enough to be shown around by a friend, who gave a very fast paced tour which I found utterly hilarious. We marched past the Empire State Building; got tired of tourists in the way slowing us down thus we walked down the middle of the road, overtaking jammed up cars; and we poked our heads up above the subway to see Times Square which is a completely miserable place. Who in all honesty can enjoy blaring lights, adverts and shops, shops, shops? Unfortunately didn’t get to see Miss Liberty, but I’m sure she’ll still be there for another time.

Washington, DC is far more tremendous. It is filled with grand buildings in every direction, huge magnificent structures that are far more appealing to the eye. The White House is much smaller than I anticipated, I still can’t fully believe that what I was looking at was really it. At one point a police motorbike blared past, then another, and another, and maybe a few more, then some police cars, a black car, more police cars and motorbikes; sirens all producing a Doppler effect. It was totally the President. Had to be.

Pittsburgh was my favourite city. Everyone would always ask “why the hell are you going there!?” But the whole place is just so stimulating. Architecturally, that is. The city is built on mountains amidst rivers. Hours were spent driving across bridges, up hills and down winding streets with terraced houses. (You have no idea how refreshing it was to see terraced houses, they are few and far between here.) I was with couchsurfers at this point: a Jordanian, a Taiwanese, 3 Americans and I. We had some great Thai food, walked in and out of a strip club, and went to the mountain top to get a view of the whole city. I would definitely be more than happy to spend some more time in this vibrant and eclectic city.

Michigan next. I stayed with a friend, in the woods on Osterhout Lake. I suddenly lost my breath; I had forgotten what true silence sounded like. I had a thoroughly interesting conversation with my friend’s Dad, who is pro-guns. I held his 44 Magnum in my hands. It was a strange feeling that is difficult to describe. You can really feel the weight, and the strain of directing it at something for a prolonged amount of time. I can’t even begin to imagine what it feels like to hold a loaded gun. He’s intelligent, well educated and I was keen to hear his point of view, and to be honest I agreed with most of them. It’s true that suddenly making guns illegal won’t really solve anything. The issue lies deeper, with how people communicate within families and how a family communicates within the greater social spectrum. An interesting point was made that with atheism on the rise, there may be a loss of community, in a way religion provides a space for people to come together and be social with one another (I am not trying to say that being an atheist makes you a psycho killer! I mean that it’s a possible example for people being less social…) It’s now so easy for people to grow up detached, in our world of technology, people living like zombies in front of the television eating ready meals. And when someone begins to show signs of mental health? Take a pill, that’ll make everything better! Why not talk about it? Yeah, that takes more effort, but surely humanity has always had a craving for discussion and conversation and learning about who we really are. Where has this thirst gone? Is technology sucking it from our souls as we speak? Or is it something else?
It was also astonishing to hear of first hand encounters with people who have threatened my friend’s lives. And I have heard so many. In most cases having a gun is a deterrent; when someone who has completely lost it is coming at you with a sledgehammer, possibly the only way to stop them and jerk them out of their crazed stupor is by showing them that you have a gun. It is also harder to get a gun than the media portrays (although it depends on which State you’re in), and if you can get a gun then you can only keep it at home, you have to have a special license in order to carry it around with you (also depending on State) and there are severe punishments for being found with a gun on you. Yet, of course, this doesn’t prevent people from doing so. There’s also a big difference depending on the type of gun, for many you have to have the appropriate training.
Overall, I’m no expert. And I still don’t believe that guns are a solution. Maybe bullets could be made illegal? Then people can keep their guns, they still look just as scary… Again, there’s a huge difference between having a gun for protection and someone in a sudden burst of insanity getting hold of one. The root of the problem is crying out for attention however. And that is the people.

These leads me to Detroit. I was told many things about this city that are more than enough to make my soul cry. All the overhead passes are caged in to prevent people from chucking objects at cars driving by underneath. The police issued a statement recently, telling people not to go to Detroit because they can’t ensure your protection. The police also ignore calls from certain areas because they are so bad that they feel they can’t help, or there would be imminent danger if they tried. 25% of kids completed high school in 2008. And I feel so completely helpless about it all.

Never have I felt so guilty before either. I would always end up in conversations concerning health care or education. It’s so saddening to meet people who would give anything to be able to go to University and further their education, but they just can’t. And people here don’t seem to comprehend what free health care really means. When I tell them that all of my prescriptions, my braces and all the surgery on my teeth etc. was all entirely free (including reimbursements for travel expenses), the look on their faces is heartbreaking. I don’t think that I could ever complain about the NHS ever again.

All in all the US has so much under the surface. The people are truly incredible and I admire them for what they have to put up with, despite living in the most powerful country in the world. Another crazy fact I learnt is that Americans can’t work abroad (apart from Ireland I think), since the US doesn’t allow working visas for other people to come and work there. How ridiculous. No wonder so few Americans have passports and hardly travel, there is noway of them to earn as they go along, whilst the rest of the western world has the luxury of being able to make some money for food and shelter as they backpack.

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