Monday, 28 November 2011

USA travels


England to Texas:
It all started with a nightmare journey, the plane half an hour late out of Heathrow, leaving 1 hour and 20 minutes to get myconnecting flight at Chicago O'Hare. They kept us waiting in the first immigration queue for an hour, leaving just 20 minutes to get through the next 3 procedures. These were: get baggage from reclaim, get it security checked and then put it back on again. They didn't spare any farting about - the laptop had to come out of baggage, etc etc. Anyway, no time to recheck bag, had to run up to departure gate, where the excellent American Airlines staff sorted it for me. I was the last on board, 2 minutes before it left the ground. Deep joy, to be away from O'Hare's miserable incompetence and hostile security.

Staying at my friend's place in Smithville, a hamlet near Bastrop, central Texas, we had a heatwave. 80+F all week, and a plague of biting insects. One morning in the bathroom, I noticed a brown scorpion about 15 inches from my left foot. It looked dead, but I wasn't about to prod it and find out. My host later ascertained that it was indeed alive, and killed it. 
There were some great critters, though. Looking out on their back yard, I speculated that my hosts had placed an incredibly bright red plastic bird on the bird feeder. Then it flew off - the magnificent cardinal bird. And we saw a roadrunner, which looked almost as daft as its cartoon incarnation.

The land was suffering though. The ground was baked dustbowl-loose, the trees dead or dying, apparently the biggest drought in decades.

A few things really puzzle me about the US of A. Not the big things, like why anyone not in the top 10% of income ever votes Republican, when that is clearly not in their interest. Far be it from me to criticize that, we have the same problem in the UK. It's the small things that puzzle me. Like why are American plugs and sockets so flimsy? And the money: the nation which leads the world in being obsessed with the stuff, has a currency that looks like Monopoly money, but without the helpful colour-coding. 

The food can be puzzling too. Don't get me wrong - I love small diners, the preponderance of fresh seafood and many of the local delicacies (pecan-based in subtropical Texas). But the other day, I added a bunch of radishes to my snack purchase, and the supermarket checkout girl had no idea what they were. And the chocolate. It's been years since I was last disappointed by a Hershey bar, so I bought a pack of Hershey choc drops and managed to get half way down them before the taste of rancid milk burned through, and I had to ditch the rest. Why don't they fix that problem?

Therein lies one of the big secrets of capitalism's failure - the tyranny of brands. My lawyer friend, short of clients because he works alone, analyzed this for me in the context of the service you get from a law firm. One - it is driven by advertising; Two: only big firms can afford to advertise, Three: so they hire lots of poorly paid, poorly trained paralegals, and use a production line model. Result? the service they offer is the worst you can get. Stripped down, this formula is: big marketing = reduced quality. Even chocolate suffers.

And capitalism is supposed to give us choice and competition, leading to increased quality? What went wrong? Marketing, the favouring of growth over sustainable sizing, destroying the true free market. Solution? Break up all companies above a certain size? Restrict adverising? Maybe. It could hardly get any worse than it is. 

Texas to Atlanta:
Lest my curmudgeonly complaints seem biased and miserable, I shall assert that much about this trip has been wonderful.This includes, of course, friends, but also covers the basic decency of most Americans. And I had plenty of time to rewrite my novel, stalled for lack of publishing prospects, and revived by SiriusInk's avid interest.

Also the weather was gorgeous, once we'd escaped the heatwave. Flying, only the thinnest of haze over the patchwork quilt of fields, the shining river, the dam lake, the winding roads.
Now over a body of water with numerous inlets, the sand orange-pink in slanting afternoon light.

Now thick, evergreen and deciduous forest, watercourses snaking through it, no human structures as far as the eye can see. Then tiny settlements appear in clearings, then forest-ringed suburbs, Atlanta's townships. Then we cruise down through industrial units, still as surrounded by woods, down to the airport, downtown still invisible from this side of the plane.

Atlanta was two wonderful days, the afternoon of workshops that Ian Read (hypnosis) and I (breathwork) did, came off splendidly, great audience and a great end to the trip. All I need now is some luck to get me through the security hell of O'Hare on the way home.

Atlanta to England:
Yes, Chicago O'Hare managed to screw up again. There are no maps or information about what's going on in other terminals, so it's pot luck whether you get to your departure gate on time. Fortunately, we had time to spare, so the fact that they didn't bother reporting our flight on the boards of the terminal we were in had no effect, other than deepening our contempt for this place. 

Nil points, O'Hare.You are where one would stick the tube to give the world transport system an enema. Mark my words, dear friends: if you can possibly help it, never, ever get a connecting flight at Chicago O'Hare. They might make you stay there.


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