Monday, November 29, 2010

Reflections on America. 29/11/10

It seems appropriate at this time, having just left the States after 6.5 months and 20,000 miles to spend some time reflecting on our impression of Canada and the US. Although I am writing this is has been the topic of many a conversation between Jill and myself over the months and I would hope it reflects what we have both experienced. It must be said that this is only a view point from a subject of the UK with all its prejudices and conditioning that comes from being brought up on that side of the Atlantic. Although we may almost speak the same language, the differences between Americans and the British albeit subtle, generally concern what we each take as normal, when brought up and immersed in our respective cultures and which therefore often go unnoticed and unchallenged. One of the beauties of travelling is that your own assumptions are often challenged. It occurs to us that the micro cultures which make up North America, and that we have travelled through, perceive their way of life to be normal and quite often beyond judgement and reflection, thus sustaining that way of life because it is safe and predictable, not to rock the boat.

We found an example of this to be the American support of their veterans, which is very strong here. It is not unusual to find highways devoted to them, vehicles displaying banners of support, and shopping malls welcoming them home and to shop in them. These veterans have given part or the whole of their lives to fight for their country and that is very commendable. But what this overt display of support for individuals who fight seems to do is take attention away from what they are fighting for; the political decisions behind the actions that troops are sent to fight in. It is quite a clever political tactic. If one criticises the war, you are being disloyal to the individuals who fought and are still fighting. You are essentially being unpatriotic to your fellow Americans. The net effect is to silence any debate about 'why' Americans have gone to war. Because America has so much, it has so much that could be taken away, making it easy for fear, verging on paranoia, to find fruitful ground to germinate and be harvested by people if it suits their means.

I must add before I get carried away in other observations, that we met nothing but kindness and support in both Canada and the States. People were very gracious, and went out of their way to help us, giving us time, interest, accommodation and knowledge of their world, which we will be always grateful for and hope that we can repay in some small part in the future. Thank you too all.

Canada was like a benign America. There were no rough edges. The insects were horrendous, the land vast, the cities (the ones we visited) pleasant and clean. When we revisited Canada after a short stint into the States, it was like going to visit a favourite aunt. It may cost you a small fortune to drive around and feed yourself while staying with her, but it was a very rewarding experience.

America we felt, was a land of contradiction, where money is God and as long as you have it you are in heaven. Being employees of the NHS in the UK we found the American system of health care barbaric. If you pay your health insurance to a profit making company and can afford the excess, you could receive a very good health care, but often only to a point, then you may have to sell your home to pay health care bills. But if you can't afford health insurance you are just kept alive, but only just it would seem. Two of our friends were paying over $1000 a month for health care. One of the great fears over here is that the social model of healthcare leads to long waiting lists, and folk being in extended discomfort or dying before they are seen by a doctor. Well things may move a bit slowly for some chronic conditions but rarely for acute presentations. Americans it seems to us, have been fed fear by the big money insurance companies, and the medical profession, whose interests it is to keep the present system going, with propaganda like if you had a car crash you would have to wait weeks to be seen; Cancer and you would die before the appointment came through etc. People were quite surprised to hear that it isn't quite like that and that everybody has a right to healthcare which is essentially free at the point of delivery, and of a high quality. The NHS may have it's faults but we think it's a pretty good system and a mark of a civilised society. Someone once said, and I can't remember who, that a culture can be judged on how it looks after it's poor and vulnerable. The US doesn't come out with very high scores.

Another thing that was strange to us is the concept of tipping for everything. To us we understood that as giving somebody something (money) because they had gone beyond their duty and job description; made you feel like the king and queen that you had always wanted to be. But that wasn't the case. You are expected to give 15-20% of the bill for someone just doing their job, even if you were made to feel like the unwanted guest. To withhold was to get a look that could damage your psyche for a very long time. Why people couldn't get paid a decent wage for doing a job without having to rely on tips seems rather exploitative of the employers. Tipping like this seem like bribery given after the event rather then before, but the feeling is the same; you feel done.

We are not surprised that the States didn't sign the Kyoto agreement. Their whole way of life is contrary to saving the planet. Without the car it would be impossible to survive in the US. Because they have the land everything is spread out. Malls go on for ever. If you want to buy anything you have to go to a mall. One mall for this, another mall for that, all wrapped around huge car parks. It would be impossible to walk even if you wanted too. It would take all day to get a pint of milk and you would be killed trying to cross the 4 lane highway that leads you to the different malls. So everybody has to have a car. Also I was under the impression that American cars had got smaller, but every family seems to have a truck, 4x4 preferred, the size of a small articulated lorry with at least a 6 litre V8 petrol engine. People choose petrol over diesel as diesels are beyond the average mechanics ability to fix we were told, whereas the good old V8 can be sorted anywhere. They have steps up into the cab and the bonnet is at chest height. They have the aerodynamics of a 8 by 4 sheet of plywood and drink vast amounts of fuel just going to the mall to buy a pint of milk. Some carry their own gas pumps in the back of the truck as it might take a whole tank of fuel just to get to the nearest gas station and back home again.

We have seen in the National Parks people who drive their 8 litre V8 to the toilet and leaving the engine running for 10 minutes while they do what they have to do. These people need a 8 litre V8 as they are pulling a 5th wheeler the size of a small terrace house in the UK. There seems to be no awareness over here that the car is one of the biggest causes of CO2 admissions and global warming. When I was younger, living in a warehouse in London with an American, I remember being rather impress that he always left all the lights on, the music playing and the heating on 24hours a day. Nothing has really changed it would seem, but I am not so impressed any more.

I mentioned the National Parks, the scenery is magnificent and there seems to be a real commitment to keeping these areas as wilderness. They are however 'victims of their own success', with so many people visiting them that the very thing they are trying to preserve has a great possibility of be overwhelmed.

Fear is the emotion that is given free reign in the states. I suppose this has to do with taming a country of environmental extremes and 'hostiles' in the not so distant past. Every part of the UK has been owned and recorded as being owned from the Domesday book of 1087. Land and life have taken on a stability. Parts of the states were first mapped only 150 years ago and in some places that was a real feat. People came here to get away from the stability of Europe where it was impossible to push against the system that had been there for so long. They had to survive and for that survival it was necessary to own a gun, not only to kill your food but also to protect yourself against other people that might have designs on you or your land. Come the hunting season, peoples dress changes from camouflage gear to florescent hats and jackets in a vague attempt to alert other hunters of their presence so they might stay alive. We heard recently of a camper shot while brushing her teeth outside her tent by a hunter who thought she was a deer. Also a man apparently said to a hunter who had just shot his horse “OK you can keep the elk, but can I have my saddle back”. Shoot first and ask questions later it seems. With everybody carrying a gun you need a gun to protect yourself against those carrying a gun.

Things that can be seen can be destroyed, but other things that may cause you harm are 'wrapped for your protection'. Everything as John Steinbeck observed around 60yrs ago in his book Travels with Charley, is wrapped. All manner of foods and household paraphernalia such as toilet seats and anything that might be considered harmful is wrapped. You may be able to risk your life getting lost in the wilderness of a National Park but you can't buy a piece of cheese that tastes of anything that hasn't been 'wrapped for your protection'.

We have really enjoyed our stay in Canada and the States. Jill has been more surprised by this than myself as she was a bit ambivalent about exploring this area in the first place. The people are generous and diverse, welcoming and very open to sharing their fears. For example when we talked about our plans to travel through Mexico the usual response was “I wouldn't go to Mexico if I were you ,people are getting shot all the time down there”. And “Be careful at the border get away as fast as you can there are lots of shootings” or “A friend of a friend told me there are bandits on the highways....etc.” People here say parts of the US are being overrun by Mexican 'illegals' and California does seem to be being reclaimed by the Mexicans after 150 odd years of US ownership, which is causing much concern. But we asked who would do the manual jobs, working in fields picking the fruit and veg, if it wasn't them. We didn't see many 'white' Americans in the fields, they have all had college educations and expect better for themselves. The great country of America was populated by immigrants from other parts of the world who stole the land from the Native Indians and destroyed their way of life. Now they are afraid that others might invade and destroy their way of life.

America is such a force in the world, both economically and politically, that where America goes other follow. I hope it will contain it's fear rather than spread it liberally across the world, and that it doesn't need to use it's force to protect itself against it's fear, to get what it wants.

The one thing that we have learnt while travelling here is that the world is very resilient. It has changed so much over the millions of years of it's existence, evident in the beautiful rock formations and species that have come, gone and still hang around. The world as we know it may not be around very long if we keep populating the planet as we are doing, demanding more and more from it, but something will be here. Life will carry on and because it is part of nature, it will be beautiful.


  1. Great stuff. I couldn't agree more with all that you say. Just wish I'd said it first.

  2. Hi Dom, good to hear from you. Have posted on your Blog.

  3. Awesome read David and Jill. You actually gave me a lesson on a few things. Happy that we had the great opportunity of meeting you both as well. Safe travels...I never listen to anyone concerning travel...I need to find out for myself.

  4. eee som negativ staf you pour 8) but som day you need to do this to) good good!!!
    is make be not sleepy... Im dont like hunt to ( but like flyfishng)))

  5. Hi Bernie and Toni-Lee, good to hear from you and to know that your travel plans are coming along. Time will fly by once Christmas is over and soon you will be jetting off. Do stay in touch and let us know where you are and how it is all going. We enjoyed writing our reflections. It felt important to us to do that at this time by way of just bringing together all our conversations and observations over the last 6 months, so that we didn't loose them. But you know the politics aside, we have been overwhelmed by peoples kindness and generosity across Canada and the US. It is ordinary everyday folk who have the power to convey positive messages about a place and be a force for change if they want it. Lol xx