Around the world in …..219 day – First impressions of the USA

With few opportunities available for graduates in the UK, I took the decision in 2012 to travel around the world. My experiences both good and bad have inspired me to write about what I have learned of the cultures I have passed through on an epic journey involving 19 countries, 94 different beds, 18 flights, 31 trains, 26 boat trips, 51 buses and several hairy motorbike rides. I will start at the end with my most recent exploration of the South West of the USA!

The flight from Auckland to Los Angeles rates amongst my worst travel days and despite the entire journey including connections lasting 5 minutes on paper; it was a gruelling 21 hour journey across the International Date Line. As far as I'm concerned, I am now 16 hours ahead of the UK but an imaginary line in the middle of a big, salty mass of liquid tells me that I am in fact 8 hours behind instead... Despite this massive change, I don’t feel jet lagged, rather just tired after a night of no sleep. The only confusing thing is working out which day it for important things such as finding out football results!

 Arriving tired and confused after being selected for special security screening (involving wiping various parts of me and my clothing with a swab before testing it in a machine!), I ventured out into a city with a larger population than the whole of New Zealand. In the aftermath of the Boston marathon bombings, I had expected the worst in terms of additional security checks upon my arrival but was pleasantly surprised that aside from a US air regulation banning people from congregating anywhere on the plane, including by the toilets, the security at LAX airport was no worse than anywhere else.

Los Angeles is among the largest cities in the world so I was thankful to find excellent public transport infrastructure and as with all recently developed cities, its streets are grid lines so it is difficult to get lost. Despite this, the reputation that the USA is the land of the car is alarmingly accurate and it was completely alien to me to see a 10 lane highway carving its way through the city centre! Also, just a short walk away from the downtown area, I found myself walking down almost deserted streets, which was particularly strange for a weekend. Passing through suburbs and towns, I also noted that main streets are designed for the car, as every store seems to have its own customer parking which would be impossible in the UK due to the lack of space on our tiny island.

My first impressions of the USA were of a land of extremes. On one hand, in LA, there are areas where some of the most opulent and extravagant homes in the world house a variety of celebrities and successful business people, but just across town I was alarmed at how many homeless people I saw. I am used to being asked for money at home in Manchester but not on the same scale which for a land with so much wealth was a real surprise. Another extreme involves a stereotypical view of many Americans as being overweight or obese, which sadly, I have found partly to be true. On the other hand, this is a country that has produced some of the finest athletes in history and I have seen far more people out walking, running or practising sports in the city than I had expected.

I woke up after my first night in LA to the news that there had been a shooting in a club about a block away the previous night. It is easy to forget that shootings are fairly commonplace over here and I was more shocked with how blasé attitude of the locals than the shooting itself. An American friend had previously told me that the only police that I would see were fat and never get out of their cars and during my time in LA, I saw nothing to the contrary which makes me wonder how they would manage to investigate the crime scene. Guns are an everyday part of life over here and although I was slightly wary at first I never felt in danger walking through the cities.

The overwhelming impression that I have been left with, even after only a few days, was of how genuine and friendly the American people are. This attitude seems to be extended to every part of life and I was a little ashamed of how inferior our customer service can be in the UK. I am aware that there are extremes of good and bad service in every country, but the Americans seem to do it better generally, from simple but genuine greetings such as “Hey, how's it going?” to a general attention to customer needs. The cynic in my would argue that the tipping culture in the USA is the underlying reason for this but having worked with customers for much of my career, I feel that the reason is of no importance as long as the service remains good. Having said that, tipping on this scale is an alien concept for an Englishman as it is normal to tip 20% and above for good service at a bar or restaurant and even average service would generally receive a 10% tip from a local.

It is funny how many of my preconceptions about a country that I feel I should know so well through the mass export of its media have been totally inaccurate and I feel that it once again highlights the importance of keeping an open mind when travelling, whether to a completely different culture or one that you feel you know well.


Written by Duncan Reed  on 13th June 2013

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