Saturday, November 02, 2013

America, F#@k Yeah!

From Monterrey I caught a bus to take me over the American border and into Texas as I thought hitching might be problematic due to (perceived) violence from drug gangs. Having procured myself an online visa waiver I expected the crossing to be a formality. It wasn't. Unfortunately I hadn't read the small print on the customs website and the visa waiver doesn't apply to land borders and so not only did it cost me money for nothing, but I confused the hell out of the border guards who almost never see non-Mexicans crossing. This resulted in substantial attention from the immigration officials who interrogated me, took my photo as well as an entire set of fingerprints. Of the 65 border crossings I have had on this trip it was the most intrusive and time-consuming, even more so than upon entering and leaving North Korea. It took so long that my bus carried on without me, leaving me stranded at the border until the next bus came past eight hours later. Needless to say I was not impressed with my first contact with America. To be honest America is not the most compelling destination for me, the history isn't all that old, the culture rather mainstream, and the cities a bit too cookie-cutter. I would like to explore the natural sights, but it's too late in the year for that. Instead my two main goals are to see friends and family who I seldom get to see, and to try and winkle out a few experiences of Americana, the quirky, small-town, Midwest of America that makes the country so different from Europe.

A little clip of American cliches to get you into the mood (warning, NSFW).

My first port of call was Austin, Texas's state capital. The large student population and love of live music (during the annual South By Southwest music festival you can even catch a performance in some of the city's laundromats) make the city an island of liberalism in an otherwise conservative state. My reason for visiting was more personal. Virginie, one of my good friends from my school days in France, had moved out here with her husband some nine years ago and I hadn't seen her the few years prior to that either, so there was no way I was going to pass by so close without saying hello.

I sometimes think of the different paths our lives can take, how single decisions can radically alter the shape of our futures, and the "what ifs" that litter our past. Virginie's path ended up taking her to Austin, where her boyfriend from high school (and now husband) found a far better job in IT than he could back in France, where corporate advancement is more ponderous. So now they are in America, leading quintessential suburban lives: two kids, nice house, soccer practice for the son, ballet for the daughter, neighbourhood friends. Not at all where one would have expected her to be had I asked her as we were graduating together back in 1998. But then again neither am I. Seeing as I don't see any of my high school friends as much as I'd like it was warmingly nostalgic gossipping about old friends, revisiting shared occasions, and remembering common experiences. I enjoyed sitting down to a slightly slower pace, and marvelled at how well Virginie had adapted to a new culture and language (the French are notoriously bad at English, but she had only the slightest trace of an accent), whilst still maintaining her own language with her children. Domestic life is very far from the one I know, but it also has its challenges that are no less taxing than navigating Beijing's public bus system with a limited knowledge of Chinese.

After a day with the kids Virginie was wishing that her cup was filled with whiskey rather than Coke.

Texas' two main metropolises, Dallas and Houston, are about equidistant from Austin. However neither of them seemed to fulfil my small town Americana requirements, and so instead I headed over to Huntsville, the "Prison Capital of Texas" (and therefore possibly the world).`The town's nine different prison facilities hold over 15,000 inmates, accounting for about a quarter of the town's population and 10% of the entire Texas prison population. The jails are the biggest employer, and the local university specialises in law, social work and pretty much anything else that may have something to do with crime and punishment. In the developed world's most lock-'em-up happy country Huntsville is ground zero. Outsiders naturally feel a bit wary and Huntsville has something of a grim reputation. This is, after all, where the state's death row inmates are kept and the executions carried out. However the student population is active and my hosts introduced me to the surprisingly vibrant bohemian arts community that inhabit this, otherwise conservative, corner of Texas. A local architect is involved in building homes out of discarded building materials for low-income families and artists, whilst one local real-estate agent is an artist, yoga instructor and gallery owner.

A rather macabre exhibit at the national prison museum in Huntsville: the chair on which 361 prisoners were executed from 1924 until 1965 (when the state switched to lethal injection).

My timing in Huntsville luckily coincided not only with Halloween, but also the first weekend in November, which, in America, is the start of the (deer) hunting season. Whilst back in Europe hunting is the preserve of a small minority, here it is very much mainstream. Land is plentiful and many pulp and timber companies, that own vast tracts of forest, lease out hunting rights to groups of people. I learnt all this thanks to my host Keil who, although not hunting now, had spent many a season in the east Texan woods with his father. His hunting friends were heading out to their lodge, like they do on every first Friday in November, to get together for a grill* to celebrate being able to go out and replenish their freezer cabinets with venison. It's more of a social occasion though, as only half a dozen of the thirty or so people who turned up were going hunting. Instead it was a time to chinwag, see old friends, eat lots of meat, have a few beers, and to talk a little politics (I followed Keil's advice and just kept my mouth shut and opinions to myself). I was surprised at how readily I was welcomed amongst this group of conservative, middle-aged men. But then again, people in the south of America take pride in Southern Hospitality, where welcoming a guest and treating them well is a point of honour (I wonder what they would think if they knew how similar they are in that respect - and quite a few others besides - to people in the Middle East). But there was no denying how lucky I felt to be able to witness, and take part in, this facet of American culture that is very much mainstream, yet is barely visible to outsiders.

Hanging out with the old hunters around the fire, shooting the breeze, having a beer. You can't get more Americana than that.
*I also learnt that what is called a barbecue in Britain and Australia is called a grill in the US, whereas a barbecue in the US places the meat much further above the flame and uses the smoke to cook it.


Stephen said...

I'd be so interested to hear more about your interactions with people in this area! Did you ever have a chance to talk politics? Did people seem generally interested in your travels? Did somebody let you shoot their gun?

Nader Vakili said...

welcome to the land of the free and the home of the brave.