Saturday, November 23, 2013


That America is the richest country in the world is well known. It manifests itself in towering skyscrapers, the car culture, its gargantuan military, its army of labour-saving devices, the dominance of Wall Street and American corporations throughout the globe, and, of course, the American Dream. Convenience is king, and, if you have a decent job, life is comfortable and easy. This big, bold brashness is evident in Chicago, the Windy City, and acknowledged capital of the Midwest. Lazily sprawling westwards from the shores of lake Michigan, the skyscrapers of the Loop (the central business district). Indeed, although may think of New York and Manhattan when talking of skyscrapers, it actually Chicago that is the spiritual home and birthplace of the skyscraper. The first steel-framed skyscrapers were built there; the revolutionary tubular design that allowed even taller, more efficient towers was developed there; and of course it is also home to the Sears (aka Willis) Tower, which, up until recently, was the tallest building in the Americas.

The lakefront skyline of Chicago with its huddle of skyscrapers.

Saturday, November 16, 2013


Countries often have deep, internal divisions that cleave the society in two. Often the divide is between a poor, religiously conservative rural population, and an urban, middle-class, educated, liberal one. I found this particularly apparent in countries such as Iran, Turkey and China, which are still undergoing transitions towards more industrial economies. In America the transition has occurred but the division still exists to a large degree, and somehow the rural poor have been duped into voting for rich corporate interests. But taking pot-shots at American political dysfunctionality and woeful health provision is too easy and instead I want to look at the quirkier paradoxes and polarisations that exist within the US.

For poorer Americans access to fresh fruit and vegetables is not only severely restricted, but food education is of a very low standard. Whilst wandering the African-American museum in Chicago I stumbled across this educational play aimed at younger children about the benefits of fresh fruit and veg using hip-hop and gospel music. Here the hero (a broccoli) is being led astray by a couple of rashers of bacon. (Though it seemed to me that the bad foods had the best tunes.)

Monday, November 11, 2013

Straight Up The Middle

From Texas the logical and reasonable thing for me to do would have been to hug the southern states up until the coast before heading north to New York, so as to stay in a band of temperate weather for as long as possible. Logic is not my strong suit and so instead I headed, more or less, straight north cutting through the much-neglected Midwest. This large, flat expanse, right in the middle of America, is oft-overlooked by visitors to the country who tend to gravitate to the coasts. for me that was reason enough to visit as I was curious to uncover (if only a small part of) the hidden heart of America.

For many towns around the world 4pm on a Saturday afternoon might be considered the busiest time of the week, but not so in Lufkin, Texas, which resembled a ghost town. In the 2 hours that I walked its streets I literally saw less than a dozen other people walking.

Monday, November 04, 2013

I See Dead People

My time in Huntsville proved to be unexpectedly eclectic, however my initial reason for visiting was simply to visit the prisoners' cemetery, where all those who die whilst in the "care" of the Texas justice system, and whose bodies are not claimed by family, are buried. Now it may seem like a macabre thing to visit, but I found it a sobering and important place to have seen. The cemetery is surprisingly large, unadorned and unmarked, occupying a wasteland between two nondescript roads on the edge of town. No signs announce or inform the passer-by as to the site's identity, no fence separates it from its surroundings. Every expense has been spared. So much so that up until 2000 the graves were marked by a simple concrete cross inscribed with a date of death and prisoner number. Nothing more. Not even a name by which the deceased could be remembered. As if in death these people are no longer considered humans but simply numbers, a burden to be placed in the ground, a sack of shit that has the temerity to waste our tax-payer dollars.

A sea of concrete crosses devoid of any embellishments or even names to distinguish them, just a date and a prisoner number. According to Dostoevsky a society can be judged by how well it treats its prisoners, in which case America ought to perhaps take a look at itself.

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).