Chronicles of a Greenhorn in America

8 Sep

Universal Studios, Los Angeles

So recently I found myself on a sudden three week trip to the United States of America. I felt as self important as explorers of old, exploring new lands.

New people, new cultures, new ways of life… I was about to see them all. It was going to be a real hardy road of discovery discovering how the concoctions and decoctions at KFC and Pizza Hut were different from Sri Lanka’s.

America was a surprise though. In this world of Americaniz… er… I mean globalization, I had figured we had all become more or less ‘globalized’ enough to wear T-shirts and jeans and were therefore more or less like each other. Certainly more of a homogenous society than in the days of Christopher Columbus anyway.

Plus, Americans as a people might not know much about the rest of the world but they have done a great job of telling the rest of the world about themselves. I know more of American history than Sri Lankan history (No, I am not proud of that. Put it down to the fact that I grew up away from here in a neighbouring South Asian country and got plenty of books on America to read at my school and local libraries but none on Sri Lanka).  I have also watched many American serials and movies. So I figured I knew all about America and its people.

So did my co-travelers. Much to their disappointment, they couldn’t find Pamela Anderson look-alike lifeguards on the Santa Monica beach. They had apparently looked forward to the trip to Santa Monica in order to be rescued by such a lifeguard. Nevertheless, they braved the cold waves for a swim.

Probably, if I had looked around, I might have found some David Hasselhoff type lifeguards but that still wasn’t enough of an incentive for me to go for a swim. I just did what I do at Wellawatte beach – got my toes wet. That’s the kind of swashbuckling adventurist I am.

The waters of Santa Monica Bay were blessed by my feet

Anyway, regarding the ‘All American’ experience… we toured the cities of Washington, Los Angeles, Iowa, Philadelphia and New York. They each had a distinct character and personality about them, putting paid to my preconceived notions as to the All American identity.

Washington D.C was green. I don’t mean just green. It was GREEN! Colombo looks like a desert by comparison. Washington is a planned city and it shows. Somehow I had not expected America’s capital to be so full of old world charm and greenery.

For the skyscrapers and characterless buildings of glass and steel go to New York (though to be fair, they too had their buildings of ‘character’). In Washington, one can see a lot of varied architecture that somehow looks very old (though the buildings are not that old and some are very new).

The Washingtonians are clearly not impressed with glass, steel and skyscrapers. As for the trees, they have thickly forested growths on the sides of roads, the likes of which I would not have thought possible if I had not seen it for myself. We are not talking about trees every few feet as you see in most cities including Colombo (and the rest of America that I saw). These were thickly planted massive trees that gave one the impression that we were travelling on highways in the midst of a forest.

Perhaps, because of that, Los Angeles was a bit of a let-down. California is famous for its warm climate, one of the reasons no doubt for its high Asian population.  Our visit was in the height of summer though and we found it a bit too warm.  Coming from the greenery we had become used to in Washington by then, it was a bit of a shock to find Los Angeles not so green.

It had a few scrawny trees every 10 feet or so, mostly palms. With its atmosphere of dry aridness and the Palmyrah like palm trees, it almost seemed to be a more developed version of Jaffna.  Except that there was no sand or soil to be seen anywhere (other than at the beach). I made the interesting discovery that If I took off my footwear and walked on the road barefoot, I could only feel smooth cold concrete underneath; no granules of dirt or sand.

That was because all the land excepting bits of parkland was completely covered in tar or cement blocks. One of my disgruntled colleagues started actively looking for soil at least by the sides of roads where the trees were. But even they were closed in with cement above ground. It became a bit of an amusing quest, trying to find sand and soil in the cities of America.

Iowa, which we visited next, became my favourite city. A quiet little town without the hustle and bustle of other American towns, Iowa is known for only two industries; its farming and its Universities. So you get dedicated farmers or academics (or people who are both) populating Iowa and they proved an extremely hospitable and nice people.

Not that Americans in other cities weren’t hospitable but here they were laidback and hospitable as opposed to being rushed and hospitable. Americans are also great ‘do-it-yourselfers’ and volunteers for good causes. So in Iowa city, our hosts thought it was a great idea to treat us to a morning of building a house for the needy by the NGO, Habitat for Humanity.

Our hosts and fellow American volunteers who were University Academics clearly knew their tools and their way around hammers and nails which is more than can be said for most of us. I don’t think they will be ‘volunteering’ any Sri Lankans for any such project hereafter. Thanks to our contribution, one needy family in Iowa city will have one of its outer walls plastered in interesting designs, instead of in neat, horizontal rows.

Philadelphia, one of America’s oldest cities and home to many of its most important historical events had that aura of history about it which Washington seemed to strive for but somehow fell short of. It would deserve more than a paragraph to do justice to it so I’ll try to do so in another follow-up article.

And from there, only a short bus ride away (driven by a lady driver) was New York.

Here was America as I had seen it portrayed in books and movies (though I don’t recall being warned about the massive crowds). Just as in India, you can’t walk on the pavements of New York without jostling into somebody.

Apart from that, there were the glass and steel skyscrapers, the yellow taxicabs, people of every hue and ethnicity all over the place, the massive rush and feeling of industry…

After touring the other cities to realize what America was not according to my preconceived notions, I finally met those preconceived notions in New York. And I don’t mean that as a bad thing. It was just surprising to realize that what I understood to be “American” is most probably only “New Yorker”.

And that brings us to the end of the tour. When I landed back, many of my friends wanted to know what new foods I had tried. What new foods? I spent most of my time eating either Pizzas or Indian food. It was more than I could handle, trying out their varieties of ‘tea’ and coffee, without experimenting on food too. I gave up on finding tea to my taste in America but the agonies I went through trying to get milk coffee like I was used to, among the hundreds of coffee options available over there is a tale that could make an article in itself.

It was good to see America with my own eyes but it’s even better to be back in Sri Lanka now. Good ol’ Sri Lanka, where if I ever order iced tea or iced coffee, there is only ONE option available and so I know exactly what I am getting.

Photo Credit: Cynthia Norcross Willson


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