Monday, September 27, 2010

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled bowlers...

Yesterday afternoon I went for a walk in the woods. Well, first I went for a drive to get to some semblance of woods--such is the price of suburbia, with all its convenience and cleanliness. There's a rails-to-trails project a couple miles from my house: in one direction it's well-maintained, almost sterile, but in the other direction it's rougher, and, after skirting the backsides of various industrial buildings for maybe half a mile, it edges away from a pretty dramatic ravine. Several much more primitive trails run down into these lowlands, following the power lines at first. "Wow! Are those crickets?" I wondered alloud. No, just the buzzing high-tension wires. Again, the strange hidden costs of suburbia.

One of these trails quickly disappears into fairly thick, relatively untrammeled woods. I followed it for maybe a mile as it meandered around deadfall, through half-dry creeks, and among stands of birches straight out of Ansel Adams. The whole time I walked I kept hearing what sounded like a softball game up the hill to the northwest. I'd discovered on a previous exploration that one branch of the trail led to the bottom of a vast mown hill leading up to a playground, so I wasn't too surprised by the cries.

When I took one of the trails up the hill (across the boggy bottom from the mown one), it led me out of the woods and abruptly into a softball field. But rather than a bunch of middle-aged white guys slugging it out, I saw two dozen Indian men playing a heated game of cricket--complete with regimental stripe sweaters, matching trousers, and, on a couple players, wide-brimmed hats or turbans!

To me, this was magic. I don't have a clue about cricket, but it's thrilling to see the game invented by our former masters being played by their former servants in a place with no direct connection to either. Given the recent boiling over of the immigration debate, I'm sure some would find such a scene unsettling. I can only suggest to them that it's precisely such incongruities that make this country great. I've been all over the world, and I've never seen anything anywhere else that even comes close to this degree of cultural "swirling." You'll see Chinese restaurants all over the place, and French cultural centers in those countries they once colonized, and little pockets of immigrants in major cities worldwide. But the "wrong" people playing the "wrong" game in the heartland of the "wrong" country? Only here.

Dark-skinned men with foreign accents boisterously playing an unfamiliar sport look a little strange in the quiet 21st century suburbs. But this is probably how my own ancestors looked 100 years ago, drinking their foul-smelling "barley-water," eating sausages made from god-knows-what, and dancing to their odd 3/4 time music. I can only hope that a century from now the Indians will be as well-integrated as the Germans are today, and they will get to look on in puzzlement at some other group of fresh-faced foreigners bringing some other new custom to the great American table heavy-laden with its ever-replenishing buffet of traditions.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

First impressions of the homeland

NB: This post makes obvious the fact that I'm now back "home" in the USA. One of the best parts of travelling is those first few hours or days after returning, when you can see the place you call "home" with new eyes. So here's some of what my new eyes saw. I intend to continue adding some "leftovers" from West Africa, however, so please check back.

Almost everyone seems to be in a terrible hurry, both in cars and on foot.

Anger and impatience everywhere, partly mine—I expect everything to work perfectly, and it doesn’t. Some things are actually more complicated. Two of four automatic faucets at PA Welcome Center, for example, won’t turn on. I thought maybe it was just me, but the next guy got tricked too—it starts seeming like a Candid Camera routine. At a gas station later, the automatic soap won’t turn off. Newark Airport had already reminded me that American bathrooms are not always as clean or pleasant as I expect.

Enormous RV at Flying J Travel Plaza towing enclosed trailer.

Car running, no one inside, parked in handicapped spot at OH Turnpike rest area.

Guy sitting in passenger seat of car, engine and A/C running, while wife goes inside to buy drinks or pee, presumably. He was there the whole time I stretched, checked tire pressure, sipped my Coke, procrastinated.

I was relishing the weather, which was so much cooler than West Africa—hardly even used the A/C, which I always do on the highway—and the smell of new-mown grass everywhere. Most people seemed to feel oppressed by the “heat,” yet their “solutions” were even more oppressive. In an OH rest area, the A/C was cranked so high I was nearly shivering, yet the temperature outside was perfect. A lot of people fought for the closest parking space, and then waited in the car while one family member went into the store. How do we reach the point that paralysis inside a car is more interesting than walking around outside, or in a building?

Even in central PA, ethnic diversity far outdistances what you’d find almost anywhere else in the world. My favorite gas station in Jersey Shore, PA, normally manned by various members of an Indian family, was today staffed by a young Korean(?) guy.

Late 19th- and early 20th-century houses built right up to the main road in rural PA. Still makes sense when Amish buggies pass by, but seems crazy for cars—in the old days, presumably, traffic was so slow and infrequent there was no reason not to sit on a porch right in its lap.

Passed an Amish buggy, lady with bonnet lounging in passenger seat. Can’t remember if this means married or single. She looked strong and pale, as they always do, but remarkably relaxed. Husband’s responsibility to drive the horse, of course, so this might be her most carefree moment. Very appealing order and simplicity to this lifestyle—but then there’s all that work! Passed another Amish lady, on foot, in violet blouse, in the midst of some sort of yard work. I think she waved to me, though that seems out of character. This was near Loganton, about 120 miles west of NJ, near dead-center of the state, so it’s possible so little traffic comes through that they treat cars as curiosities rather than nuisances.

So much packaging! I prob. consumed more plastic bottles and bags in one day of driving than in six weeks of travelling. Then there’s all the receipts!

The range and volume of merchandise for sale at a Flying J, or other large gas station, is greater than at the biggest supermarket in The Gambia.

Despite all the ice, Coke in the US tastes like crap after the “real thing” with sugar and a proper bottle in the rest of the world. I’m supposed to feel lucky, I guess, for getting a nickel or dime discount for bringing my own cup. No recycling bins at any gas station, so I have to carry all bottles home with me to MI, or consign them to the landfill. At Plum Market, where “going green” is a major talking point, it’s as crowded as I’ve ever seen it, but I’m the only one with my own bag. A lady in front of me with a huge order stands there and stares into space while the checker bags all her stuff, forcing me to wait even longer.

Bumper sticker on new-ish Chevy Malibu driven by fat middle-aged lady: “My life is based on a true story.”