I’ve spent more hours in American airports than I have spent exploring the country itself. Most of the American stamps in my passport relate to a transit through either LAX or JFK, and I admit to being generally eager to leave this country far behind every time I get there. Unfortunately though, it is one of the main international hubs that has allowed me to explore South America, so I’m sure I’ll be spending more time at their airports in the future. As for visiting the USA, I have spent less than 2 days doing so. The first time was a day trip to Seattle whilst I was visiting Vancouver, and the second was a long lay over in JFK that allowed me to get into Manhattan and have a wander around.
It was a 6-hour round trip from Vancouver meaning an early start and a late return and I was shattered at both border crossings as a result. I am not alone in finding US border crossing staff to be rather hostile and unfriendly, and whilst there were a couple of friendly faces there, the men handling my visa waiver application couldn’t have been more abrupt and rude if they tried. It felt like they were trying to out-compete with each other as to who could be the rudest: not exactly the friendliest welcome to their country. To give them their dues though, this was September 2002, just past the 1-year anniversary of the attacks in New York, and I guess they were baring the faces of a nation going through tough times.
The bus dropped us off high up on the hill at the back of Seattle, somewhere indistinct, and the driver gave us our pick up location for the evening and left us at the side of the road. From my vantage point I could see down towards the sea and harbour, and I knew that that was where I wanted to be. In broad daylight, I picked the nearest street and started to walk down it. Straight away I guessed it was maybe the wrong one as I was watched by a group of young men who were hanging around next to a dumpster, but I continued to walk resolute, showing no indication of mistake or being lost. They left me alone, saying nothing, and I was left wondering at my prejudice.
At the waterfront, I found a city tour bus and tried to get on board. I say tried, because the driver wouldn’t let me on without a pop quiz about my life. On discovering that I was Scottish, he regaled me with his story about how he was convinced he was a distant relative of Bonnie Prince Charlie and that he had sent some of his blood off to Edinburgh University to have his DNA examined for genealogy. I’m not even sure if this is, or was, something that anybody could just pay to do but he was indefatigable and I had to take him at his word just so that he would give me a ticket and let me sit down. We drove along the waterfront, and through the city centre, visiting the stadium and some other places that I don’t remember. I got out at the Seattle Needle and proceeded through the bag search to get up to the top for an amazing view of what is a beautifully located city. Bordered by mountains and sea, it was a fantastic prospect and through the smog I could just make out the peak of Mount Rainier to the south.
Aside from a brief wander through a few streets in downtown Seattle, I spent most of my time at the waterfront in the glorious sunshine. I visited the famous Pike fish market, but it was not a particularly active part of the day and it seemed relatively quiet for what I heard about it. The waterfront itself is made up of many piers which have various buildings and attractions and restaurants on them. I watched an IMAX movie about whales and sunbathed whilst eating ice cream and soaking up the smells. With more time, I’m sure there was a lot more to explore in the city, but I was happy to just wind down for the day, and eventually it was time to find my way back to the bus in the dark. I had to be woken up for the border crossing back into Canada, a much more pleasant experience than the one on the way down.
On my way home from Peru, I had a multi-hour stop over in JFK. This was enough time to hop on a bus into downtown Manhattan and go exploring. The stop was near Grand Central Station, with its grand entrance way within which was a newly wedded couple getting their photographs taken. It was a drizzly day, and after wandering past the famous Waldorf Hotel, and seeing Broadway, we reached the Empire State Building, only half of which was visible below the low cloud. It would have been pointless to go up it, even if we had had the time to do so. Central Park was a welcome break from the noise and chaos of the streets of the city, and even in the rain it was still a busy place to be. It reminded me of St James’ Park in London, the relative tranquility of nature surrounded by an urban jungle, and I enjoyed the time spent wandering aimlessly around here. But time was short, and we headed next in search of Times Square, the polar opposite of the park we had left behind. Here it was all about noise, and lights, and people. Souvenir shops were everywhere, and my senses were overloaded with strange smells, flashing signs, adverts and yellow cabs tooting their horns at other drivers as they snaked through the streets. It was everything I loathe about cities all crammed into a few blocks, and with such tall buildings and the low clouds, it felt almost air-less.
I know a lot of people that both love and rave about NYC, but it was not for me. I have a partner who is very keen to change my opinion on the USA, and is in fact extremely keen to take me to California and Las Vegas, but I think it will be a hard sell. I would love to see some of the National Parks and I would fly to Alaska and Hawaii in a heart beat, but when it comes to smog-filled built up cities with no air and no nature, I think I’ll pass.