USA for First Timers

Day 18 of the blog post a day in May and it is time to go transatlantic again

A pizza for one – person, not week

FOR all my love of overlanding to remote parts of the world, my more regular overseas travel involves boarding a plane and heading west.

Since first stepping on US soil in 2006, have notched up 40 states (determined to tick off the remaining 10, West Virginia having become the latest after managed to go round it on several road trips).

Have been quizzed a few times by people heading off on their first transatlantic trips on what to expect so, having reeled off a few tips for New York and Boston, time to run through a few things for the country in general.

Not places to see (let’s try to get another post or two out of that), but those little things you only discover by spending time there and wish somebody had told you beforehand.

Pre-Departure

Travelling to the USA is pretty simple (at least for the majority of Brits and many other nationalities), who can apply for an ESTA via the visa waiver scheme.

The online application costs $14 and is pretty simple – did it sat in a queue at Heathrow when realised had left my old passport containing my visa at home. That application went through in minutes, but suggest not leaving it that late. Just in case there’s a bit of a delay.

You will only get an email confirmation but all the info will pop up at immigration when they scan your passport.

If you need a visa because you are from a country not eligible for an ESTA, applying for a longer stay, a visit other than tourism or you have been to one of a few countries picked by Homeland Security (as with me, courtesy of Sudan), it involves an online application and a trip to the embassy.

Expect to be without your passport for at least a week.

Arrival

Immigration rules and procedures in the States change regularly, but for first-time visitors you will need to see an immigration officer before collecting your bags at the airport.

It’s nothing to worry about – just don’t expect them to be smiling (although landing in Boston and saying you are going to a Red Sox game usually lightens the mood). Don’t joke around, answer their questions, have your pictures and fingerprints taken and it is all pretty painless.

For repeat visitors, an increasing number of airports let you go through all that electronically. If you can get all your fingers flat on the scanner at once (easier for some than others, apparently).

Money

Check what you are handing over. All the notes look largely the same and new ones have a tendency to stick together.

Coins largely useless (although you will collect them, see below) bar your hotel’s vending machine.

Paying by card is likely to roll back the years of signing the receipt as chip and pin or cashless is pretty rare.

Check with your bank about using cashpoints, it may have a link with a US bank so you do not pay (or pay less) for using their machines. You may need to try a couple of times to work out the right combination of questions – checking or savings account, credit or debit card (despite what you think the answer is).

Shopping

You will get change of all types because of the way American prices are worked out.

Put simply, what you see is not always what you get.

Whatever the price tag says, you will need to add tax – state and local – so you will pay a bit more. It might say $1.50 but it will be some rather larger, less round figure by the time you come to pay.

Tipping

Guaranteed to confuse travellers the world over and very much of the American culture.

General consensus is 15-20%. It is voluntary and don’t be a slave to that if the service is rubbish, but chances are it won’t be so roll with it, you are in the States now.

In bars, it is pretty simple – leave $1 on the bar for each drink (don’t worry, they will give you dollar bills in your change). Stick around long enough and you may well reap the benefits and get a drink from the barman, especially if you are sat at the bar.

One barman in Greenwich Village went above and beyond, adding my last couple of beers to the bill of the group behind me who were not tipping but being loud and demanding.

Driving

It can be a bit daunting if you start in the middle of a big city but the States is, largely, a joy to drive in. There’s so much space, that translates to the roads.

There’s a few oddities you need to get used to – turning right on a red light for starters – but most of them are fairly obvious.

The interstates will eat up the miles pretty quickly (and such is the size, you need to do that at times) but can be a bit dull. Get off when you can and their version of A roads will take you through small town America, but around the edges can snarl you up by some less than attractive strip malls which sprawl out of pretty much every town.

Late night in Boston

Safety

Considering what you see on TV and hear about guns and violence, the USA feels no more dangerous than anywhere else.

Like all places, especially in the cities, there are places to be avoided wandering alone or at night but that’s pretty much common sense. Have felt more wary walking through London or even Gloucester at times than late at night through New York or other major cities.

Late night encounter in Greenwich Village – he tried telling us jokes on the street for cash. We settled for a picture instead.

Drinking

If you are under 21, forget it. You will be asked for ID, often before even getting near the bar – have been asked several times for proof of age despite 36 before stepping foot in the States, while friends in their mid-20s have been refused entry because they had no ID on them. You will not get a beer without ID at Fenway Park, Boston.

If the bar serves food, you will be allowed in underage before it gets too late but it will be soft drinks only – which should be refilled for no extra cost. And with loads of ice.

If you have a soft drink left and are leaving, ask for a takeout. Same goes for food (especially given the size of portions – took home a pizza in Indiana which was so large, had some for breakfast the next day and still left a fair bit for the hotel cleaners).

It’s part of the culture so don’t be shy, they will probably offer anyway.

If you want to be very British and have a cup of tea, ask for hot tea or you will get it iced. Just don’t expect the hot tea to be cool enough to drink for at least an hour.

May have left a few tips in here

TV

If you are missing your football fix, you will find it easy to find – as long as it is Premier League or an international tournament. Have watched a couple of World Cups over there.

Other sports from home? You’ll probably be struggling – have seen Gloucester rugby highlights in Botswana, not in the USA, but that is changing.

Coverage of other major sporting events will concentrate exclusively on Americans – there are other golfers than Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, you just may struggle to notice. Saw Ryder Cup highlights which showed two European shots.

Think have only been in one bar without at least one TV screen – most have many, large screens showing multiple games of various sports.

Spending hours in bars watching baseball, football (ours and theirs), even basketball and ice hockey – often at the same time – was understandable. Little League World Series baseball or Women’s college softball less so, until you’ve tried it and opted for another drink (or three) to catch the end of the game.

And having watched a US election result emerge in a bar on Bourbon Street, New Orleans, sports get a far stronger reaction.

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Into the Wild Camping

Day 17 of the blog post a day in May attempt and back to overlanding and an unexpected highlight.

THERE were several things which concerned me heading out on a 10-month overland adventure around Africa.

Most were personal concerns, largely revolving around my fitness and ability to cope with such a long time on the road away from home comforts.

But probably top of that list was dealing with camping for the majority of the trip. And bush camping at that.

Have written before about the ridiculous argument about whether people are really travellers or tourists (do it your way folks, it’s your trip), but must admit we had a running gag on the Trans Africa along similar lines.

We were bush camping overlanders on a truck, the people we met on more cossetted, shorter trips were – pardon the language – bus wankers. Not that we said that to their faces. Much.

Whatever those initial fears, bush camping became something to relish (most of the time) and given a choice for my next long trip, the extra bush camping helped sway me towards South America.

Was not always such a fan of camping, even the more conventional type with flushing toilets, shower blocks and some farmer coming round to collect your money.

Tolerated a few childhood camps and always returned to the more secure surroundings of the family caravan after moving out to a ropy old tent or the awning.

Even my first foray into overlanding travel failed to grab me. After hostels, trains, four to an indoor cabin on a cruise ship and even the odd hotel, sleeping on our crossing of North America from Alaska to New York was on a mixture of a converted bus or camping in National Parks.

Of which the first was Denali in Alaska.

Even in early summer, the temperature plunged as the sun disappeared around midnight and it was a couple of long, cold nights which made up my mind for the rest of the trip – the comfort of the bus was a much better option.

That was not an option in Africa (bar the nights when given refuge on the track due to illness).

And this came with the added challenge of absolutely no facilities. Bar a couple of shovels.

We had a crash course on the first couple of nights in Spain at a campsite – firm ground, toilets and shower facilities easing us in as we got used to putting the tents up and down while adjusting to sharing with our new roomies.

Which took a while, struggling to sleep for much of the first week or so as got accustomed to life under canvas – which at least spared me much of the blame having been exiled to the snorers’ tent.

But as we headed into Morocco, my airbed and sleeping bag were supplemented by a pillow (which only made it halfway round) and a rug, helping to complete a comfortable little nest on my side of the tent.

And that just left adjusting to camping away from any facilities not supplied by the truck itself.

Not completely, we did stop at campsites (or anywhere with a bit of room for us to throw up a few tents) when available, but there are precious few of those in West Africa and wandering off with a shovel was preferable to some of the facilities presented to us.

Get your head around what you are doing and why and bush camping becomes the obvious option – overlanding is all about the journey rather than the destination, partly because there often isn’t one for days on end.

So stop where you can and enjoy the freedom.

Bush camps developed their own rhythm, collect any firewood available, get the fires going and kitchen started, set up your tents and after completing any jobs that needed doing, pull up a camp stool round the fire, grab a drink and enjoy the surroundings and the company of your fellow travellers.

Occasionally somebody might break out a laptop and show a film or there would be a game of cards on the truck, but most often it would involve a lot of helping out in the kitchen and sitting around reliving the events of the last day or what was coming up.

Sometimes long into the night, many times not. Bush camping tends to fall into natural rhythms dictated by the sun – get up with the sun, go to bed when it vanishes (or when the beer runs outs). We even had an agreed bush camp bedtime when it was acceptable to head to your tent.

We camped in quarries, rainforests, on beaches,, just off (or sometimes on) tracks hidden by grass or trees, next to reservoirs, in olive groves, on clifftops (loo with a view), under rock formations, amid crops with fires raging just over the road, on the side of the road at a border, in the paddock of a police station, on dried up rivers or the only bit of rocky ground we could find. And in the shadow of a sand dune.

And by the time the occasional bed and overnight stop with showers, toilets and even, whisper it carefully, a bar and WiFi became more regular on the second half of the trip, the return of bush camping was met like an old friend. At least by most us.

It will be again in South America in a few months when the split is roughly even.

But there’s one nagging question, isn’t there? The one that everybody asks when you try to explain it.

How do you cope with no toilets and no showers, sometimes for days on end?

Put simply, you get on with it. If that’s the cost of seeing some amazing places then so be it.

Yes, you can start to smell but everybody on the truck is in the same boat – the one thing guaranteed to make it obvious is somebody trying to disguise it with smellies and it is amazing what you can do with a bit of water and a quick rub.

The truck also finds its own rules for how many days in a row it is acceptable to wear the same T-shirt (several, you wouldn’t want to sully a clean one if you haven’t showered for a few days).

As for the lack of toilets… you get used to it. It’s never totally comfortable, but you will discover the pitfalls and how to avoid them (balance and some spatial awareness are key or it can be a risky task).

And you will become to appreciate things to hide behind and soft ground.

Just don’t lose the shovel.

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On The Whistle

Day 16 of the blog post a day in May challenge and we hit the midway point by harking back to my past life writing to deadlines.

IT may sound obvious, but crafting an intro is a key first step to an awful lot of writing.

It is a very good place to start.

Given my normal blog writing schedule, the intro tends to get kicked around in my head, written and rewritten over a period of time – sometimes days – and the likely first paragraphs take shape.

Get that down and the rest of the piece takes shape from there, often heading off in a completely unexpected direction.

But that has not always been the case. There was a case when a key part of my job was writing the first few paragraphs on top of an article which was otherwise complete.

All within very tight time constraints.

Those days writing match reports to tight deadlines were the topic of discussion after an article in The Guardian was shared into my Twitter feed this morning.

It brought back some good memories and also some cold sweats, although supporting Gloucester am used to that feeling in the closing moments of games.

“You can almost feel sparks popping inside your tiny overworked brain as you grapple for new words to replace instantly inadequate ones as quickly as humanly possible.”

It can certainly concentrate the mind and have seen some very experienced news journalists crumble – in one case, reduced to tears – as they fought to juggle words into some form of order before a deadline looming just minutes after the final whistle.

Late goals and controversy force a total rewrite and change of angle, all while you are too busy looking at your laptop rather than what is happening on the field.

Among several strange finales, a football match was meandering to a 1-1 draw in the last few minutes with little threat of anything that was going to upset the completed report which was bang on the required word count.

It finished 4-4 after eight minutes of stoppage time.

There is little option than to cram those mad 10 minutes or so into three or four paragraphs, redo the intro and take out the easily disposable stuff you stuck in early in the report to up the word count in case nothing happened.

Or rely on someone back in the office doing that – this was before the days of laptops when the report was rung through in chunks to copytakers, who you just hoped did not hear you say a team had come out organs blazing or going for the juggler. It happened.

This was in the days of the Saturday night Pink Un sports editions, sadly lost to the rise of other sources of early results and reports, to say nothing of the move away from Saturday afternoon kick-offs.

For my first live report there was not even a phone. The office mobile was on duty elsewhere and my only option was the payphone in the bar at the club had been playing for a week earlier.

Had to kick the barman off the phone and find someone who could be trusted to take notes while the pitch was out of view, but think it all got through accurately enough.

Even having a mobile did not always mean smooth sailing.

Reception was not always great on the brick of a mobile, especially when reporting from the touchline of a club out in a bit of a communications blackhole – the Forest of Dean in the mid-90s say. Which was pretty much my patch a a rugby writer.

Have half-scaled trees, stood on the top of radio cars, retreated to the team coach and even sat on the bench to get some sort of reception. While the replacements and coaches listened in to what was being written about their team.

Sat on the bench took on a new meaning on a couple of away trips when a spare pair of size 12 boots were rustled up from somewhere and was pressed into service as the only available replacement front-row option.

Thankfully, never called on to play (several levels higher than anything in my playing career) but did have to warn a copytaker someone else may be ringing them to finish the report as a player went down injured.

Even safe from the threat of being called into action, positioned in the sanctuary of the press box and tapping away on a laptop, things can go wrong.

Not sure at what point somebody kicked/pulled (delete as to which person was being blamed) the plug on my laptop out, but nobody noticed until the screen went dead about 900-odd words into the live report of a Scotland v Wales match at Murrayfield.

Never saw the last 10 minutes, except quick glances to the TV screens in the press room as found a plug and did my best to retrieve or remember what had vanished from my screen – while keeping an eye on a couple of late scores which saw the match end level.

Remember far more about a long Edinburgh evening gathering quotes and liquid refreshment than about the match.

But probably the most eventful match was a National League Three trip with Lydney to Wharfedale.

Team boss Gordon Sargent and Ian Seymour, his counterpart at neighbours Berry Hill, were both great rugby men, exceedingly patient and kind to a young journalist (as well as being much missed), allowing me to travel on the team coach in return for a few quid in the beer kitty.

Sarge was on the end of the phone when met with a very loud scream after the handset was held against my ear having been against a red-hot radiator all night.

The Wharfedale trip was fine until the moment we arrived in the Yorkshire Dales – very picturesque and absolutely no mobile phone signal.

Having found the one phone in the clubhouse in an upstairs bar, set up an impromptu press box on a balcony with my counterpart from local radio, one relaying key details while the other was inside getting their report across.

Right up to the point when somebody in the radio studio forgot to flick a switch and all that could be heard down the phone line was commentary on another match.

Eventually somebody realised and got a message through to the office that the rest of the report would be coming in one big block at the end.

And it was all but done as the clock ticked to 80 minutes with Lydney trailing by 12 points, the intro was written and it was time to start dialling.

At which point, Lydney scored two converted tries – both in the corner which was totally out of view from my vantage point and the only option was to hang over the balcony and shout down at the winger to ask who had scored. Not surprisingly, he tried to claim them both.

Eventually the report was filed, key facts confirmed for Monday’s report and a few quotes gathered (Sarge’s usual response: “You know what I’d say, Rob. Clean it up and put that”) and the notebook went away – to the realisation the players had eaten and, keen to start the long journey home, were ready to go.

Faced with the prospect of several hours on a coach with the odd beer on board, grabbed a bag of crisps to line the stomach and settled in to getting at least my share of the beer kitty.

Details of what happened next are hazy. Know we stopped at what was then my local and there were tequilas involved (more interesting expenses). And my flatmate came home to find my uneaten packet of chips on the front room floor and me curled up in the bath.

Pretty glad there was no deadline looming.

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Hopefulness to How Come You Never Go There?

Day 15 of the blog post a day in May and it is back to some sort of normality – with a touch of righteous indignation.

FOR much of the last few months, a large chunk of the journey from A-Z on my iPod has taken place in the gym which looms large on the opposite corner of the square from my flat.

And probably the biggest chunk of that took place building up my running from scratch on a treadmill, right until my right calf decided that was not such a good idea.

The osteopath agreed with my calf and eventually put a ban on me going near a treadmill, even to walk. Never mind the rather scary looking step machine next to it which was part of the plan to get my legs used to going up endless stairs before tackling the Inca Trail.

Not wanting to lose the groundwork put in to my fitness levels, we agreed on a compromise of hitting the exercise bike which provides just as good a workout (if not more, given the now customary stagger out of the saddle) while taxing a few different leg muscles to protect the calf.

The back is not quite so protected, judging by how difficult it is to get comfortable, while other parts of the body have also had their complaints about proximity with a saddle.

All this work in the gym is part of building that fitness, an added push to the weight loss and that added target of building up to the assault on the Inca Trail.

And having made the decision to forego the easy ride via train and bus to Machu Picchu in favour of the four-day Classic trek, it was slightly disconcerting to read an article about which could have huge repercussions for anyone looking to follow in the same footsteps.

Machu Picchu: Fury over plans for new multi-billion pound airport next to ancient Inca citadel

The Independent article jumped out of my Twitter feed, outlining plans to build an airport in the nearest major settlement to Machu Picchu and the fears of the damage it could cause to the great attraction, the Inca Trail and the whole civilisation around the surrounding Sacred Valley.

In 2017, Unesco warned it could add Machu Picchu to its list of endangered world heritage sites such was the strain 1.5 million visitors a year – double Unesco’s recommended figure – was having on the citadel and associated sites.

Peru has responded with limited daily permits on the trail, time slots and controls on visitors at the ruins, but an airport has the potential to go well beyond Unesco’s initial concerns.

Justin Francis, chief executive of Responsible Travel, told The Telegraph: “When we look back at what went wrong with tourism, this will be the story that sums it all up.”

Strong words but it is difficult to disagree with him and the thought that an airport appears some way on the wrong side of the very narrow line between the benefits and drawbacks of tourism.

It is easy to get angry at such an idea, pointing the finger at the Peruvian government and anyone who will benefit financially from the airport.

But they have a valuable resource and how many governments and economies are far-sighted and secure enough to avoid exploiting such a lucrative opportunity? No matter the long-term impact.

And what about those of us who are helping to swell those tourism numbers? Are we not equally to blame for helping to create the need for the airport, no matter how much we can claim to be doing it properly?

This is an issue, rather like all environmental concerns, that we all have a stake in.

It falls on us travellers to look careful about where we are leaving our footsteps and how much of a lasting print they will have, just as it falls on the Peruvian government and surrounding communities to look beyond the short term and not milk the cash cow irreversibly dry.

And the global community has its share of the responsibility.

It may be over another border, but Machu Picchu is a global treasure – like so many, physically and culturally, threatened by rampant tourism – and we need to be working with whatever country is affected to help keep them as such.

Not just with aid, but providing help, understanding and an ability to build economic strength to look after itself and its people to avoid the need to take such steps.

We need these places, these cultures, this enrichment of life beyond what we know – far better than pulling down the shutters and trying to block the flow of ideas and influences across borders.

To quote Rudyard Kipling (well, Billy Bragg who used it in The Few): “What do they know of England, who only England know?”

And hey, if I can walk to Machu Picchu, do people really need to fly right to its front door?

Which is all rather more serious than was intended on a post designed to steer us through the 60 tracks from Courtney Barnett to Feist.

One of the annoyances of listening to the A-Z on the bike is a long song making it difficult to break down a session into bite-size tracks, as happened again with seven-plus minutes of The House Song by The Beta Band.

This stretch had two outings for Horsin’ Around from Prefab Sprout’s masterful Steve Macqueen album, a couple of versions of Hounds of Love (Kate Bush and The Futureheads’ cover) and two visits from The Be Good Tanyas (Horses and a House of the Rising Sun cover which had me drumming on the bike console).

Initially stumbled across The Be Good Tanyas via an iTunes freebie and investigated further to the point hearing them takes me back to a mosquito-infected early evening chilling with a few beers under the midnight sun on the banks of the Yukon at Dawson City, Canada.

The Hold Steady also popped up twice with Hostile, Mass and Hot Soft Light, which also brings back travel memories after making it on to the African playlist (largely due to seeing them in Bristol the week before the off).

There were also appearances for a couple of Hotel tracks – Hotel Yorba by The White Stripes and, controversially for some, Hotel Yorba by The White Stripes – while Let’s Eat Grandma still sound fresh as they popped up with Hot Pink.

But best song title of this section – and many others – goes to American Music Club with The Hopes and Dreams of Heaven’s 10,000 Whores.

Doubt if those hopes and dreams include a gym bike or an airport at Machu Picchu.

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I Believe In Time As An Abstract

Day 14 of the bid to write a blog post every day during May and the schedule’s gone out of the window again.

THE plan for this post originally had it inked in for a travel piece, but that went out of the window when the schedule got ripped up a few days ago.

Since then, this space has been occupied by another piece on overlanding and the old fallback, the A-Z romp through my iPod.

Instead, you will have to make do with this, purely because of time, an aching back and malfunctioning, ageing technology.

Put simply, the biggest obstacle to this whole daily blogging challenge has been time – something has to give and when it comes down to work, food, sleep, the gym, assorted events which can’t be moved and the blog, it has had to be the blog. And a bit of the gym.

Not all the time, got a week off next week so once the final deadline before then is out of the way, that’s the biggest call on my time out of the way (although the to-do list is starting to look pretty full).

The aching back is nothing new but fed up with the attention being showered on my calf, it has decided to make a bid for its fair share and the one thing which seems to aggravate it at the moment is sitting at the desk in my flat and typing.

The osteopath was appalled when informed of this whole daily blog idea.

So with the back and lack of time meaning shorter periods spent tapping away and longer generally needed to compose pieces on overlanding and travel (believe it or not, there’s actually some thinking and fact checking going on here), the easy option would be to return to the A-Z.

That, after all, can generally be pieced together off the top of my head and a list of the recent appearances on the iPod.

Right up to the point when the iPod stops working.

It would appear my ageing iPod Classic does not like being plugged in to car stereos and seems to get stuck in that mode, refusing to do anything else or respond to being plugged back into the car.

Which all rather ruined plans to rattle through the remaining H tracks with a hire car for the weekend and pretty much answered the question of whether it was going to last through seven months in South America. It is not.

It is fixed – once allowed to run flat and recharged, the iPod equivalent of turning if off and back on again – but its days are numbered.

The alternatives, given the need for a decent-sized memory to house my library and the fact Apple don’t make that model any more, appear to be trying to find a second-hand one or go for a new iPod touch. Will get back to you on that one.

Which all goes to explain why this post is slightly shorter than normal – although not why it is still far longer than intended, given the bad back and lack of time.

Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible, until then throwing in a bit of what has been soundtracking this post (and the current leaders in album of the year stakes).

Can’t really see these guys as the musical guests on say Graham Norton or Jonathan Ross.

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