Monday, March 05, 2007

The American vacation

I know I said I'd continue with thoughts about my trip to the US. It took a little longer than expected, but here it is.

One of the joys, and sometimes disappointments of international travel is noticing stereotypes. In London, I was taken aback by the dozens of tabloid newspapers being handed out to passers by. They had shock headlines such as:
“Terrorist finds job on underground,” or, “Suffolk Strangler Strikes Again!”
It was a pleasant surprise, especially coming from Africa where media tends to be watered down facts spun to make the government look good. The tabloids showed a jovial side of England via their massive craving for gossip. After all, in a country plagued by incessant bad weather, there is at least the joys in seeing the world's heros humiliated.

In France, it was something more laughable, even cartoonish, that sticks in my mind. I remember seeing an abundance of blue-or-pink-haired old ladies with poodles tucked under their arms.
Even upon returning home to Canada, I was pleasantly surprised to hear so many people finish their sentences with our stereotypical, "Eh."

My wife, little Zack and I recently got back from visiting my retired parent’s at their second home in Florida. This February was the first time I’ve gone to see them at their sunny getaway, and my first prolonged visit to the US in more than fifteen years.

We flew into Orlando, where my parent’s first glimpse of their two-month-old grandson saw him sleeping in my arms. They hugged us, made cuckoo noises, and later took over cradling duty as I went to collect the baggage.
The first American stereotype wasn’t far away. On the highway running past the airport, I noticed the cars were bigger than those in Europe or Africa. A lot bigger! The majority were either giant gas guzzling pickups with oversized tyres, or roaring SUVs. Even the Sedans, a noticeable minority, tended to be jumbo sized.

I later did a count of one hundred cars we passed on the highway. I’ll provide my findings at the end of this piece, but take a guess now. I’ve divided it into three categories: Big guzzlers; mid range; and economical.

An hour later, we approached the neatly trimmed lawns with well-maintained bushes and flower gardens. My parent’s winter getaway is a retirement community in central Florida called The Villages. Each of the hundred or so neighbourhoods, or Villages as the concept goes, has a quaint name like Spanish Springs, or Village of Duval.

We passed a swimming pool, followed by a golf course, and turned onto their street. Bungalows with aluminium siding were equally spaced. Some homes had separate garages for golf carts. The perfect neighbourhood being another American stereoptype, albeit not a surprising one.

In the supermarket later that week, I noticed a third: a lot of obese people. I contemplated doing a count like with the cars; but to go around and mark down people’s fault’s felt wrong. Instead I just took a quick estimate; about half of the people were noticeably overweight; and about a third of overweight people were grossly overweight. Admittedly, a supermarket filled with food is not the best place to do an accurate census on obesity.

To understand America’s weight problem all I needed to do was glance around. At the front of the supermarket was a display of Valentine’s Day cakes, sweets and chocolates. In the flyer, junk food was on sale throughout its pages. A huge, one pound Hershey chocolate bar cost a dollar.
At home in Morocco, I have a routine of weekly sports and exercise. I eat some junk food, but am not surrounded by a culture with so much of it, so cheap, and so easily obtainable. Naturally, when in America, I wanted to try everything I’d never had before. My mother’s love of baking didn’t help my cause. By the time three weeks had passed, I felt lethargic and unhealthy and had put on five pounds.

America is many things to me. It’s filled with wonderful discoveries and sad realizations. It’s the only remaining world superpower and the reason us good guys won the World Wars. Vietnam and Iraq, however, blemish their hero record.
The US leads the world in innovation and I’m happy to drift in the sail winds of their technological revolution. It’s also the country that put a man on the moon. On the downside, they elected one of my least favourite people, twice – or was that once - it depends on who you talk to.
Florida itself is known as a retirement state. It’s also a great place to take kids to visit Walt Disney World. In my case, it was a good State to take Siham on her first, and possibly last, closed-eyed, teeth-clenched roller coaster ride at Universal Studios.
A few rounds of golf, a trip to a National Park to see alligators and manatees, lots of baby clothes shopping, and a great first visit between baby and grandparents rounded off our Florida vacation.

The biggest impression I’m left with of America is one of the out-of-control consumer. I envision their economy and people to be like the giant ballooning hog.
I understand the desire for the raw power of a massive pickup truck – but I am curious as to how many people ever actually take their rough-and-tough vehicles off road. I also love a purring engine, and know what it’s like to melt into the comfort of a big Cadillac or feel the acceleration of a Corvette – but the economic Honda Civic is what I can afford – in part because gas prices in the rest of the world reflect economic sense, not political gain. America's national debt, if paid off tomorrow, would require $30,000 per man, woman and child - or nearly nine trillion dollars.
I’m tempted by the cakes, the chocolate bars, the potato chips, and the brownies displayed at the front of the supermarkets, gas stations, and even clothing stores.

America’s over consumption is the source of their biggest problems. For better or worse, though, the stereotypical hog has at times propped up the world economy, (and brought it to a crashing halt.) It’s thrilled us with pop culture and cutting edge entertainment. It’s delighted us with Coca Cola and McDonalds and shown unprecedented charity. It’s America, and despite its downfalls, I can’t wait to visit again.

The survey from one-hundred random passing cars on the Florida interstate
Guzzlers 58% - large pickup trucks, large SUVs and large vans
Semi guzzler 31% – large sedans, small SUV’s, small minivans, and small pickups
Economy cars 11% – small sedans, hatchbacks, etc.

I tried to do a similar count on the Moroccan highway, but the oncoming traffic was often obscured by bushes and tall barriers. I'll provide my findings as soon as I can get a decent count.

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