America – Part 1 – Travel

This is the first part in a series of posts regarding my recent trip to America. It’s been a long, long time since I really sat down and wrote anything for this site – you might possibly have noticed that there’s a lot of automated posting from Google+ and some filler video articles – and I felt that the time was right to address that in the form of something that will hopefully be a bit of a mix of travelogue, anecdotes, and trying to fool search engines into thinking this site is active and not some dumping ground for trash. Besides: it’ll be nice to have a diary of sorts of the trip – which was my first visit to the States – and it might even be of use to anybody thinking about travelling to the USA in the future. Unlikely, of course. I didn’t get hit on the head while overseas and suddenly develop the ability to be useful just like that.

Travelling To And In America

We never indulged in travel via taxi while in America. We'd heard tales, you see. Scary tales.

I’m going to start this series of American posts with one about travelling since it’s something that’s got to be done in order to get to America and once you’re there it’s something you’ll need to do too otherwise people start looking at you funny by the third day in the airport lounge. You’d have run out of money by the end of the second day. You’d be resorting to dancing for dimes. Dimes. That’s American money. Picked up the lingo!

Now, during our short holiday – vacation if you prefer (I don’t) – in those there United States of America we managed to take part in three froms of travel: flying (both to and inside America), driving by car (both as a passenger and as a driver), and being transported by bus (only as a passenger as they’re quite snippy when you try to slide into the driver’s seat on those things).

Flying To America
The holiday started with a flight from London’s Heathrow to Washington’s Dulles airport. It concluded with another flight featuring those same two airports but in a slightly different order. We flew with Virgin Atlantic as their website seemed the easiest one in which to find important information such as:

  • do you get fed on the plane? (YES)
  • what are your luggage allowances? (PLENTY EVEN IN SCUM CLASS)
  • is there a Scum Class of travel? (YES, BUT THEY DON’T CALL IT THAT)
  • can you book in online? (YES)

We flew Scum Class because we’re not made of money. In terms of price the flight was comparable to everyone else we looked at. Before flying to the States you’ll need as ESTA (well, we did because we’re British) which is a simple-enough, five-minute job to do online; other than that, book in online the day before, don’t bother printing out your boarding pass if you’re dropping off luggage since they’ll just print you out another one anyway, remember to make sure you have a passport and take it, and you’re sorted.

Here’s the procedure on the London side of travelling: turn up at the airport with your luggage, go to the luggage drop-off desk for Virgin, hand over your passports and ticket numbers, get your bags weighed and whisked off, wander through to the security area, queue for a bit, put any carry-on bags through the scanner, walk through the detector, retrieve your bag, consider the duty free offers, then go grab a drink in the bar nearest your departure gate (they serve beer from 6 in the morning!) and wait until called to board the plane.

Here’s the procedure when you arrive at Washington: queue for an eternity, queue some more, queue a little bit, break up the monotony of queueing with a bit of a queue, then queue for a short period at the end before being ushered along to a desk with a surly-looking TSA operator. Answer questions about why you’re in America without trying to start a conversation. Explain how long you plan to be there but don’t worry about subtracting the length of time you’ve been queueing since they’ll do that for you. Finally: four fingers from your right hand, right thumb, four fingers from your left hand, and then left thumb are all electronically scanned and you’ll then need to look at a camera while it photographs you and scans your iris. You’ll then be welcomed to America and told to have a nice day. But you won’t believe it. Then you can go off to pick up your luggage from the carousel and get out of the airport as quickly as possible… after one more check by sniffer dogs. But don’t panic! If you’re not dark-skinned they pretty much ignore you! Racial profiling-tastic!

Virgin Atlantic
A quick word about flying with Virgin Atlantic. I like Virgin as a company; they seem honest, nice, good guys and gals. I like my Virgin Media broadband and cable at home (most of the time) too. I associate Virgin with good quality and entertainment. Therefore it came as a bit of a surprise to discover that the onboard entertainment was woeful on our transatlantic flights. VHS videos of films and TV programmes (complete with old school tracking problems) on loop are not great to watch. Also: on no account ever tune into one of the radio stations! Could I find a way to stop it? No I could not. There was a trivia game you could play though; that was deliciously difficult and very good fun. Still: VHS? Really?

Oh, and the food: flying to America it was okay. Flying back was something else entirely. They didn’t have the one thing I wanted so I had to wait. They forgot I was waiting so I had to draw their attention to this omission. They then served up a lump of something truly revolting that contained pasta-looking things in carpet underlay sauce. I think. And the breakfast at the end was frozen. The croissant was nearly impervious to the best that the plastic knife could supply and the carton of orange juice was actually solid. Well, obviously the carton was solid; gas cartons have handling flaws that need to be addressed. The actual orange juice was solid. It was a carton of fresh orange ice. Not impressed.

And my seat wouldn’t stay up properly. Very irritating. Probably for the person behind me too.

Flying In America

There's something on the wing of the plane! No... wait... sorry, the window is dirty. My bad.

You’ll have seen that arriving in America is somewhat more of a chore than leaving Britain. Fortunately, once you’re actually in the United States you are deemed trustworthy enough to fly anywhere you like internally as simply as hopping on train.

Ha haha haha ha! I kill me sometimes!

No, I’m kidding. Flying on internal flights in America is every bit as painful as just getting into the country in the first place.

Expect to be searched and you won’t be disappointed. Our American friend who flew with us on our flights from Baltimore to Boston, from Boston to New York, and from New York to Baltimore had all his carry-on bags rummaged through and was patted down. Twice.

You will have to take your shoes off before passing through the detectors. The purpose of this is to slow down the number of people who could otherwise walk through them to a crawl as people try to redress on the other side. The purpose of that is one of those mysteries of security; apparently, having a lot of irritated people bunched up together in one place makes the world a safer place for everyone. Or maybe someone high up in the Department of Homeland Security has a fetish for queues and socks and has live feeds of all the airports showing wall-to-wall in his lair of naked comfort. Or maybe it’s both.

Pray to whichever of the hundreds of deities you’ve been brainwashed to believe in that you don’t get the Atlanta, Georgia crew we had going to Boston. I’m sure that there are Atlanta women with nice accents who don’t shriek into the microphone when addressing the passengers but we didn’t get any of them. People were jumping in their seats, spilling drinks, and sobbing into pillows every time airplane communication was attempted.

The Hispanic New Yorker stewardess on our twin-prop flight from New York to Baltimore was nearly as bad. You know how Rosie Perez sounds? Speed it up a bit and you’re close. Puzzled looks were the norm when she talked to us. Fortunately, we were all so busy trying to find a way to cool down from the plane’s internal temperature of Solar Corona that nobody paid her much attention anyway.

And remember to check your tickets carefully. You may buy the ticket with one company but make certain that you’re not actually flying with someone else. You don’t want to be in the wrong terminal twenty minutes before the gate closes. You certainly don’t want to run to catch a shuttle bus to the correct terminal and discover you’re being driven by a man who believes in applying equal pressure to the accelerator and brake at the same time, and that being not much of either. You don’t want to be sitting with an American friend on that shuttle bus while he’s cursing the ticket providers loudly and swearing revenge while a Homeland Security man with a gun on his hip looks sternly on from the seat opposite. Check your tickets.

Flying From America
You’ll have read already – unless you skipped large swathes (and who could blame you?) – that flying from Heathrow is pretty simple, but arriving in America and subsequent internal flights are a pain in the rectum (figuratively speaking (but give them time and I may have to edit this out)). You might suspect that leaving America would be quite easy or you might suspect that leaving America would be about as bad as arriving or you might suspect that leaving America would be a combination of the trauma of arrival added to the arguably laughable security irritations of domestic flights.

Yeah, it’s that latter one. Of course.

Plus there’s the backscatter x-ray machine! Yes, I was pulled out of the line and made to go through this expensive piece of crapware. You stand with your legs apart and your hands up, palms forward for seven seconds. Then you’re made to wait again while they spin your 3D nearly-nude body on all the monitors across the airport (in your mind). Then you get to see the disappointment on the look of the agent who wanted an excuse to cup your testicles and run his hand down your thighs while sniffing your crotch because nothing obviously bomby turned up on the scan. I’ll make the effort to strap something harmless but bomby-looking to my buttocks the next time I travel. I figure somebody should have a good time in the airport at least once.

The American Bus Ride
We had visions of taking a famous Greyhound bus ride and/or an Amtrak train ride while we were out there but these didn’t manifest themselves owing to a lack of routes for where we wanted to go (Washington to New York (and back again)) and price. Instead, we took a pretty standard bus ride with the company Washington Deluxe.

Four hours takes you from Washington’s Union Station to just near New York’s Penn Station and during those four hours you get free Wi-Fi and power for your electronic devices. The Wi-Fi isn’t great but it’s free and far cheaper than switching on data roaming on your phone. The power is fine once you can actually get your travel adpater to fit in the stupid socket. Stupid socket.

Other than that: it’s a bus. It’s boring. At least you don’t get scanned, have to get undressed, or face the probe (soon American travellers, soon).

Driving In America
By far the most common way of getting around in America is by car. This is because everything is far away from everything else. Houses near shops? Hahahaha! No! Miles of travelling! Houses near your workplace? Hahahaha! Never! Dozens of freeways and ramps and toll booths! Workplace near shops? Hahahaha! Oh, yes, if you work in a shop. Otherwise, well, no. Don’t be stupid. America has a lot of space and, apparently, it’s the duty of American planners to try to keep as much of it as possible between things.

Americans – as with a large proportion of the world – drive on the wrong side of the road. Worse, they drive in the wrong seat of the car too. It’s all very confusing. The gearstick is to your right! Your right! Crazy! There is a small mercy in that the clutch, brake, and accelerator are all in the correct order. It’s a very small mercy.

Anyway, here are Things I Noticed As A Driver And Passenger In America:

  • Unless otherwise indicated you can turn right on a red light if you’re in the right-hand lane and there’s nothing coming. This is actually quite useful once you get used to it and yet it’s still quite daunting for a person who knows that red means stop. It’s also worrying when you make a right turn on red because there’s nothing coming and then note that the person in the car behind you doesn’t. Tell yourself that it’s a foreigner in a car too. Tell yourself that while you look around for the police.
  • Flashing amber lights mean you can go and you’ve got right of way but you need to be careful because other people may drive across the junction if you show any signs of weakness.
  • Flashing red lights mean you can go too but you have to give way to people who might have flashing amber lights. In summary: green means go, flashing amber means go and if there’s a crash it’s the other guy’s fault, flashing red means go but if you crash it’s your fault, and solid red means go if you’re on the right and want to go right and you won’t cause a crash or drive over a pedestrian by doing so. In America they really want you to go.
  • You must stop at the stop sign. Even if there’s nothing coming. Even if you can see for twenty miles in every direction and you’re the only thing around. If your four wheels don’t stop for a split second and a police officer spots you then you can be deported to Brazil. Handy if you need to go to Brazil next, but otherwise not worth the risk.
  • Pedestrian crossing signs are better than in England. They have countdowns, which is nice. Also: cars must yield to pedestrians on walkways. Most of the time. Best to cross in groups for safety though. Especially in New York. We almost saw a Hasidic Jew get flattened by a taxi; he didn’t wait for the herd.
  • Everyone uses a satellite navigation system of some description because road signs are stupidly confusing. Trying to travel any distance without a little voice constantly telling you “in point two miles keep right” right before it says “recalculating” because you foolishly listened to it when it meant “right… but only in the sense of not left rather than actually right like you just did silly human” involves memorising a list of road numbers and pre-calculating what colour and shape they might appear on the road sign. “Oh, that’s easy! You just take the 42 to the 71 then follow the I billion until the 15 becomes the 19 and stay left for 6 miles. Beware the Balrog on the 18 overpass!”
  • Street lighting is not very good. Especially at junctions. Especially where there are multiple lanes and one of them is about to become a left turn or right turn only and they only paint this information on the road surface. I might have been forced down a few roads I wasn’t intending to travel while driving after dark. I’m just saying.
  • Everyone sends and receives text messages and emails on their phone while driving. You might want to close your eyes if you’re a passenger and try to sleep through the impending crash.
  • Everyone drinks a lot before driving. A lot. Ten pints, two glasses of wine, and six shots is not unusual. On the other hand it’s quite difficult to get drunk on American alcohol (not impossible, though; the scientist in me confirmed this) and I’m not sure why. Maybe they have puny yeast or sobering water. Strange. And scary. You might want to close your eyes if you’re a passenger and try to sleep through the impending crash here too. I slept quite a bit in the back of cars.
  • Despite the texting and drinking there seemed to be a distinct lack of crashes. General driving seems a little more laid back than in England even where the speed limit is the same. Wider roads may play a part in this. Or it could be that we just got lucky.

That’s travelling in America sorted out. In later articles in this series I’ll cover the Washington area, the Boston area, and the New York area. Not in any great detail though. And not of much use. I’ve still not been hit on the head yet.

Author: Mark

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