So I went on a little trip to the USA. I flew into Dulles Airport, Washington, where we were hustled through passport control and into a space that looked very much like a warehouse with a bunch of portable airport equipment in it. I gather this is because they’re doing some renovation in the terminal at the moment but it felt like nothing so much as a fake ‘airport’ behind which we’d find ourselves hustled back out into a suspicious van and off to some dodgy ‘facility’. Naturally, up the stairs was a real terminal building with a determined lack of signage that I found utterly infuriating. Still, this sense of being on a movie set rather than in a real place stayed with me throughout the trip. I am using the word trip deliberately here because the combination of jetlag, inner-ear-related flight issues and the general experience made me feel the entire time as if I was having some kind of not entirely pleasant acid flashback. This is mostly why, when people ask me if I had fun, I have to respond ‘not so much’.

Now, I know that my ideas about the US have been fed to me through movies and television since I was a child. I was fully prepared for the real place to be much more, I don’t know, real. But no, apparently all those movies have created a filter in my brain so that when surrounded by American accents, clapboard houses and lawn that is designed not to be walked on, I cannot escape feeling that I am in a movie and either George Clooney or Godzilla is about to walk around the corner (is it a drama or an action movie, I kept asking myself). This became much worse when I got to New York and realised that I have seen far too many movies set in the city to possibly take it seriously.

And then there were the people. Well, I did have a lot of trouble the first few days with thinking ‘Hell, there are a lot of Americans at this resort’ and then realising that that was perfectly normal. I also was pleased to find that most of the people I met were, in fact, perfectly normal. And rather nice. Many friendly people helped me along the way, and I particularly have to give kudos to the New Yorkers who, upon spotting anyone looking bemusedly at an upside-down map of Manhattan, will kindly and gently point you in the right direction. I also really liked the guy I met on the train who offered to pay for my airtrain ticket to the airport and got off earlier than his own stop in order to help me with my luggage – even though he thinks that enforced vasectomy and hysterectomy in prisons is the only way to end crime. But here’s the thing. The two big questions that Americans asked me, from Richmond to New York, were: Are you going to visit Ground Zero? and Aren’t Africans really excited that Obama will probably be our next president?

I am not the least bit interested in Ground Zero. In much the same way that I’m not interested in crematoriums. I also happen to think that glorifying Ground Zero incessantly as if it were the only ‘ground zero’ in the world gets on a lot of people’s nerves. Similarly, going on about 9/11 as if the US is the only country ever to have a whole bunch of people killed in a savage and frightening way gets on people’s nerves. So I started to get a little snappy with people who seemed shocked that I wasn’t interested in Ground Zero.

On Obama. See, the President of the US is NOT the President of Africa. So, while clearly, say, a plank would be a better option for foreign relations when compared to Bush, and while it’s nice that the US might for a change have a president with some sort of brain (and I would say some sort of integrity but I’m inclined to wait on that conclusion), no, we Africans are not quite as excited about Obama as we apparently are expected to be. This, too, shocked the hell out of everyone who had asked, and particularly annoyed a colleague who is on the Obama campaign and feels strongly that Obama can and should ‘save’ both Africa and the Middle East. This colleague is a very bright and interesting guy but by the end of the conversation I really wanted to punch him.

I met a young guy on the bus from Washington to New York. Lovely guy. Born in China, brought up in Chinatown, New York. Bright and friendly, finishing his degree in Mechanical Engineering at Columbia, currently interning at NASA in Baltimore. He finds NASA boring, which I found charming. And yet, possibly because I am older or perhaps I am far smarter than I think I am, I knew and understood more about a whole lot of things conceivably related to his degree than he did. He seemed unsurprised by this, as he thinks the education system in the US is pretty crap. I’m tending to agree.

And finally, how cool were the people of New York, home of the super-cool? Well, I think the people of Durban are a whole big bunch cooler. And they definitely dress better. I have a tip for the many many micro-skirted girls and women I saw in the US: don’t.

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