Soft Splashdown: Hitting the States 2001

The monster truck. One of the first things I encountered in America. Apart from cinnamon buns.

"Don't leave your head back here. Just go up there and live your dreams." Douglas pushed me forward into the queue. "Go orn, git."

A few years ago I would have taken these words, uttered by a lover, as proof that any seeds of a relationship we might have been sewing had now reached their use-by date. But as I stood beside my companion of the past five months, studying his averted eyes, matted hair and stroking his heavy, sun-beaten hands, I took his words as they came. He was, after all, a veteren of more than four years living in survival mode on a remote strip of beach on a Panamanian island, fighting off the indians, living his dream. He pushed me towards the shuffling migration line.

I hung onto him like he was a dead man walking toward the electric chair, and all the while his eyes looking behind us self-consciously. "Y' just go do your thing".

We had been sitting in the spartan cafe of the Delta terminal in San Jose, Costa Rica, making the kind of smalltalk you make when you may not see someone again, or at least for a long, long time. Between kisses he had been telling me about a worldwide television series called Survivor, which was being filmed at the coral cayes a half hour by boat from his remote beach.

For a million dollar prize, contestants were dumped in this faraway location with little more than a pair of underpants and a piece of rope to hang themselves with when things got too tough. Each week one would be knocked out of the race according to various knock-out criteria. It seemed ironic that a short half hour boat trip from that place stood a man who had spent the past four years doing it for real.

Now, he was here beside me, pushing me to follow my own dream, even if it would take me far away from him and things I had grown to care about. I watched him become a darkened silhouette behind the smoked glass partition, then he was gone.

As I boarded the plane the scrubbed and smiling stewardesses welcomed all passengers in a broad American twang. It was a little strange to hear such articulate and up beat English flooding into my ears, no doubt because I had spent the last two years in Costa Rica, enjoying the natural beauty but also, battling with the language and culture.

These new sounds were at once refreshing and grating. Refreshing in that they needled the intellectual part of me, jabbing it to life from its dormant state, and grating for the fast-paced, consumerist, four bedroom two storey brick veneer dream and developed Western lifestyle that exuded from behind it.

Ironically I began pining for the dusty ramshackle villages, remote jungle and steamy beaches I had grown to love and hate; a love for the nature and the loose 'manana' attitude towards life, and a hatred for the anaethesized languor that had started to piss me off, underpinned by a frustration with myself for not being able to embrace this lilting life outside the ratrace, for having failed Hippiedom 101.

After we were safely in the air and Costa Rica was receding by the minute I dozed off, mouth agape, augmenting the four hours sleep Douglas and I had managed to scrape in the last frantic hours of my two years in pura vida land. On my last day I had envisaged getting my errands done in the morning, then spending a lazy day gazing into the eyes of a face I would not see for months or perhaps years, if at all.

Instead, I rushed about forgetting to do things, backtracking, and at the end of the day we both collapsed in exhaustion at some late hour, then slept the sleep of the dead.

I wasn't the only one heading for greener pastures. In the reception of the hotel that morning I had met a man who I had spoken to some months before in this same hotel. He me he had a Costa Rican girlfriend, and would come and go from the States to visit her. On this occasion he was going.

 "We do have these … communication problems," he said, knocking two knuckles together to emphasise the point.

 "Language and culture," I responded, parroting the insightful words of a Dutch friend who had been deeply in love with a Cuban guy before it all went pear-shaped.

 "She speaks English …" he called out as I walked away.

 "Culture," I responded.

 The plane hummed along. I had a four hour flight, a five hour wait in Atlanta airport, and then another six hours to Portland ahead of me. I finished my special-order vegetarian meal, couscous with mushrooms and zucchini and a tomato concasse, not bad for an airline, and fumbled for the non-existent wet-wipe, a must, I believe, when eating in a place where it is an effort to stumble to the toilet.

"Lady, I cain't take your tray right now, I got mah hands full". The stewardess handed the insistent traveller in the seat in front of me a big empty tray. "There now, you hold that for me and I can take your tray, know where I'm comin' from?"

 I held my breath, fully expecting a scene from a Woody Allen movie to unfurl, but it never came. I busied myself studying the SkyMall catalogue, bursting with great ideas for the home hedonist including a remote controlled model blimp, a talking tennis hat, a folding wheelbarrow, fake logs with holes for candles when you couldn't be bothered stoking a real fire, and a rubber front door mat that looked like it was made from wrought iron but wasn't.

 I opened my eyes to look out the window as the plane descended into Atlanta. At first I thought it all looked similar to where I had just come from - fields, grass, roads, rooftops. It looked like the view over Managua or Panama city or San Jose or any of the familiar Central American cities I had become accustomed to flying over or bussing into. Of course, to look harder was to see the perfect, unrusty roofs and unpotholed pavements and roads, then suddenly the familiar became the unfamiliar, the roads ballooned out into the carparks the size of football fields, studded with cars lined up in neat rows like cans on a megamarket shelf, and only then, Central America morphed into North America.

 I wandered through the giant terminal and scanned the row of immigration officers, studying their faces briefly to try and zone in on the most friendly-looking. I gravitated toward a white haired man of about fifty, who reminded me of pop in the Waltons, and beckoned me over with a wave and smile and said howdy doody 'n' all that. It was a futile choice. Regardless of their personal stories, the officers were all trained to throat-tearing, sniffer-dog standard, they were one seamless face of American authority, and poppa Walton suddenly morphed like robocop into sniffer dog #4.

My visa, purchased four years ago to allow me a special extended entry of six months, set him on the trail for blood. Fortunately, I had all the papers to back up my four years of loitering in parts of the world other than my birthplace, but even so he asked repeatedly, what had made me want to do this trip now, right now, at this time?

He then bundled up my ticket and passport and slipped them into an orange folder, and directed me to the close-scrutiny chamber in the far corner. The rotund officer within was a little younger, a little friendlier. I can only surmise that America is the land of howdy doody service, and it was only a matter of time before even the frontrunner of welcoming committees, Immigration, full member of the hostility industry, underwent change, especially when you consider the free-spending and essentially harmless camera-clicking activities of those who choose to spend their money visiting a country instead of extending the back porch.

 In my case, I had always planned to cycle down the east coast of the States, and maybe across it, a feat I calculated would chew up most of six months given my propensity to loiter in favourable and scenic locations, of which I was assured there would be many.

The many expatriots living in Central America were quick to lampoon my next destination, pointing out the unforgiveable evils of the land of the brave and not-so-free, for what it did in Vietnam and to JFK and closer to home in Nicaragua, for the unsocialised medical system that left you for fertilizer if you were not able to cough up cash along with blood and phlegm.

I was even offered a job editing the Panama-based Escape from America e-zine (www.escapeartist.net), though I always maintained that for credibility's sake, I needed to spend time in the States, to understand exactly what I was escaping from. Sometimes, you draw upon the advice and experiences of others. More often, you have to spice your rice yourself.

Douglas was the one of the few who seemed to offer a balanced view. He acknowledged the pros and cons of the USA, and having taken advantage of the pros, was now an expat living his dream outside the system and avoiding the cons. I was drawn to him and his greatly simplified life, yet I was also yanked in the opposite direction out of pure curiosity to know more about the country that rules the world. And I was starved for more meaningful conversation.

 "So you quit your job, then?" I explained to the officer that yes, there are very few companies that would hold a position open for you for six months, but that I had residency in Costa Rica.

 "But you quit your job, right?"

 I had not had fixed employment for more than six months at a time in the last four years, and had forgotten that a record like that was tantamount to adding salt to your coffee or eating a Big Mac with a knife and fork or something equally irregular.

 "I realize it is not common to do this, because everyone here drives cars, but for a bicycle tourer, it is a dream," I responded.

 "So how did you get money for this?"

 I repeated how I had lived and worked in Ireland and Costa Rica to save money for this trip, but hastily added that I did not want to do that here because the country was too expensive for me and I would rather live somewhere cheaper anyway. That seemed to satisfy him. He bundled up my documents and thrust them across the table. "Welcome to America, have a nice trip".

 A stress headache had fogged my brain so I went in search of food.

The first airport shop I came to was Pretzelman. I eyed the golden twists of bread in the glass warming case and remembered the delicious pretzels in Germany. "With salt, without, with butter without, sweet, honey, cinnamon, savoury "

The server rattled off the menu in one exhale. I asked about the tantalizing-sounding honey mustard pretzel. "Muh personal favourite,", he said, and I got the feeling that the honey glaze or cinnamon sugar or sour cream and chive flavour would also have been his personal favourite if suggested.

I sat down in a gate lounge and tucked in. After the third bite I realized that the appealing soft chewyness of the bread was due to a large percentage of pure fat, more obvious to me now that I had spent the past four months as the chief cook and bottlewash of a mountaintop hotel in Costa Rica. I ate it anyway, and welcomed myself to America.

Unlike the home made bread I had been turning out in the kitchen, made from creamy local flour and fresh herbs and spices, the pretzel left a strange aftertaste on my palate recognizeable in many commercially formulated foods.

 passed by a phone with a screen which advertised internet access for 25 cents a minute, minimum $2.50. I inserted my credit card, sent an email to Douglas, who was probably now wandering around the smoggy streets of San Jose wondering why he dragged his ass across so many bumpy bus seats just to wave me goodbye.

I racked up a bill I hoped would be no more than $4, part of it spent staring balefully at the screen and not noticing that it said press F9 to stop billing.

 Faced with a 5-hour wait for my cross-country flight to Portland, I resisted the temptation to cruise the other fast-food filled concourses and capitulate to the fragrance of cinnamon buns, bacon double cheeseburgers and flavoured coffees in stylish cups - and sat down to write.

Even so, I managed to spend $10 in the next twenty minutes. 

I officially welcomed myself to America.


Copyright 2001 Lynette Chiang.

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