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Tea, My Dear

A Welshman in New York

Watching the Watcher

As a child I was very interested in space and astronomy. I had the posters, the small amateur telescope, the maps of the stars, etc. I had known since quite a young age that when I was eighteen, in August 1999, a total solar eclipse would pass over southern England and parts of France. As the time got closer, plans became less nebulous: Mum worked for a coach tour company and they were planning to take eclipse-watchers to France to increase the chance of clear skies. I could go with them. Sadly it wasn’t to be. In an epic example of a first world problem, not only was I offered a place on a tour to see the astronomical event of a lifetime, but I was also registered on a five-week trip to trek in the Himalayas with my sixth form. They were both at the same time! What a smug, middle class example of a double booking: some people wait a lifetime for a pseudo-spiritual experience. Here was I, at eighteen, with a pair to choose between. The Himalayas deposit had been paid and I was part of a group, so that was the obvious choice. My long-held dream to see a total eclipse would have to be postponed.

On the Himalayas trip, the day of the eclipse came when we were at the Rakaposhi glacier in northern Pakistan. That morning, we told our guide, Hakeem, an experienced and urban youngster from Rawalpindi, that a third of the sun would be covered later in the day, and you could see it by looking through a CD (I’m not sure, looking back, how safe that is, but there you go!) He was having none of it. Until he saw it with his own eyes, he was convinced it was the start of some prank we were playing on him. Now, I think of that often-told, probably-false story about Columbus or some other explorer using his knowledge of the eclipse to gain the upper hand over native people:

“If you don’t do as I say, I will take away the sun!”

*Sun disappears*

“I will bring it back if you do what I say!”

*Savages capitulate. Imperialism wins!*

Just before the eclipse happened, we were exploring a valley and met a shepherd who lived in a tiny hut. I was gripped with the same superiority as those medieval adventurers. “In fifteen minutes,” I bellowed, overcoming a language barrier with sheer force of will, “sun will start disappear!”

“Oh, you’re talking about the eclipse. I think it will be more like 20 minutes. We should get around 30% here. I listened to a documentary on the World Service.”

Astronomy is a difficult hobby to take beyond pointing and memorizing. As a child, you have the will and the time but not the means. My parents were extremely kind and let me stay up late for lunar eclipses and took me to a less-light-polluted area to see Hale-Bopp, but as a kid you’re essentially stuck with the patch of sky you can see from the garden over the orange haze of the town, when it’s not cloudy, between sunset and bedtime. This is the state of things for a while, or it was with me as, like many young adults, I had no sense of perspective or priority. Looking back, if I had bought far fewer CDs and books in my early twenties, spent less money on food and booze, I could easily have saved enough to get to darker more exciting skies. But I didn’t. Reasoning through all this, it’s clear why most ‘hobbyists’ tend to be retired middle class people. That wonderful combination of time and money, denied to most people on earth, must be so glorious. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a taste of that this year. Having some luck with work and a long summer without obligations, meant we could be in Madras, Oregon, on the center line of totality, with little chance of cloud cover, to see the long-awaited spectacle of the Great American Eclipse.

Eclipses are sometimes seen as portents of doom. Some cultures treat the banishment of the sun as a warning that a god is displeased. Only by showing your penitence and devotion can you placate the deity, causing it to release the sun and postpone future annihilation to another day. Luckily, thus far, that has always worked and the sun has been freed from entrapment within a matter of minutes.

This latest eclipse, August 21st 2017, heralded many apocalyptic predictions of the modern kind: traffic disruption and disappointment. Media reports in the weeks leading up to the big day were choked with warnings of days of traffic jams before and after the event, power outages, fuel shortages and overcrowding as the world rushed into rural America to witness the majesty. Weather forecasters cautioned against excitement as forest fires might completely obscure the sky.

Earthly disruption didn’t worry me. I had paid a few dollars to reserve a parking space in the line of totality, and I planned to get there late at night the previous day, allowing around twelve hours for any problems. As long as the car was full of snacks, drinks and gasoline, I knew I could endure a little inconvenience. More concerning was the weather. Madras, Oregon, was touted years in advance as the best place to see the eclipse because clear skies are almost guaranteed in its high-desert location. Most of Oregon’s rain falls west of the mountains, and Madras sits snugly just east of some impressive peaks that usually force all the moisture from the air before it gets to town. Forest fires, on the other hand, had not even entered my mind. Now, with just days to go, and all other locations fully booked, local news reports blazed with stories about a record fire season and skies being completely covered. Just a few weeks before, I had driven through Montana while fires were burning and the sky was completely covered. The sun was just a faint glow through the haze.

Thankfully, whatever god controls these things wanted the people of Madras to get a good look at his saber-rattling. A little rain and a change in the wind meant there was no more than a slight wisp of smoke on the feted morning. I can’t be certain it didn’t affect the visibility a little, but it wasn’t noticeable to me. And the final spectacle was still more amazing than I ever imagined.

At 9:06am, I, like the many thousands of other people parked in a dry field on the outskirts of Madras, put on my special glasses and looked at the sun. The appointed moment had arrived. Slowly but surely, a tiny nibble was taken out of the top right. As the nibble became a larger bite (and people all around were resorting to the same obvious analogy as it so perfectly describes the appearance of the early partial phase), a strange confused feeling grew within me. Rationally, I knew exactly what was happening, but because the new moon is completely invisible in the sky, the ever-growing missing portion of sun does genuinely feel like some sort of strange magic. Whatever part of me has grown accustomed to the certainty of the sun’s shape was oddly discombobulated and excited.

By 10am, the quality of the light was noticeable different. Colors were dimmed and shadows seemed sharper. There was a greyish quality to life. The sun itself, however, when viewed in quick snatches without the glasses, out of the corner of one’s eye, looked no different. The sun is so bright that it would be impossible to look closely enough with the naked eye to discern the shape of even a 60% partial eclipse, without risking serious damage. I thought about the majority of people in history, for whom a solar eclipse was not a predicted event but a sudden shock. If I had been working outside on that day, having no idea what was about to happen, even now, as totality grew very close, I wouldn’t have noticed any changes, especially if I was absorbed in something else. I read in a blog that a 95% eclipse is 10,000 times brighter than a total eclipse. And now I understand that from experience. It was only in the seconds before totality that any truly big transformations began.

At 10.18am, just one minute before totality, things started to look eerily dark, excitement rose, and a shadow drew over the mountains to the west as totality started there. Suddenly, the sun was gone. The sky was completely black. I could see nothing at all. This wasn’t what I expected. Where is the corona and the… then I realized I still had the eclipse goggles on. I snapped them off and immediately gasped. Where the sun had been moments before, there was now a deep black hole in the sky surrounded by a sparkling blue ring dotted with wispy prominences. Outside this glittering circle, the rest of the sky was a rich blue, like a night sky in a children’s book. Lower, at the horizon, was a red-orange glow, the so-called 360-degree sunset caused by sunlight seeping into our privileged circle from the surrounding un-eclipsed areas.

My only slight regret is that I didn’t film totality. I know my measly camera phone wouldn’t have done justice to the events in the sky, but it could have helped me relive the reactions of the people. Everyone in this strange enormous car park was pointing and gasping and whispering excitedly. A single firework was set off. High in the sky, in a place you would never normally see it, Venus shone out like the Star of Bethlehem on a John Lewis Christmas card. The colors were all wrong, richer above than below, the earth was muted but the heavens were in technicolor. The whole sight was so unusual and unexpected, even for those of us who had been reading about it for thirty years, that a lot of people, including me, started to laugh in disbelief. I had goosebumps and the hairs on my neck stood on end. The temperature drop was noticeable and I just wished I had longer to take everything in.

As the second minute drew towards its end, my husband and I kissed as the famous diamond ring appeared. Within an instant the sun was too bright to look at. We turned to the west and saw Mount Jefferson grow light. We put our glasses back on and returned our gaze to the sun. It was, once more, just a half-eaten biscuit. The people around us shifted back to activity as they do at the end of a pop concert, when the special effects are over and the normal lights have been turned back on. We dashed into our car, hoping to beat the traffic, and headed towards the exit. Our final glimpse of the end of the eclipse, an hour later as the moon eventually cleared the sun, was leaning out of the window in the middle of a traffic jam that lasted five hours. It took us eight hours that day to go just eighty miles, and by the evening life felt ordinary again as we went on with our holiday.

But, for just two minutes on the morning of August 21, 2017, leaning on the bonnet of a dusty Ford Focus in a small town in the middle of Oregon, I achieved a dream, and magic was real.

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A Man, A Plan, A Canal… Peru!

I know Peru’s not in or even near New York, but it’s nearer to NYC than it is to London and I’d always wanted to visit, so living in the Big Apple is the perfect excuse to get on down to Llama Land.

It is possible to get direct flights from New York to Lima, but we saved a bit of money by booking with Copa Airlines, flag carrier for Panama, which required a brief stop at their regional hub in Panama City. So by adding a couple of hours to the experience, we saved a few hundred dollars and also got to add another country to the ‘visited’ list – everyone knows airport stops really do count. Sadly it wasn’t possible to catch a glimpse of the canal from the air. I know it sounds a bit odd, but the husband and I were very keen to see it.

Lima is large. I’m sure most people already know that, but I think I’ve been living in naive denial about how large many South American countries and cities are. Lima is 21st largest city in the world, measured by population within the administrative area (above London and New York), and third largest in the Americas, below only Sao Paulo and Mexico City. In the pollution stakes, it punches above its weight: according to a 2014 WHO report, Lima has the worst air pollution in Latin America (http://www.peruviantimes.com/08/world-health-organization-says-lima-has-worst-air-pollution-in-latam/22119/). I can believe it. The low cloud, combined with high mountains to the east and breezes blowing in from the Pacific, serve to capture the smog from millions of ancient cars and buses. By the end of a day, the air is thick and a coating of oily soot covers the sidewalks.

The historic center of Lima is beautiful to look at, famous for the wooden balconies on many of the colonial buildings. The Plaza Mayor is stunning at night, well lit and very grand. Our hotel was in Miraflores, considered the swanky playground of Lima, on top of the cliffs that overlook the sea. It is a good area for shopping and enjoying a walk through the pleasant parks, one of which, Parque Kennedy, is infamous as a place where people abandon their pet cats. As a result, the gardens are dotted with sleeping balls of fluff. I’m sure it’s a shame for animal rights reasons, but as a spectacle it’s very sweet.

Of course, like most privileged visitors, I wasn’t in Peru to see Lima. I had Inca treasures in my sights and wanted to experience Lake Titicaca, the ruins at Raqchi, and Machu Picchu, the famous citadel once lost but now, judging by the numbers of photos of it all over Peru advertising, most definitely found.

The most common base for sightseeing in Peru is Cusco, a largish city that was once capital of the whole Inca empire, and sits in the mountains at 3,400m above sea level. This is a stunningly beautiful city. The city’s altitude makes the air clear and crisp and, from the Plaza de Armas, the glowing colonial buildings, on top of Inca foundations, are framed by the dusty hills that surround the city. The streets are teeming with tourists, mostly middle class would-be adventurers like me, and there are dozens of tour companies and traders catering to their needs, offering trips to the Inca Trail, dazzling glaciers, and so on. We had booked all our travel before arriving, so it should have been straightforward to get to Machu Picchu, but in the end it was a little more challenging.

Cusco
Cusco’s Plaza de Armas

Most visitors to Machu Picchu arrive by train. The train runs from just outside Cusco and takes four hours to get to Aguas Calientes (also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo), the tourist town at the base of the mountain on which the Inca ruins sit. Some come only for the day; others stay one or two nights in one of the many hotels and hostels, but it should not be a taxing trip, in fact the trains are rather luxurious, offering views of the Urubamba River and table-served snacks and drinks.

It is not well known outside Peru, but teachers in the Cusco region have been on an indefinite strike over pay for a few months now. I am sympathetic to their aims but when I found out they had chosen to escalate their protests while we were on our travels, I wished they could have found better methods. The striking teachers made Machu Picchu travelers their prime targets, blocking roads to the train station, and even ripping up rails on the line. They see this as an excellent way to get the government to listen as so much of the country’s revenue comes from tourism. But to me it seems short sighted. Many small businesses depend heavily on visitors, and Machu Picchu is part of the country’s cultural heritage that teachers should be keen for others to see. Also, if you want more government money, it’s probably best not to harm one of its major sources: visits to Machu Picchu dropped by up to 50% during the strike, according to one estimate I heard.

We were lucky; we had the resources to rearrange our visit, essentially throwing money and flexibility at the problem. Many others are likely to have saved for years to visit this site, the culmination of happy hours of dreaming and research, and will now have lost their chance.

We found out about the problems the day before we arrived in the country. We were told by rail representatives that trains from Cusco were cancelled so we would need to get on the train in Ollantaytambo. This was arranged reasonably quickly: we had to abandon a hotel we paid for but didn’t stay in, and got a taxi to Ollantaytambo late in the evening, to avoid the next day’s roadblocks. The taxi ride was actually lovely as it was after sunset and the lack of light pollution meant we had gorgeous views of the Milky Way. When we arrived in Ollantaytambo there was more bad news – all trains for the next two days were completely cancelled. There are no roads to Machu Picchu from the Cusco region, only trains and walking trails. Ollantaytambo is 45km from Machu Picchu by rail and it is possible to walk along the tracks, although not advisable when you have ten days’ worth of belongings with you and you’ve only spent one night acclimatising to the altitude.

After drowning our sorrows in beer and cake, we faced the prospect of not getting to Machu Picchu at all, or seriously altering our plans. Luckily a woman running a small tourist shop had a solution: she could get a taxi to take us to a hydroelectric plant the other side of Machu Picchu; from there it’s only a 15km walk along the railway. The downside was it was quite an expensive taxi (she knew our options were limited), it took five hours, and we had to leave at 3am. We did it anyway, getting up at three, pocketing some breakfast, sitting through a journey that should be fascinating, winding through mountain roads and passes, but given the hour and the mood was actually overwhelming. Then we shouldered all our bags and set off to hike the tracks. It took us less than three hours, and was an amazing walk – the route that Hiram Bingham took when he first came to ‘discover’ Machu Picchu in 1911. It follows the Urubamba River through lush green forest and helps to put Machu Picchu in perspective. From a certain point on the walk, one can just see a few stone terraces jutting out of the rocks that tower above.

The Urubamba River
The Urubamba River

We stayed a few days in Aguas Calientes and actually enjoyed what many lament as a far too comfortable tourist town. Our morning at Machu Picchu itself, though, was amazing. A bus goes from Aguas Calientes to the site’s main entrance. You need to book tickets for everything in advance, and it’s not cheap, but the views alone are awe-inspiring. It’s fascinating to think that while the Tudors were building Hampton Court Palace, Inca kings were enjoying this complex in the clouds, built without steel tools, wheels or writing. We opted to climb Mount Machu Picchu next to the site (there’s an extra charge for this). It was a hard slog, but worth it for the incredible views of Machu Picchu, the river, the terraces, and the more distant snowy peaks.

Urubamba from Mount Machu Picchu
The Urubamba River from Mount Machu Picchu

The rest of our time in Peru was devoted to some less well-known attractions. We took a bus from Cusco to Puno on the banks of Lake Titicaca, stopping along the way at Raqchi, a well-preserved Inca town, notable for the immense temple of Wiracocha and for the many surviving storehouses, apparently a trademark of the Incas as their lack of wheeled vehicles and the absence of a well-developed monetary system meant that there was little trade between regions. Instead, local governments would force farmers to store preserved produce in brick storehouses and rations would be handed out by officials to the local people.

Another stop on the route was La Raya, a high mountain pass that divides the Cusco and Puno regions. From here one can see the Chimboya glacier, and also the northern end of the Altiplano, the largest high plateau outside the Himalayas.

La Raya
La Raya and the Altiplano

Puno is one of Peru’s most significant cities on the Altiplano. It sits on the banks of Lake Titicaca, the “world’s highest navigable lake” (as everyone will tell you). It’s not a very pleasant city – many of the buildings look unfinished, which is apparently down to a loophole in local taxes; you don’t pay building tax until it’s complete. I’m not sure a tax break would justify an unoccupied, unglazed top story with rebar sticking out, for me anyway.

We spent a day on Lake Titicaca visiting two places. First, the Uros Islanders. This group of people traditionally speak Aymara, unlike most of the local indigenous groups, who speak Quechua, the language of the Incas. Legend has it that the Uros islanders hid in the reed beds of the lake when the Incas were taking over the area. The Incas saw that the people were not a threat (in fact, ‘Uros’ means ‘shy people’ in one version of Quechua) and allowed them to live in the reeds. The Uros people developed an intricate system for building floating islands out of reeds, and they have lived on these, which are covered with reed houses, for over five hundred years. Traditionally the inhabitants lived on fish from the lake, reed roots, and some locally traded vegetables, but they now get a lot of money from tourism. The family that welcomed us were very kind, showing us their houses and crafts and also giving us a ride in a traditional reed boat.

The Uros Islanders
The Uros Islanders

Our second Titicaca stop was Taquile Island, home to a self-governing collective group that is descended from the Incas and has resisted modern life to a certain extent. The island was farmed for the benefit of Spanish colonists until independence was won in the 1820s and each resident family was given ownership of a portion of the island. The islanders now have a strict system of democracy, electing local leaders by show of hands in the town’s main square. Leaders hold the job for a year and are not paid. All people on the island are expected to work for the good of the island, keeping it clean and working together on community building projects. On the day we visited, in the crisp sunshine of the dry season, the island was close to paradise, dotted with deep green trees, no rubbish, and the clear blue waters of the lake visible all around. I’m not sure I’d want to live there though as, to join the community, a man has to show himself able to knit. All men are expected to knit their own hats, about which there is a detailed system of codes by which one signifies one’s marital status, authority, etc., using different patterns and colours of wool. A family treated us to a display of their handicrafts, as well as a delicious meal and a demonstration of dancing. I’m not sure the whole family was invested, though. The teenage son, as soon as his part of the show was over, rapidly removed his vital traditional cap and settled to playing with his smartphone.

Titicaca
Lake Titicaca from Taquile Island

Peru has an astounding diversity of habitats, from high plains to deserts to mountains to jungles, and our ten day trip really only scratched the surface. We had a fantastic time and found great food, many adventures, and a surprising amount of 90s music. It is a beautiful and fascinating country so ‘thank you, Peru’, or as they say in Quechua, ‘Solpayki!’

 

Phillyphilia

In 1842, Henry ‘Box’ Brown had himself nailed into a box and mailed from Richmond, Virginia to Philadelphia. So awful was his experience of slavery, particularly the fact that his wife and children had been sold to another state, that he could take it no more. With the help of anti-slavery activists, he undertook the illegal journey in his crate, travelling by wagon, railroad and steamboat. Twenty-seven hours later, safe and well, he arrived in Philadelphia, a haven in Pennsylvania, one of the Free States.

This story has many messages and morals about liberty, strength of character, and collaboration, although it also says something about progress. Twenty-seven hours! One hundred and seventy-five years later, a piece of paper with my debit card PIN on it has taken twenty-one days to reach me in New York… from New York.

I learnt the story of Henry Brown on a fascinating walking tour of Philadelphia, where I spent two days recently. Before my visit, I knew embarrassingly little about this amazing city. I’d heard of a bell and some slightly sniggering comments about ‘brotherly love’. After a brief visit, it might now be my favorite city.

On a walk around Philadelphia, a couple of things caught my notice. First, it is much more peaceful and airy than New York. For a number of reasons, not least a superstition about no buildings being higher than the statue of William Penn on City Hall, the town is not dominated by skyscrapers. In addition, the major roads and sidewalks are spacious. These two facts combined mean you can see a lot more sky than in most large US cities. The city feels leafier, with many lovely parks, and its famous arts scene is in evidence in the fantastic public installations and murals. The design of the street layout is also effective, with four major arteries leading to City Hall which is cleverly arranged with a central courtyard accessed by four archways from the main roads. This means that in the center of the courtyard you can look to all four compass points from one place. It’s very effective.

Philadelphia also has a reputation for liberalism and acceptance. The history of the city’s gay district is interesting. It is, as far as I know, the only place in the world to have a district officially called ‘Gayborhood’. This area, within Washington Square West, proudly promotes its history as a gay-friendly neighborhood by hosting many events, and also by decorating the street signs and crosswalks with rainbow flags.

The main tourist attractions in the city are those related to the founding of the USA. Independence Hall, Pennsylvania’s former State House, is where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed. The free tour, though brief, is informative and well presented. You need a timed ticket to attend, which also means there isn’t a lot of queuing. The Liberty Bell is less interesting (also free) although is probably more significant to Americans who have been absorbing its image as a cultural icon for decades.

Independence Hall
Independence Hall (photo by K Hudemann)

A less-obvious draw of the city is Edgar Allan Poe’s house. He lived in the city for a number of years, although only in this house for one. While there, he is believed to have published The Black Cat, which may have been inspired by the very dingy cellar in the house. The house is starkly preserved without furniture, and with minimal interpretation or explanation. The adjoining house is also part of the site and is dedicated to a small museum and shop as well as a reading room, decorated in the lavish style that Poe satirized in one of his essays. This is a superb place to spend an hour, enjoying Poe’s stories, exploring the house, and learning about his fascinating life. Like lots of the brilliant stuff in Philadelphia, this is also free as it is run by the National Park Service.

Magic Gardens
Magic Gardens (photo by K Hudemann)

Other highlights of the city include the Magic Gardens, Isaiah Zagar’s gigantic mosaic complex dedicated to the arts, and Penn’s Landing, which I think was a bit of a joke in the past, but which was playing home to temporary food and drink huts and had tables set up under the trees, which were decorated with delicate colored lights. It was quite beautiful.

Penn's Landing
Penn’s Landing (photo by K. Hudemann)

Our visit was rounded off with a trip to Jim’s on South Street, apparently the best place to get a Philly Cheese Steak (actually a type of sandwich). The food was delicious and the service was very quick (if slightly rude). We also made a quick stop at the ‘Rocky Steps’ (at the Museum of Art) although it was far too hot to attempt a recreation of the famous scene.

Philadelphia was founded by William Penn, who became the world’s largest private landowner when he was given what is now Pennsylvania by Charles II as repayment of a debt owed to Penn’s father. Penn clearly loved a bit of classical etymology. ‘Sylvania’ is Latin for ‘forest’, and the ‘Penn’ part is in memory of his father. ‘Philadelphia’ is Greek for ‘brotherly love’, which was inspired by Penn’s search for tolerance for fellow Quakers and people of all religions. In a country that has some way to go in achieving that aim, Philadelphia at least appears to be on the right track. It is calm, clean, fun, welcoming and bright. I can’t wait to return for a second visit.

Pluralist Society

For better or worse, I work in close proximity to a lot of rich people. Compared to most of the world, of course, I am wealthy. I am extremely fortunate to live very comfortably in a wonderful city, and to have seen many parts of the world. I have great healthcare, I never go hungry, I have an apartment, etc. I am lucky. But compared to the people I work for (ultimately, if not immediately), I might as well be hopping freight trains and panhandling in Hooverville.

Rich adults are usually quite clever at keeping their wealth secret. They do this to spare blushes and not seem smug, and also to make less likely any revolutionary tax and wage reforms that could render their position less rosy. Their children, on the other hand, have no idea that their life is extremely different to mine. A few years ago, a child excitedly told me that one of the highlights of his vacation was sitting at the back of first class being able to see through the curtain and look at the poor people stuck in Economy. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that one of those poor schmucks was me, revelling in what I thought was luxury on a beautiful aeroplane with free drinks, a ticket for which had taken me years to be able to afford. Another kid once said he couldn’t wait for the weekend because his horses were arriving from Argentina and he hadn’t seen them for over a month. I don’t know where to start with that one.

Whether in the UK or the USA, these privileged few share some attributes. In addition to pastel colors, deck shoes, large sunglasses and floppy hats, another common trait is visits to ‘The Plurals’. In the UK it might be ‘our summer house in the Cotswolds’ or ‘a cottage in the Brecon Beacons’. On the other side of the pond, it could be ‘a weekend in the Bahamas’ or ‘our farmhouse in the Poconos’. No matter where you are, the smart people like to get together in places so fancy they attract a terminal ‘s’.

I checked out two such plurals recently. One, very exclusive, the Hamptons. The other, much less so, the Catskills.

The Hamptons is (are?) a collection of communities and areas at the far eastern tip of Long Island. Some friends and I visited for the day and had a fabulous time. We started at the town of Montauk, traditionally not part of the well-to-do Hamptons-proper but a surfer town and part of the Hippy Trail. It retains that vibe and was hosting a small music festival when we were passing through. On the surface, it looks like an accessible beach resort, with slightly run down motels that are all within a short walk of amazing beaches. Delve deeper, though, and you find it is undergoing massive hikes in property prices and, in tandem, prices for visitors. A mediocre meal in a beach bar was eye-watering, and a brief inquiry about hotel rooms found the best deal we could see was $400 per room per night. The lighthouse at Montauk is significant as it was the first one in NY State, and is quite quaint to look at, but they charge $11 to go inside which, if you also want to eat while you’re in the Hamptons, might be a tad steep. Most impressive is the ocean, which remains free to view. Free parking was easy to find, too, although we went outside peak season. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, expect everything to be chargeable.

Other places we visited in the Hamptons were Southampton, Bridgehampton and East Hampton. All were lovely, and we found excellent places to get ice cream, beer, lobster rolls, cocktails, etc., some of which really weren’t all that much more than a day’s wages. One of the highlights is driving past some of the USA’s prime real estate and guessing who lives there. The Hamptons is home to the country’s most expensive zip code, in which the mean price for a family home is $8 million. Don’t despair; if you want a slice of this life, you could rent yourself a summer place. For example, we saw one four bedroom place available for June-September at the knockdown price of $154,000.

I know I seem snide and slightly envious, which is exactly how I feel. It’s not that I begrudge these people their money, earned through a combination of hard work, privilege and luck, but that I resent the society that allows them to have so much while others have so little.

A happier medium is found in the Catskills. We spent a long weekend at Hunter Mountain, a ski resort in the winter and, in the summer, home to the USA’s longest zipline. The zipline experience is amazing; their ‘Skyrider’ tour lasts over two hours and takes in five ziplines as well as a rope bridge. The ziplines are a step up from your scout-camp muddy-arsed, stuck-like-Boris-Johnson affairs. These high-speed, adult only experiences are ever so slightly terrifying and completely exhilarating as you speed rear-first across the valleys at over 50mph.

At the base of Hunter Mountain are two towns, Hunter and Tannersville. Both are charming although they feel slightly past their prime. Online statistics tell me that the populations fell a lot in the last three decades, and they are very seasonal now, relying on winter sports, although the zipliners and hikers are starting to turn things around in the warmer months. Both towns have movie theaters, and both, like most of the small towns we’ve visited in America, have an abundance of local small businesses. Back home, the downfall of the highstreet has long been lamented as everywhere looks the same. Here it’s not like that at all. Most towns still seem to have local or regional stores, helped by the continuation of local TV advertising and, ultimately, the vast distances between different parts of this country. In Tannersville, one place everyone should try is the Last Chance Antiques and Cheese Cafe: over 300 beers and over 100 cheeses.

Close to Tannersville is Kaaterskill Falls, a beautiful waterfall at the head of a deep and leafy gorge. We only saw its base from afar as parking nearer to it was impossible. As one woman said in a visitor center, “It’s not fair! The tiny car park is always full and if you park on the road they give you a ticket!” The poor thing. I’m guessing she’d have them put up a multi-story right there in the forest, and while they’re at it a laser light show and 5D Cinema Experience. In fact, you can get to it by foot from a much emptier car park only a few miles away. We hiked along the Kaaterskill Railroad Trail, which took us right to the top of the falls. We could have hiked down a steep path to the base of the falls too, but it was very crowded, mostly by groups of people who had left the hustle and bustle of the city only to recreate it here in the countryside by having deafeningly loud conversations about nothing at all. Besides which, if we’d hiked down we’d have to hike back up, which isn’t that appealing with a belly full of cheeses and beers.

Kaaterskill2
Upstream of the falls

Instead, we hiked the trails around South Mountain, which were mostly empty, extremely peaceful, and gave beautiful views over the gorge and, in places, over the Hudson River Valley, which is stunning. We also met a man who told us he often saw bears around the trails and copperhead snakes. We saw him ten minutes later and, in that brief duration, he had seen an impressive snake that very day! We didn’t see any wildlife (other than a chipmunk) but we thought we did get a slight whiff of BS.

Pope Seen At Mass!

Nothing has made me feel more at home in New York than acting as a tour guide for others. Last month we hosted a range of friends and family members in our new city and I’m beginning to feel like quite the expert. When we found out we were coming to live here, an acquaintance emailed me to say, “I really recommend the Empire State Building – it’s a famous building in Manhattan.” Having spent 18 months mocking this person’s expert insight, I’m now about to repeat his banality. Living in New York, I receive recommendations all the time about things to do and I’m beginning to realize my friend was cleverer than I knew. Most people suggest hipster restaurants, breweries, walking tours and experiences. We’re in danger of forsaking the best tourist attractions in favor of Time Out’s Top Ten Cat Cafes. So here is my list of obvious but worthwhile tourist attractions in New York.

The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building is the flagship of the New York Public Library system. It is entirely free to access, hosts interesting free exhibitions, has fascinating architecture and history, and provides informative free tours. The famous reading room is beautiful and peaceful and usually has space for visitors to sit and read, work, or conduct research. The map room has large maps of most of the world available for free, as well as free computerized access to digitized maps. Check the website for hours. Not every room is open on Sundays.

Bar 65 at the Rockefeller Center, part of the famous ‘Rainbow Room’, boasts New York’s highest outdoor bar terrace. It is a great way to get a cheap view of the Manhattan skyline. We booked a table in advance and when we arrived were ushered straight in – no waiting or queuing. There is a one drink minimum per person, and they’re not cheap at around $17 per cocktail, but that is much less than you’d pay to go up the Empire State Building or One World Trade Center. There is a smart dress code but it’s not very strictly enforced so don’t worry if you’ve come to New York without your LBD. We went at sunset, which I certainly recommend as the changing colors were magical. If the website suggests they’re full, it might be worth sending an email. We went for a special occasion and a pleading email secured us a table even though it was apparently booked.

Central Park continues to impress me, even though I go most weeks. I only recently discovered the Conservatory Garden, a formal garden at around East 100th Street on the footprint of a former glasshouse. Beautiful spring bulbs of various colors surrounded gentle fountains and lawns when I visited. It’s slightly awkward to get to from the main thoroughfare through that part of the park, which makes it feel a little more remote, adding to the atmosphere. The North Woods is also worth visiting, especially because a lot of the paths and decks have recently been refurbished. On a short trip there, we saw a red cardinal, a few different woodpeckers, a blue jay, some heron, a red-winged blackbird, as well as the more common American robins and starlings. None of these bird are remarkable to locals, but for visitors from Europe they are strange enough to feel exotic and have you reaching for the camera. I’ve also see lovely families of Raccoons up there. I know they’re pests but to foreign eyes they’re simply adorable.

The iconic Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, is now my favorite art museum. I’ve generally felt inadequate in the past when attempting to enjoy abstract art, but the guided flowing layout of the Guggenheim, combined with an excellent audio guide, made it great fun. I’m naive enough about art to find a lot of things that genuinely surprised and intrigued me. The range of Picasso covered is quite thought provoking and particularly moving is his Woman Ironing. It’s not all abstract, despite the Museum’s original name (The Museum of Non-Objective Painting). There are a handful of temporary exhibitions, all included in the entrance price, although some require timed tickets.

The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island have frequently been dismissed by people recommending New York sights to me. “Just get the Staten Island Ferry,” they say. “It’s much cheaper and you can see the statue really well from it!” While that’s true, the ferry is cheap and you can see the statue from it, it does not compare at all to standing at the base of the statue and looking up. The history of its design and construction is interesting and the political messages attributed to it of democracy, republicanism and immigration are compelling and feel relevant at the moment. It wears its patriotism well as an attraction and it was even a little moving taking a slow walk around the statue and imagining the many people for whom a first glimpse of it heralded a new home. There is an array of confusing options for how to enjoy the day. Tickets to visit the crown are very limited and must be booked months in advance. Tickets to climb the pedestal are less scarce but still need to be bought ahead. On Ellis Island there is the option of a private ‘Hard Hat Hospital Tour’, on which a guide shares with you the history of the hospitals which operated on the island for decades, first as treatment centers for people who weren’t well enough to enter the country, and later as prisons. I loved the tour. The hospitals were quite badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy, but enough of the original wards and equipment remain to make it atmospheric. Beware of fraudsters selling boat trips to the islands. The only way to step foot on either island is by booking through Statue Cruises – the official retailer.

The One World Observatory and The Empire State Building are famous tall buildings in Manhattan! The Empire State Building has such historical interest, as well as evocative decor and a great outdoor viewing gallery. The One World Observatory is the highest view you can get of Manhattan, and its location near the southern tip gives a very different view from all the other tall buildings. It has an imaginative and dramatic elevator ride and the reveal at the top is breathtaking. On the other hand, you don’t get to go outside so you do spent quite a lot of the time peering through children’s finger smears. One World also seem very keen to sell you things as you go – extra photos, apps, etc. Of the two, Empire State is far and away the better experience. Both are quite expensive and both warn you may need to queue. However, I went on a weekday in Spring Break and lines weren’t very long at all.

If, despite my list, you would like to try something a little less mainstream, might I suggest a certain hamburger place run by a clown with a Scottish surname?

Pay As You Yearn

When my husband and I decided to take the plunge and move to the USA, we knew we would miss certain things about home. And yes, the cliches are true: we hanker for good tea, Victoria sponge, sausage rolls, etc. But never did I imagine how strongly I would long for PAYE taxes.

Pay As You Earn – until you’ve been an employee in America you have no idea how beautiful and progressive those four words are. You see, quite wonderfully, you pay… as you earn.

America does, technically, have a PAYE system – they call it mandated withholding. All employers must deduct money for tax from their employees’ wages but, and here’s how it differs from the UK, the amount they withhold seems little removed from a wild guess. Bosses here essentially throw a dart at a number line, multiply by ten, and send that amount to the government… or should I say ‘governments’ because every time you pay tax, you in fact pay taxes, plural, state AND federal.

For clarity, I’m not protesting about the rate of tax (which is actually very low in the USA for the average worker – http://www.politifact.com/virginia/statements/2015/oct/20/donald-trump/trump-says-us-has-highest-tax-rate-anywhere-world/). What bugs me is the ridiculous unnecessary complexity of the system. Back home, there are only two tax statements you frequently hear about: the P60 annual statement and the P45 end of employment statement. That’s it. You almost never have to fill in a form, contact the government, etc. On the other hand, having lived here for only six months, I have already undergone the following tortures:

W4 – when you start a job you fill in a form that tells your employer how much tax to withhold each month. It is extremely complicated and there are mountains of conflicting advice about what to tick and what not to tick. Nobody expects their employer to EVER withhold exactly the right amount.

W2 – at the end of every year you get a statement from your employer saying what was withheld. I got four copies, so I could keep one, send one to the state, send one to the federal government, and give one to my ‘tax preparer’.

1040NR and IT203- as a non-resident, these are the tax returns I file (one federal and one state). All taxpayers, even simple US citizens with just one regular job, have to file tax returns and it is completely expected that the amount that was withheld will be incorrect; you will either have a refund or a bill. A whole industry of ‘tax preparers’ exists to try and get you the full refund to which you’re entitled.

843 – this is the form you fill in to get any refunds to which you are entitled in addition to the refund calculated on the tax return. I know that is a ridiculous sentence, but there you go.

Americans accept this absurdity almost without question. Along with their ridiculous healthcare system, the tax rigmarole is just accepted as an inconvenient part of life. The paperwork involved in having a job and going to the doctor is almost overwhelming at times.

It is actually quite simple to work out how much tax I should be paying. The tax rules for non-resident aliens are fairly clear, as is the tax treaty between the USA and the UK. My salary for the year is set in advance and the pre-tax deductions for healthcare, transit, etc., will vary a little but not widely. Despite this, my employer withheld about $3,000 more than I needed to pay, over the course of five months. When I complain about this, nobody seems outraged. It will take at least a month to get that back, but some of my colleagues are still waiting for refunds from last year.

The IRS cleverly markets the annual tax refund as an advantage – a sort of enforced savings plan. They proudly boast that 8 out of 10 taxpayers get a refund. Another interpretation, missing from their website, is that every year the workers of America lend the government over $100 billion, interest free (https://www.irs.gov/uac/newsroom/tax-refunds-reach-almost-125-billion-mark-irs-gov-available-for-tax-help).

Given this country’s twitchiness about state interference, along with its foundational belief in fair taxation, you might expect some appetite for change. However, in a country where the IRS is using a 56-year-old computer program running on an IBM mainframe, and the Department of Defense is reliant on 8-inch floppy disks (http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-16-696T), I won’t hold my breath.

Learning Las Vegas

Sorry about the terrible title. I almost didn’t use it but then I thought it might serve as an apt warning; the content of this post is a little ‘facty’. Worse, because most of the information was gleaned from a tour guide and some leaflets, I haven’t even cited any sources.

Las Vegas has a reputation to uphold. It stars in lots of films and TV shows and always in a certain role. If Las Vegas were a person, she or he would be described as ‘a character’.

“Simon, lock the drinks cabinet, my Aunt Vegas is coming for the weekend.”

“Martha, I’m really sorry, my brother Vegas taught the kids how to twerk.”

My recent visit was fantastic – everything you’d expect. I ate too much, drank a bit, gambled a little, and upended my usual wake-sleep cycle. And that was only a two-day visit.

The modern city is awe-inspiring for its conspicuous consumption: the enormous hotels, the food and drink available everywhere around the clock, the unashamed promotion of strip clubs, the bright lights, the Bellagio fountains, the unsettling ceiling of the Venetian. All of these things, though unexpected in their mind-bogglingness, were not surprises. The flash and glitz of Vegas is familiar from film and TV although definitely worth seeing for real at least once (and probably, for many people, never again).

A real surprise to me was learning about the incredible history of the city and its surroundings and also getting to witness the remarkable beauty of the Mojave Desert in which it sits. Vegas is a man-made wonder, but its surrounding natural splendor is much more marvelous.

Las Vegas is a modern creation, only having been founded as a city in 1905 as a railroad company sold off land alongside their new line from LA to Salt Lake City. Until then, Las Vegas (‘The Meadows’, named thus for its slight oasis-like quality as the site of wells on desert trade routes) had little history of permanent settlement. Mormon traders briefly built a fort there but it was abandoned soon after. I’m guessing they wouldn’t really like it now anyway.

In that same year, as Las Vegas began to grow, owing to the influx of farmers taking advantage of irrigation, events that would prove critical to its future success were happening many miles to the south, at the border between Mexico and California. Very heavy snow and rainfall caused the Colorado River to overwhelm a canal and, over a period of two years, completely obliterate an entire salt-mining town and re-fill a previously dry salt-lake bed. That lake (the Salton Sea) still exists over a hundred years later.

The 1905 flooding, combined with other Colorado River floods and dry spells over the following twenty years, built the appetite for a massive dam to control the flow of the river. That dam, originally called Boulder Dam (now Hoover Dam), was built a short distance from Vegas and the many male workers involved in its construction (begun in 1930) were eager for entertainment in the form of drinking and gambling. Both were illegal at the time, but that didn’t stop people finding ways to indulge. A special town, Boulder City, was even built to house the workers away from Vegas, but to no avail. Eventually, Nevada legalized gambling, allowing Vegas to capitalize on the desires of the workers. When the dam was finished in 1936, the electricity and water it supplied, along with the stream of visitors wanting to visit this new engineering marvel, secured Las Vegas’s future as a tourist destination.

We visited the Hoover Dam on a beautiful sunny Sunday in January. It is a truly astounding thing to behold. Firstly, the aesthetic design is incredible and much more overtly stylized than a lot of engineering. Both inside and out, the buildings are adorned with sporadic beautiful touches: statues, mosaics, plaques, and memorials. Because the dam straddles the Nevada-Arizona border, the opposite ends of the dam have different times for half the year (only half the year as Arizona doesn’t indulge in daylight-saving). Aware of this, the dam’s creators installed clocks at either end of the roadway marking ‘Nevada Time’ and ‘Arizona Time’. This is just one tiny example of the many ways this dam is conceived as an attraction and not just a piece of civil engineering.

hoover-dam-bypass-bridge
Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge (viewed from Hoover Dam)

Just as satisfying are the facts about its construction. We all know what a dam looks like from the top, but I was delighted to learn that the Hoover Dam is much much wider at its base than at its tip (as we’d expect, I suppose, if any of us gave it much thought). At its thickest, it is over 200m from upstream to downstream. That is a considerably greater distance than the depth of the lake it holds back. Our guide for our visit, taking us through the fascinating interior of the power plant, explained that because earthquake prediction was a new science in 1931, the dam was ‘overbuilt’ to an extreme degree. It is considered to be able to withstand earthquakes two thousand times more powerful than are ever likely to hit that part of Nevada.

hoover-dam
The Hoover Dam

Lake Mead, the man-made lake created by the Hoover Dam, is surrounded by some of the most beautiful mountains and desert imaginable. The roads through these areas (some of which have very high tolls) should be completely bursting with sightseers, but they are empty. We were able to stop our car at the side of the road, step out, and gaze into the desert, unable to see or hear anything man-made over the entire vista. The Valley of Fire is particularly worth a visit. It is named for its deeply colored sandstone, which is enhanced by the red of the sky just before sunset. I learnt after my return that it also played Veridian III in Star Trek: Generations, and so is the final resting place of Captain Kirk.

The USA really tests one’s adjectives. I’ve already rhapsodized about Maine and now I find that was nothing in comparison to Nevada. There is a lot of anti-American sentiment in the world right now, but it’s worth remembering that whatever you think of the nastiness of its current politics, it is still a beautiful country in many ways.

While the Merry Bells Keep Ringing…

I am a potential convert to the ‘Holiday Season’, as the general Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, celebrations are collectively known in the USA. This way of grouping everything together under one banner is peculiar to the USA (although I understand it applies to some degree in Canada too) and often parodied or mocked in the UK. The idea of a ‘Holiday Card’ or wishing someone ‘Happy Holidays’ is seen as vulgar or too politically correct, and in recent years there have been repeated conspiracy theories about various British institutions abolishing Christmas in favour of ‘Winterval’ or other secular ideas. These fears usually turn out to be founded on nonsense, but the very fact that people in the UK are so protective over Christmas shows how different it is to the much more secular and multicultural approach in evidence over here.

Thanksgiving, like many cultural traditions, is hard to pin down exactly in terms of origins, meanings, symbolism, and so on. Most agree that some of the English immigrants who arrived here in the early 17th Century held a Day of Thanksgiving (a common Puritan practice to thank God for His bounty) because of a good harvest. The famous account of the post-harvest feast at which the local Wampanoag people were entertained would not have been called a Thanksgiving at the time as it was more celebratory than worshipful. However, through a variety of routes, that story has been linked with other traditions and tales of Thanksgiving and the modern celebration has arisen.

Thanksgiving in New York is exactly how you’d expect if you’ve ever watched American films or TV. We tried to get to see the Macy’s parade balloons being inflated but it was far too crowded. We avoided the parade itself altogether, deciding to watch it on TV, and found it kitsch, camp, commercial and far-too-frequently interrupted by adverts. On the other hand, as a way to start the Holidays, it is excellent. Because stores in October are so devoted to Halloween, Thanksgiving acts as an official start to the promotion of Holiday gifts, decorations, cards, etc. One wonderful result of this is that one is spared the annual British grumbling about seasonal wares being on sale ‘earlier and earlier every year’ (which, if it were actually true, would surely have resulted in year-round stocks of Lindt reindeer at least a decade ago).

Thanksgiving apparently requires no gifts, no cards, and no special clothes, has no songs, and no religious connotations. It is simply a time when most people spend the day with their families and eat themselves silly. That’s what I did, not so much with family (who all inconveniently live thousands of miles away) but with friends and colleagues, and it was lovely; the food was uncompromisingly sweet and stodgy, which suits me fine.

Back home, I always thought those who avoided saying ‘Christmas’ to spare sensibilities were a bit wimpish. This side of the pond, my feelings have changed a little. I have met one Jewish woman who was genuinely offended that a group of people sang ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ and asked the audience to join in. She may be a little quick to take offence, but then wouldn’t I be if the winter celebrations of another faith totally dominated the season, in spite of my own religion being the older one?

Luckily I am one of those smug people who gets to have his stollen and eat it at Christmas, given that I am cosily reliant on all the nostalgic Christian-based traditions in which I was immersed as a child but, as an atheist, can set myself apart pretentiously and claim to retain the more tinselly elements in a purely secular, even ironic way.

Brits love to complain about the Americanisation of Christmas (“when did Father Christmas become Santa Clause?”, etc.) but the customs remain somewhat distinct. For a start, institutional carol singing is much less obvious here – schools are determinedly non-denominational and, as a teacher, I have missed the opportunities for joining in with old favourites. Christmas is also less marked here, with fewer days off, fewer closures of stores, reductions in services, etc. The main meal is quite different: although turkey is common, you won’t find Christmas pudding, mince pies, brandy butter, or Christmas crackers on most people’s tables. Advent calendars also seem much less common here.

Something that I miss tremendously about a UK Christmas is the familiar branding. I never pretended to be superior to marketing or commercialism, but it’s only now I’m out of it that I see how much my Christmas depended upon the BBC idents, the Roses and Quality Streets, the After Eights, and the special edition of the Radio Times that, although I haven’t bought it in about fifteen years, was still a comforting sight in the rack at my local supermarket.

Something that got me very excited about moving to New York was the increased chance of a White Christmas. Surprisingly (it turns out film and TV aren’t always honest in all regards!), the chance of a covering of snow here on the day itself is only around 20%. That is quite an improvement on London’s 6% but, as we get closer, it becomes apparent we won’t have one this year. We have had our first snowfall though – a few inches in just a few hours last weekend. Its traces still remain on the roadsides, and I got my first view of snowplows and snowblowers. I get terribly excited by any reminder that the climate here is substantially different to the UK’s. Despite the fact that Brits love to discuss the weather, here there really is something to talk about. Daytime temperatures have recently been below freezing all day, something that is quite rare in the UK, and seeing Central Park’s lakes and ponds all frozen and the icicles dangling from its rocks on my morning run is quite magical.

The things I shall miss most of all this Christmas are undoubtedly friends and family. We are so lucky to have Skype, Facebook, etc. to enable us to travel the world and still keep in touch with home, but conversation is not really what loved ones are for at Christmas. Their real purpose is as someone to sit with while marinating in gin and tonic and letting another terrible sitcom Christmas special wash over us. I guess I shall have to postpone such pleasures for the time being and remotely wish everyone Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad, Chanukah Sameach, and Happy Holidays.

In the States no one can hear you scream

This place is empty!

There is almost no-one here.

Scotland, the UK’s emptiest home nation, has a population density of 68 people per square kilometre; Wyoming, 2. Wyoming is thirty times more vacant than Scotland.

New York state, one of the more crowded ones, has 162 people per square kilometre; England, 413. In fact, of all fifty states, only five, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Maryland are more human-packed than the UK as a whole. And those states are small. The USA, it seems, comprises two crowded coastlines separated by what is essentially wilderness.

I’ve always been interested to a more-than-normal degree in population density. I remember learning about Malthus in biology lessons and being concerned about world population and drawing age-distribution pyramids. For a time, worrying that the world was overcrowded was a popular pastime. Actually, though, it’s not full at all. Current estimates predict that the population will level off at around ten billion, which sounds a lot, but all those people together would fit in New Zealand and have plenty of room to walk around and take selfies (http://waitbutwhy.com/2014/01/crazy-fact-about-population-density.html).

I know resource-use is a huge issue for the planet, but we shouldn’t confuse that with thinking the planet is teeming with humans. Humans are not in a lot of it. And a lot of them aren’t in the USA. Although not as many as aren’t in Australia, which is mind-bogglingly empty. The last Australian Aboriginal people to make contact with westerners did so in 1984 and it seems they and their ancestors had been happily living their nomadic lives during 200 years of colonialism and didn’t even notice (http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-30500591).

All this is on my mind because I’ve recently had cause to drive around a bit and I always love it in the USA. Once you get out of the city, which doesn’t take that long, the roads are long, wide and mostly unoccupied. A few weeks ago, we drove up to Maine and, outside NYC, didn’t hit heavy traffic once. There were stretches of four-lane highway where we could see empty tarmac to the horizon. In addition, because a lot of the roads have tolls, the standard of maintenance seems pretty high. And the views, even from roads that locals describe as boring, are breath-taking.

Another consequence of the absence of people is that the potential for getting lost and stranded is taken very seriously here. If you visit information centres or parks in Maine, there are signs everywhere advising you to stick to the path and tell someone where you’re going. It feels like overkill to a Brit who’s used to thinking that even in the most remote tract of virgin forest you are never more than a brisk walk from a country pub. In Maine, though, wandering off the path is a potential risk to life. The very sad story of Geraldine Largay brings it home. She stepped off the Appalachian trail in 2013 to answer the call of nature. She had a mobile phone, map, compass, etc. and probably considered herself well prepared. She died nearly a month later, having never found her way back to civilization. Her body was undiscovered for two years. She was only 3000 yards from the trail, but the forest is so dense and so vast that huge search parties never even came near her (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/may/26/hiker-who-went-missing-on-appalachian-trail-survived-26-days-before-dying).

It’s both unnerving and beguiling to think how wild large parts of this country are, how untouched, especially compared to the UK. Something else that worries me about this country, and with no compensatory thrill, is the level of inequality. The standard of living available to me here is fantastic but one is constantly aware that such luxury is limited only to those of us with privilege. One cannot miss the poverty, discrimination and poor access to care and services that are all around in NYC. No matter where you live, you will have heard that police shootings of black men are disturbingly high in this country. News media here and elsewhere paint a picture of a country close to the edge, with a twitchy trigger-finger and a higher than average propensity to violence, discrimination and xenophobia. Despite what Trump says, though, violent crime is low in most of the USA, down from historic highs in the 1980s. Immigration is also low, historically, and the number of undocumented immigrants is reckoned to have been roughly static for the last ten years. So what is everyone so angry about and so scared of? Heather MacDonald has argued recently (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2016/07/18/police-shootings-and-race/) that the police here aren’t systematically racist, and the reason for so many police shootings of black men isn’t police bias, but simply that police shootings happen in high-crime areas, and high-crime areas tend to have more black people. This leads one to ask why people from ethnic minorities are so much more likely to be involved in crime – the answer must surely be poverty. Poverty in this city is obvious, scary and depressing. People sleep rough in huge numbers, and limited access to health care means that people suffering from obvious mental distress are left alone and helpless. It is not uncommon in this city to witness a stranger in the grips of paranoia, psychosis or delusion, passers-by unfazed, desensitised by frequency. Poverty and poor health affect ethnic minorities in much greater numbers than they do white people. The reasons for that are complex and historic, but discrimination and unfairness are blinding in this city.

The highs in this country are wonderfully high – the quality of life one can achieve is simply superb – but the lows are depressing and can be terrifying if you think about them for any length of time. It seems so unfair that such a prosperous place appears to care so little for the needy. Charity seems the job here of wealthy individuals more so than the state or local government. Of course, there are programs to assist people in need here, and the UK doesn’t have all the answers, but the UK, at least to my eyes, appears a much fairer society than the USA.

One thing that isn’t scary at all in the USA is Halloween. This festival, which in the UK seems to be an excuse for yobbish intimidation and random egging, is a delight here. The last few weeks have been so much fun because this country loves to decorate. NYC has been festooned with fake cobwebs, fall colours, carved pumpkins and witches’ hats. Just before Halloween, I took part in an event called the Haunted Island 10k, a Halloween-themed road race around Roosevelt Island. Roosevelt Island, now a peaceful leafy residential area, was once home to the city’s Lunatic Asylum, a fact perhaps unknown to those runners dressed in bloodied strait jackets. It was a wonderful event run by a group called NYCRuns, well worth a look for anyone wanting to enjoy some fit-keeping in the Big Apple’s most stunning locations.

On the spooky day itself, children and adults throughout the city turned out as all manner of ghosts, gouls, heroes and villains; stores and restaurants gave out free candy, and it all culminated in the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, a cavalcade of performers, stilt-walkers, puppeteers and float-riders. The crisp fall air and general high spirits made this a heart-warming night to see NYC at its best while all people, zombie or ghost, vampire or skeleton, Iron Man or Wonder Woman, put aside their differences and celebrated death and evil in all its multi-coloured manifestations.

Parades are something of a regular occurrence here, the next big one being Thanksgiving. If Halloween in the USA appeals to my slight over-keenness for dressing up, Thanksgiving gets me excited because it’s an excuse for me to loosen my belt, drag myself up to the table, and gorge on turkey, gravy and sweet potatoes. Now that really is scary!

 

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