Hellooo Europe. And Britain.

Icelandic PONIES

I’ve only just got it. Really, really got it. I’ve figured out that I travel for the interactions with others, the scenery really is just a set of backdrops. Iceland prompted this realisation. It’s a wet wee isle, entertaining scenery, but nothing hugely different to what I can see back home, at least in summer. And certainly not as dramatic as some of the visual splendour I travelled through in the US. But the people, the stories told by the people, the self-deprecation, the feisty humour. Smashing. A tour guide led a small group of us through Reykjavik the day we arrived. She told stories of christmas trolls, believing in elves enough to move motorways and the surprise election of the current mayor of the capital city (a stand up comedian). She lovingly took the piss out of her compatriots, and I knew I wasn’t in America anymore. This was an arts university graduate working for tips, and she was genuinely witty in her second or third language. Not even on brewery tours had anyone been this engaging in the States.

Elvish Tour Guide

I love that Iceland is so proud of their gene sharing with the Viking hordes. They quietly, almost reluctantly admit that their own Viking heroes were largely sheep farmers and horse breeders rather than raping, murdering pillagers. They sell Norse God action figures and install huge longboat sculptures on the foreshore, and their mythologies are woven into their lives. They seem a very self-assured people, fighting International conventions to ensure whale meat remains available in restaurants. I’m from a tiny island in the middle of nowhere too, but we have a nationally tendency to be somewhat apologetic about what others might see as our short comings. Icelanders have a depth of pride that maybe kiwis can learn from.

The Maori people back home have a strong mythologised culture too. Legends provide children with strong heroes, moral guidance and a sense of belonging.  I found that many Americans were ignorant of the tales of the Native American tribes, which is a great shame. I loved the myths of so many countries as a child, and I was proud that my country had our own. But lately in New Zealand general access to our mythic heritage may be under threat. The cultural icons of the Maori people are being assessed for copyrighting and trade marking. As a result I’m starting to lose confidence in my right to claim any degree of allegiance with what I see as my own cultural heritage, seemingly because I’m a whitey. Where in Iceland their stories and legends are a unifying point of cultural pride, I hope that in New Zealand they don’t end up contributing to divisions between people.

I didn’t have nearly enough days in Iceland, but at least my flight out was bound for another entertaining stop, London. Every time I accidentally on purpose end up in the shining jewel of the British empire something fun is kicking off. This time I did a search for “beer festivals” just a day or two before I flew out of Denver, and lo! The biggest beardy weirdy drinking convention in the British Isles was kicking off from the day I arrived. Yes please! London Olympia was lined with 800 beer, cider and perry (pear cider) taps, pork scratching vendors and bratwurst stands. The London Craft Beer Festival was having its debut outing the same weekend, but we decided to kick it old skool in hopes of avoiding over-hopped new world styles. We had no regrets as we sipped at creamy stouts and comfy brown ales. It was one of those events you wish you could teleport all your mates to. We shared a pint with one of the Scottish brewers, many of the smaller breweries had only one pint on tap (out of a total 800), and their alcohol architects were at hand to talk up their wares. The event was more about tasting than boozing, and there wasn’t a single screen showing football…Good on ya English beer brewing fellah’s and pickled fish vendors.

Beer fest

London was another briefish four-day interlude. Gatwick to Dublin is a quick hop, and then it was a skip to the bus lanes, and a jump to Castlepollard in Westmeath. I’ve been living in Castle Tullynally for a week now, helping with the gardening and tourist shepherding. I was shocked to find it only took 48 hours to get used to waking up and looking out the boudoir window to see white and grey towers and the arched gateway. I guess that’s a positive thing though, running a huge mansion looks like exhausting work, and the place probably costs even more than a two bedroom flat in Wellington. I’m enjoying being able to wander down to the vegetable gardens and harvest fresh beetroot for tonight’s chocolate cake though. And on the way back to the kitchen I pass donkeys, llamas and battlements, and I reflect on how fortunate I am to get to call another place home, even if briefly. I’ve always had mixed feelings about the Republic of Ireland, again it’s a people thing. It’ll be interesting to see how some time living with the locals shifts my perspective. And of course there’s some lovely scenery.

White tower
Advertisements

Ten weeks in the US

Blog vodka

Over the past few days I’ve started feeling myself transitioning towards my next destination. Chatting to myself in an Essex accent, considering what something might cost me in pounds or Icelandic Krona. I’ve been resisting this as much as possible though, so that I can draw as much as possible from my last weeks here. Every day her has had unexpected surprises, strange encounters and at least one “accidental” exposure to high fructose corn syrup. This week it was American Donuts. Homer Simpson, I concur.

One of the simplest ways to access another culture is via their food. My mate Paul has worked in the grocery trade back home for yeeeeaaars. He and I discovered Eastern Europe together a few years back, as part of an Oktoberfest training mission. The first thing we’d do on hitting a new country is visit a supermarket, buy up unknown deli delights that could be placed on bread, and had a backpacker picnic. Uncle Bully would have cried if he’d been with me on my first foray into a King Soopers store. Nothing in this unfeasibly huge warehouse of edibles comes in just a single variety. A hundred different bottled waters, a dozen different icing sugars. Ice Cream. Baseball nut ice cream (no idea), cotton candy ice cream, lunar cheesecake, “Icing on the Cake” ice cream, and (I shit you not) “Premium churned reduced fat no sugar added caramel turtle truffle flavour”. I can’t be left in the freezer section alone.

A couple of days ago I popped into a bottle-shop/bottlo/liquor store to buy gifts. Same gig, key lime and cream vodka, seriously. It was a mecca for booze hags. I’ve been somewhat bemused by the ability of US TV cops to drink all afternoon, tip the barman eighty dollars, bounce of every wall on the way out of the pub, heave their last three Long Islands into a gutter, then pull out their car keys. The attitude towards drinking and driving may, just may, need addressing. Bars are frequently in the middle of nowhere, next to a highway, with huge car parks. And the beers are cheap. Cover your eyes fellow craft beer drinkers, because here I’m paying around $4 for a pint of good nitro milk stout. They stop just short of asking if you’d like that pint of absinthe in a take away cup.

I’ve been out on expeditions a couple of times with a talkative, intelligent gent, a home brewer with an entertainingly understanding of booze. Unfortunately a drink driving incident a couple of years ago means he now has to blow into a breathalyser attached to his cars ignition, prior to driving. Once the car’s in motion he then gets peeped at every fifteen minutes, and again has to blow, or something happens. Maybe the engine dies, and the power breaks and steering lock, I don’t know, I haven’t been shared a bottle of tequila with him on the road. He also had to undergo all manner of other anti drink driving education prior to even getting back in the car. So there’s punishment for those who get shid-faced, then drive, then get caught. But the inebriated horse has already bolted. Room for improvement, America. Just sayin’.

One of the most valuable discoveries in the past week, has been the introduction to the “Tiny House” movement. I’ve spent the majority of my time in Colorado living in a trailer park. Firstly these miniature communities have all the imagined entertainment benefits. The stories behind why people shift into them are often visceral, and hugely varied. They’re also far more communal than a suburban setting, no fences, entertainment spaces (car ports) open to the street, thin walls. Your bongo playing, midweek boozing and stand-up arguments are communal activities. But far more relevantly to a wandering pedlar of stories, they’re affordable. People choose to live here because they’re don’t end up tied into a thirty mortgage. Ok, and because in some cases no bank would ever offer them one. But you can buy a trailer for the price of a car, and pay a low rental fee to the park owners. There are some sound lessons here, and the owner of a beautifully renovated trailer opposite Francoise’s put me onto “Tumbleweed Homes”.

Home

The “tiny house” idea takes things a step further, it involves serious “downsizing”. These owner built shelters are all about eliminating unnecessary space, they’re a counter to the huge McMansions that loom in new housing developments, and all the stresses associated with them. They’re not for everyone, if you like swinging cats you’ll be disappointed. But you can build one for as little as $10,000, and as long as it’s small enough, you can install it on a trailer. There are minimum house size requirements in the US, but if you can mount it on wheels, you can construct to any size you like. I’m taking some of the ideas back home. I don’t need five bedrooms, I need a space of my own which I’ve built to meet my needs. And to avoid the stress of lifetime debt. And to live in a community that accepts the twitchy writer guy who lives in a treehouse…

Sigh. In two days I’m leaving Colorado for Iceland. I imagine it’ll take some time for me to digest all that I’ve been through here in the States, spending time in Europe and Britain will no doubt help me apply perspective. I’ve had my expectations variously fulfilled, exceeded and trampled upon. And I’ve met some beautiful, thoughtful, intelligent people. To all of you that have helped a kiwi discover sand boarding, rock climbing, and rules around Native Americans getting exclusive rights to sell fireworks, thank you so, so much. To all the Americans I didn’t get to meet, maybe next time. I’ll definitely be back.

The light and dark of road trips

Bigger

It’s vultures that circle the skies, from Colorado down through to Arizona. The hawks and eagles are in remission this year, and maybe the one before. The carrion feeders are on display, and at times it’s a little unnerving. Like when you’re low on fuel fifty miles from your destination, on desert flanked roads.

Over the past ten days I’ve travelled South West, across a dry, over-stretched lands. More than ever it has become apparent how this country was born of her passageways, first her railways, then her roads. The combined powers of the oil and transport industries have conspired with politicians to produce the cheapest gas prices I’ve experienced. The result is a nation scattered across a continent, with hundreds of miles between real destinations. And the hulks that travel the black top, churning through fossil fuels that this country seems so loathe to give up, they’re evidence of ignorance limited global resources. Huge RV’s tow four-wheel drives, which in turn are loaded with Harley’s. Madness.

Restaurants and gas stations are centred on nothing more substantial than the road. A million miles of anchor points for the chain takeaway empires fencing their wares. It’s not just the V8’s that tear through crude fuels on voyages between the States, their drivers need high fructose corn syrup to hammer that accelerator. Amongst the repeated signposts though, are the struggling entrepreneurs, the Moms and Pops trying to make a living from the fast travelling millions. So road trips are long stretches of gradually shifting scenery, punctuated by handmade signposts beckoning towards vaguely promising distractions. We pull over for cheap root beer floats, fields of coloured dinosaurs or UFO watch towers. Anything to  break up the journey, and allow engagement with what we hope will be true American characters, aching to leak unlikely stories and sketchy explanations for their way of life.

At least these people are fighting to make a living, no doubt balancing a number of revenue streams, and employing friends and family where possible. It’s the reservation lands though, that speak to my heart. Intermittent, unkempt “Travel centres” are advertised as being run by tribes, names that I have always associated with pride. Navajo, Ute, Lakota. But these rundown halls offer only broken coffee machines, two litre slushies and an unvarying array of “hand crafted” trinkets. They’re usually overseen by despondent, overweight women.

Worse than these though, are the faded advertising boards which count you down to casino turn offs. Each time the promised centres of “hot gaming” are horrid windowless buildings squatting in a fenced off portion of wilderness. There are always a few dozen cars littering the mid day mid-week car parks. How can these fetid holes be a temptation? One proudly advertises all you can eat crab legs for twenty bucks. It hardly seems a steal, and I can imagine the stench as the patrons hiccup and belch at the pokie machines, greasy yellow stains dappling their frontage. Yellowed teeth are no doubt bared as they stab at the buttons, their shambling motions dislodging crustacean shards onto shiny surfaces, then to be picked out by rhythmic pulsing lights. Shudder.

It seems that there is a canyon separating these tribal people from the rest of the nation, and that continued ignorance is widening the gap. On a reservation campsite we get a talk from a young half Navajo ranger, and he mentions how nice it is to get the chance to talk to others about the ways of his people. He talks of past achievements of his ancestors with fondness, but the litter covered grounds of his peoples National Park seem to speak of giving up. In my country we’ve had our problems, our difficulties between those who came before, and those who arrived after. Some of the Maori tribes in New Zealand are creating positive changes through engaging with their cultural heritage, I can only hope that the same is happening here in the United States. And that these examples will eventually be a beacon for those who seem to have abandoned hope.

After almost two months of engaging with this country, I’m starting to see the cracks. I love the landscapes and the critters. I love the ideas behind what America was meant to be. I love the chocolate cream pie. The coffee…not so much. It honestly seems that for a long time now this really has been a land of opportunity for many people. But things seem to be coming undone. A new nation is a little like a newly founded religion. This country was set up, much like a fresh faith, with so much positivity, with such positive ideals, and with such trustworthy ambition. But the world’s religions begin to lose their way when they place intermediaries between the believers and their belief. Translators of god’s word. Keepers of the faith. And it is especially dangerous when these intermediaries are given powers and knowledge beyond the rest of us mortals. The US government is now keeping secrets from its people, implementing hidden laws to “protect” the flock. Secret spying, offshore prisons where people are held indefinitely without trial, stealing people away in the night from both within and outside of her borders. America is slowly sacrificing those most important things it stood for.

Maybe this shift will be undone. Protests exist, and in Boulder I’ve talked to a lot of frustrated, intelligent people who see the issues. But it seems that in general there’s a tendency towards national complacency, complacency encouraged by the media. A media which often encourages rage in all the wrong directions. I have seen so much to love about this country, and met a range of positive, self motivated people. I hope that people like these will be able to shake the others out of their sugar-fuelled drudgery, in time to halt the backwards slide. Because I want to return here and see a lot more. But I wonder quietly, if someone somewhere will be reading this blog, and putting a wee cross next to my name.