I just got back from a leisurely trip to the US. What was supposed to be a three-week break got extended into a six-week sojourn, spent mostly in Ohio, with a week-long jaunt in California. While I spent most of my life in the US as a resident, this trip opened my eyes in a way that has affected me on a deeper level. I had the chance to contemplate more and think introspectively about what it means to be a member of an industrialised, modern society in the 21st century. Suffice to say, it comes with responsibility.
I had just left the early summer heat in Lahore and I was yearning for the typical North American spring. But no. Just before my connecting flight to Columbus, Ohio, I had a brief layover in Chicago, where I was blasted with cold air on my face and left me hoping that warmer weather was hopefully around the corner. Mind you, this is April I’m talking about. And up until my departure in May, not once during my entire stay in Columbus did I wear a t-shirt.
This is all the more remarkable, because that part of the country is fortunate to experience all the four seasons. The weather was oddly cold for this time of year. I assume climate change is rearing its ugly head in a way we haven’t seen in years before. That, the summers are short and start with a delay.
Columbus is a lovely little city. It’s essentially a college town, where Ohio State University (OSU) is based. The people are pleasant, big-hearted and fiercely supportive of their local sports teams. Columbus is also apparently nationally ranked as one of the best places to live in the US. And it makes sense why: it’s clean, has great schools, and low crime rate and pollution.
One thing that I observed over and over all across the city as well as in its suburbs (including Hilliard, where I stayed) was the dedication to religion and charity. I lost count of the number of churches in just that one suburban town. But it’s one thing to be religious and another to have a community that looks out for those that are less fortunate. In my humble opinion, religiosity means nothing if humanity doesn’t benefit from your God-consciousness.
In the small town of Hilliard, I saw how faith was put into practice by church-goers in the form of numerous thrift shops that were strewn across the town. The ridiculously inexpensive goods at these shops ensured that those who could not afford these goods elsewhere could still furnish their homes and wear the clothes that others didn’t need anymore.
Mind you, this was just one town that I was exposed to. You could make a similar claim for many similar locales across the US.
An urban trend mirrored in suburban Hilliard that I noticed was the ubiquitous presence of chain stores. The town had Walmart, Best Buy, Staples, Costco, and also a few shopping centres and malls. Capitalism didn’t spare this small place either! And as expected, the prices for all types of goods were dirt-cheap. And so readily available.
In many ways, America is a capitalist’s dream come true. Every corner you turn, you are faced with billboards, offering you love, life and everything in between. You have drive-through options for not just food, but banks as well. A simple night out at the movies can induce anxiety, as you sift through numerous theatre options offering food at-your-seat, better sound, spacious seats and so much more. In the US, a chance to upsize your purchase is never far from reality.
My trip to California consisted of four days in Los Angeles (LA), followed by two in San Diego. Imagine my dismay when I exited Los Angeles Airport only to be received by a dull, dreary sky, and a chill in the air. In my mind, LA — and California, in general — is supposed to be warm and sunny. On the flight over, I had one song stuck in my head: “Soak up the sun” by Sheryl Crow. But soaking up the sun is sadly something I couldn’t do for most of the time I was in LA. It was only once I got to San Diego that I was truly able to do that. And, once I finally did, I got sunburnt.
My trip to California was a stark contrast to small town Ohio. This large state on the West Coast of the US was everything Ohio wasn’t: fast-paced, aggressive, poverty-stricken. I’ve often read and been told that America is a very religious country. I’m still waiting for God to show up in California, though. It’s one of the few places in the country where paradoxes are so clearly visible.
The most visible for me was in the homeless people I saw in Hollywood. Not too far from the palatial, multi-million-dollar homes of Beverly Hills, you had American war veterans rummaging through garbage for scraps of food and other potential valuable stuff that might bring ease to their troubled lives. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
The vibe in California is so different from the rest of the US. The people are so laidback, and they have a real zest for life. They may be dependent on a car for the vast majority of their day, but give them any chance to ditch it, and they will. They appreciate the outdoors and are always up for a hike, a bike ride, or a trip to the beach.
They are also very fad-driven. My host told me about a new clothing store called Supreme that had opened just a few years ago. (Don’t judge me for not knowing about it!) When their new collections are launched, there are lines outside the store extending for blocks. And the clothing is fairly simple. Except the Supreme logo jacks up the price multi-fold.
Similarly, there’s a new acai bowl trend. Acai berries are blended with other ingredients, topped with granola and other condiments and served for either breakfast or lunch. It’s a pretty hearty meal, truth be told. But the way the trend has caught on is remarkable. Every eatery has it as a menu option and there’s always a line to grab a bowl.
While Columbus was much more homogeneous, LA was much more diverse. And it wasn’t just because the border with Mexico was a few hours’ drive south from the city. The city had a vibrant presence of minorities from all backgrounds that really made it a melting pot (or salad bowl, depending on which diversity model you prefer) that rivalled that of New York City or San Francisco.
The highlight of my time in LA was not even spent on the ground. A friend who flew planes as a hobby was kind enough to offer an aerial tour of the city. And so it was that the night before we departed for San Diego, I found myself in a four-seater Cessna, up in the airspace of LA. And, LA from the air is a sight to see.
I don’t think you can appreciate the beauty of a well-designed city unless you see it from above. LA has one of the largest ports in the US and, incidentally, one of the largest cruise ships — the Queen Elizabeth, was stationed there, which we also got to see.
Of course, an aerial tour of the city is remiss without seeing the Hollywood Hills, Griffith Park, and Griffith Observatory.
After a two-hour drive down the southern California coastline, I found myself in sunny San Diego. This was my first time there and I instantly fell in love with it. On a boat cruise of the city, I found out that San Diego is home to one of America’s largest naval bases, so unsurprisingly, half the San Diego bay was occupied by large aircraft carriers and the other half by private yachts and boats.
The city’s airport is America’s busiest single runway commercial airport. And you could tell it must be by the number of planes taking off and landing. And interestingly, because the airport was situated so close to downtown San Diego, there is a height restriction on buildings in the city.
Getting to the airport for my flight back to Columbus was a cinch — I called an Uber that was promptly outside the hotel lobby in two minutes. And what a spotless black beauty that was! The driver worked eight-hour shifts at the airport and drove however many hours he wanted on the side. How convenient, I thought. And entrepreneurial. A person who had his own work hours, his own office and the freedom to do as he pleases.
That is the real message that America gives to the world. One that was reinforced everywhere I went. You can have a dream and not worry about how to make it come to life. As long as you have the passion to succeed, the resources will find their way to you. And in a resourceful country like the US, that isn’t a problem for anyone.