Probably the first question people ask me when they discover how much I’ve travelled is “What was your favourite country?” In the words of a clickbait headline, the answer will often surprise them. My favourite country to travel in is….
Are you surprised?
People I’ve told tend to be. I think they expect somewhere more unusual like El Salvador or maybe somewhere more traditionally exotic like Fiji. To them, the USA seems so familiar. So…. mainstream.
I’ve always wanted to travel round the US. Whether this is because its cities interested me, I was influenced by the romance of the American road trip, or like most people in the UK I simply grew up on an American culture heavy diet packed with Hollywood movies, nineties sitcoms and noughties pop music, I’m not entirely sure. When Paul and I were planning our round the world trip, I told him I wanted the USA to be a part of it. So we spent three months travelling around the country at the end of our trip, taking in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Nashville, Memphis, Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, Atlanta, Richmond, Washington DC, Baltimore, New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Seattle and Portland. We got from place to place via cheap internal flights and the much maligned Greyhound Bus.
There’s a sense of romance travelling around the USA. A convertible on the open road, head against the window of the Greyhound bus as the highway passes by. Rightly or wrongly, America still retains its reputation as the land of the free, a country where anyone can go to make their life better. Among the places we visited were Los Angeles and Nashville, cities where fresh faced hopefuls arrive every day clutching their dreams, hoping to beat the odds and one day have their name carved into Hollywood Boulevard or be inducted into the Grand Ole Opry. We shared our Nashville hostel with a young man who had been driving all night to arrive in the city and start working on his dream to become a country and western star.
Every place we visited within our trip round America was very different. It’s impossible to compare the Creole influence and voodoo folklore of New Orleans to the dilapidated buildings and battered dreams of Detroit. The bicycles and hipster pleasantries of Portland to the honking yellow taxis and big city intensity of New York City. Within the USA there’s big places, small places, Liberal places, Conservative places, beach places, mountain places, farm places and so much more. It’s impossible to generalise the USA; visiting each city in almost feels like visiting different countries.
The United States of America has the best of everything. The most beautiful beaches. The most spectacular scenery. The most vibrant cities. The most delicious food. The most impressive museums. And it’s fun. American is a lot of fun. Any country which has Disneyworld, the Vegas strip, Bourbon Street in New Orleans, the Honky Tonk bars of Nashville and B.B. Kings in Memphis has to be a serious contender for the country in the world you can have the most fun in.
Many of the travellers I have encountered are on the hunt for a travel experience that is “authentic.” Many travellers hunt out the furthest away and least travelled to country they can, as if the the value of a place is tied to how difficult people in their home country would find pointing it out on a map.
I hate this kind of travelling. I’ve visited remote hilltop towns in Central America and Asia that are so full of this type of traveller, each hoping they would be the only foreigners there, that the entire identity of the place has become formed by the tourists. The narrow streets of tuk tuks and rainbow coloured buildings have become filled with travel agents and hostels. It doesn’t matter if the people outside have a different colour of skin, speak a different language and have very a different way of life as there is a support network and community of backpackers nearby. Travel agents with boards outside their shopfronts advertising buses routes that take you everywhere you could want to go. When we reached America we realised there was no backpacker scene. While the hostels in the previous countries were filled with Brits, Europeans and Australian backpackers, the hostels in the USA were filled with American oddballs, drifters with nowhere else to go. We were truly on our own.
What determines whether a travel experience is “authentic” anyway? What makes a one thousand year old temple more interesting and of more cultural value than Fifth Avenue? Or even just a massive shopping mall? Some places masquerade as cultured and authentic when they are not. They are built for tourists. The USA is authentic. Sometimes this means authentically bad (MacDonalds, guns, and the people who voted for Donald Trump spring to mind). But it’s real. It is what it is.
The USA is the most powerful country in the world. It makes the majority of the films and tv shows, creates the majority of the music, produces the most profitable businesses and influences the majority of the culture in the world. Its President is the most powerful person in the world. Can you remember a news item that sent shockwaves around the globe as much as the election of Donald Trump? This power, and this sometimes grotesque abuse of power, seems to repel many travellers. It fascinates me.
I want to go back. When we visited before it was 2008 and we watched Obama’s inauguration on a small tv in a Nashville hostel. Needless to say, so much has changed since then. I’d love to revisit some of the places we went to last time, particularly LA and New York. I’d love to visit some of the places we didn’t get a chance to go, like Miami and Charleston. And then there’s the National Parks and lesser visited cities like St Louis and Denver. I bet I could spend the rest of my life travelling the USA and I’d never get bored. I’d step on that Greyhound bus, put my head against the window, and never look back.