Land of the free

A Scotsman, a Swiss man, two Swedes, a Belgian, a Dutch and an English girl walk into a bar.

Sounds like the start of a bad joke.

It was actually what happened the other night in a hostel we were staying at.

Chance brought us together for one night. The next day we’d go our separate ways and probably never meet again.

But for one night, we were best friends. We bonded over cooking dinner (pasta obviously), and spent a fun night discussing our impressions of America.

It was an apt time to reflect on our time here as we’re flying out in two days, after having road tripped round California. We’re currently exploring San Diego with family, and we’ll be spending two nights in Fiji before flying to New Zealand on Christmas Day.

One thing we all agreed on, is that the only thing (some) Americans love more than their freedom, is telling you about how much they love their freedom.

People like Randy.

We met Randy in Arizona. We were stopped at the side of the road and he pulled up to ask us about our trip. We chatted about how he liked living in the USA:

“I’m so happy to live in the most free country in the world.”

“That’s great you love living here. We’re curious, what freedoms do you guys have that other western countries don’t have?”

“Well, I can own guns…. And I can ride my bike without a helmet”

This conversation with Randy, we’ve had with a bunch of people on our journey. With our European friends, we were trying to brainstorm other ways in which Americans have more freedom than people in Europe. The only one we could think of relevant to the UK, was that in the USA you can still talk on a mobile phone whilst driving…

Ironically, the people who tell us how happy they are to be free are generally middle-aged white males – not a group you’d necessarily associate with being oppressed.

The reason some Americans believe their healthcare system superior to others is about freedom. The attitude is, by having a private system of healthcare and insurance, you give people the freedom of choice to decide where they want to get their insurance/treatment. If people don’t want to pay for insurance, they have the freedom to decide not to.

This isn’t everyone’s view. Our friend David in Austin is our age, has health insurance, and needed to get an MRI scan.

“The whole thing is ridiculous – although I have health insurance, I had to pay $6,000 excess. Who has $6,000 lying around!? The treatment is more expensive because everyone in the process needs to make a profit, so you end up paying loads of separate people: the guy who takes the scan, the guys who prints the scan, the guy who reads the scan, the company that call you to tell you the results of the scan…”

Generally the same people who tell you America is the most free country in the world, will also tell you it is “the best country in the world”.

Ben in Texas told us:

“America is the best country in the world…I’ve never visited any other country, why would I need to? There is so much to see and do here. We are like 50 countries (referring to the 50 states) in one.”

People are taught that America is the best, and the most free country in the world since they are in pre-school. Everyday, pupils are required to say the pledge of allegiance whilst raising and saluting the national flag.

We both worked in the USA at summer camps in 2009. At Ewan’s camp, the kids (from five upwards) had to say the pledge of allegiance every morning, before singing the national anthem and raising the flag. In the evening, the flag was taken down, and the kids had to sing “God bless the USA”.

Our cycling buddy George from Virginia felt:

“All the flag raising, and singing – it’s propaganda. It’s brainwashing young kids. Don’t get me wrong, I love my country – but the only thing I can think of that we’re the best at, is military spending.”

Others have a different view. We were kindly hosted by friends of friends Ellen and Bob at their house in a gated community in Palm Springs, just outside LA. Ellen is a former ice cream inventor, working developing new flavours for major ice cream brands, whilst Bob worked in marketing selling prunes.  They are both very successful and retired aged 40 and 49. They generously took us out for lunch and fed us two tasty dinners.

Bob said of his son (and grandson):

“He moved a mile and a half up the road so he could change schools. The school he (the grandson) was at previously had stopped making the kids say the pledge of allegiance every day. Also, the school was 75% non white, the kids felt like they (non whites) were taking over”

This fear of “them”, particularly referring to Muslims, taking over is prevalent. Ellen said:

“There are parts of America right now that are under Sharia law. They go through Sharia courts, places like Dearborn, Michigan. Do you not have Sharia courts in London? I saw on the news the other day that there were thousands of Muslims in London marching demanding a caliphate.”

Neither of us had heard of Dearborn before, so googled it.

The reality in Dearborn is that it is a city with a diverse population. A satirical news website made up a story about the residents of Dearborn voting for Sharia law, which was totally fabricated. The article was shared thousands of times on facebook by people who assumed it was real. One thing led to another, and now people thousands of miles away are telling us with conviction this town is ruled by Sharia law.

The mayor was forced to say:

“Dearborn has never been, nor ever will be, under sharia law. We are governed by the U.S. Constitution, the Constitution of the State of Michigan and the City of Dearborn Charter,”

“One unique aspect of our community is the strong working relationship that exists among our diverse faith leaders, who foster understanding and tolerance”

Misrepresentation of places in the USA like Dearborn, and abroad such as London are spread by websites like Breitbart, the former boss of which, Steve Bannon, Trump has appointed as his chief advisor.

In addition to the general Muslim invasion, people are really scared of terrorists.

“Dealing with ISIS” was a key part of the election, and many American’s voted for Trump for his tough stance on ISIS.

According to CNN, gun deaths on US soil between 2001 and 2014 were 440,095 vs 3,412 from terrorism in the US and abroad. Of the 3,412, in fact 2,977 were from 9/11.

So in the last 13 years excluding 9/11 the average number of US citizens killed from terrorism home and abroad is 33 people per year.

To give context, the average number of annual accidental drowning deaths in swimming pools per year in the USA is 3,536.

From looking at the numbers above, it could be inferred that swimming pools are a greater risk to the American people than ISIS.

Unfortunately swimming pools aren’t given the alarmist media attention that terrorists are… and so Trump’s campaign, and the mass of anti Muslim propaganda has people terrified across the country.

Most people’s answer to the terrorism threat – buy more guns.

When we told Larry in New Mexico that we didn’t own guns in the UK, his first words were:

“What do you do when the terrorists come?!”

Guns is just another area where people have deeply different views.  Another area is climate change.

Climate change came up when we were having tea with Ellen and Bob.

“Climate change is an anti capitalist hoax, designed to reduce the influence of, and redistribute the wealth of western countries. It’s another way for governments to tax us, and exert greater levels of control.”

“Carbon dioxide is a 25th of 1% of all air, so the notion of it having an impact on ice caps etc is nonsense. All these environmentalists are banging on about deforestation, but if you drive up to northern California you see trees everywhere. In Lake Tahoe for example there are more trees than before!”

When we queried this logic:

“You guys are young, everyone under the age of 40 has been taught this stuff at school so they all believe it.”

We may be young, but we have just cycled across the continent and some of the stuff you see makes you pretty depressed. We cycled past giant landfill sites in the deserts where all the rubbish is dumped. In a car you’d be past in a flash, but cycling on a bike gives you time to see all the trash. And smell it too.

We’ve stayed in a couple of motels – for breakfast they use disposable cutlery, plates, bowls. Can’t be bothered washing up, so just use it once, bin it, then ship it off to the desert to be dumped.

In the most developed and richest country in the world, where 99% of the tap water is fine to drink, many people drink bottled water. One drink, then the bottle goes in the bin and to the desert where the plastic will sit for the rest of eternity.

The looks on the checkout staff faces in WalMart when we tell them “we don’t need a plastic bag, we’ve got our own” is that of genuine shock – we may as well have said “I’m just going to punch you in the face”.

We watched a guy carry a 500ml coke bottle to his car (20m away) in a plastic bag, then just dumped it on the floor and drove away.

So much waste.

It’s not all bad – apparently since Trump got in, environmental groups have seen record donations and memberships soar.

On these issues and many more, people are so split. There’s been loads written about the increasing polarisation here – it’s definitely something you notice as you travel across.

We were at a dinner party last week, at our friends in San Diego. We made friends with Harold and Gloria, Harold said:

“The USA is so divided, it’s the worst I can remember it”

“If you take the west coast, and north east out of America, the economy of the rest of the country would be like that of Greece. We’re like two different countries (the west + north east vs rest of the country), and I don’t mean different like England and France different, I mean totally different!”

“It’s hard – our tax dollars (here in California) are subsidising these guys in Mississippi and other states who don’t contribute the same to the economy, and are voting for guys like Trump that we don’t want!”

Cycling across the states, pretty much the only thing that most people agree on is their frustration with the political system.

The majority of people didn’t like either candidate. Many republicans didn’t like Trump, but hated Hillary more. On the democrat side, we didn’t actually meet any Hillary supporters until we got to California. Democrats were still going to vote for her, but the overwhelming sentiment was: I’ll vote for her as I can’t stand Trump, but I don’t particularly like her.

People generally agree that they mistrust the system of voting, and are frustrated with the electoral college system. Ben in Texas, republican voter:

“We have a lot of voter fraud in this country, particularly on the Democrat side”

Trump said in the final debate, “I’ll totally accept the outcome of the election – if I win”. Now he’s won, he’s ironically complaining against the Democrats for calling for re counts in certain states, and investigating the hacking controversy.

A lot of people distrust not only the voting system, but the government themselves.

A lady in Florida said:

“I am going to be homeschooling my kids as I don’t trust what the government will be teaching them in schools.”

“I genuinely think the CIA, or someone in the government had some form of involvement in the 9/11 attacks”

This was an extreme case on day two – we’ve met the full spectrum!

Travelling across 10 states has just been brilliant.

Exhilarating. Frustrating. Scary. Eye opening. Exciting. But overall, brilliant.

People will write about this period in American history for years to come, it’s been fascinating to experience it first hand.

Cycling has been a great way to do it – it gives people an excuse to come and talk to us who wouldn’t usually. People outside shops, people in towns, even people stopping us on the road to ask us where we’re going.

Some people have been totally baffled by our trip. A common response when we explain what we’re doing:

“Why would you not just drive?”

Our friend Britney in Phoenix used to cycle to work, she was the only one in the office. She was telling us, one day someone came up to her and said:

“So, are you a lesbian?”

“… erm no. Why do you think that?”

“Well I just thought, because of the bike and that…”

A lot of Americans just don’t get bikes. They don’t get why you would cycle when you could drive. Our cycling, and somewhat nomadic lifestyle sometime leads to hilarious situations:

We’d just bought some oats from a store and cooked some porridge for breakfast, we then needed to wash our dishes before setting off. Katie was washing them in a supermarket toilet (as you do), when a massive female security guard came in:

“Ma’am – are you washing your dishes in the restroom???”

“Erm… yes…  I can explain… I’m not from around here… we’ve bought some oats from your store, and cooked it up outside… we just need to quickly wash up before we head off as we’re cycling round the world.”

“Erm… right… I didn’t know that was a thing.”

“We’ll it’s not really an official thing… we’re just kind of doing it.”

“Right… okay…. Well just carry on then.”

It seemed totally normal to us as we do it most days, but this made us stop and think and laugh about actually how weird this behaviour is.

We often get funny reactions when we say we’re from the UK.  A classic one was this week in LA when a street vendor came up to us:

“Hey, where are you guys from?”

“Hey! We’re from the UK”

“Ah…. Gordon Brown!”

“… erm … yup, he’s from the UK”

“Is that guy still picking his nose??!”

“… sorry what?”

“He’s always picking his nose! That video!”

We had no idea what he was talking about… But then found it on YouTube. We were laughing, that Gordon Brown picking his nose is this guys “go to” conversation starter with people from the UK.

Regardless of political affiliation or geographical location, everyone we’ve met has been nothing but incredibly friendly. All the people who have hosted us, fed us, wished us good luck, prayed for us and just been kind to us along the way have made the trip.

One of our favourite nights was in the deep south in Mississippi. Mississippi is the most deprived state in America, people had warned us about staying there as they said it was dangerous.

One night we were stuck for a camp spot, but ended up meeting a bunch of students on a field trip. They invited us to camp on the grass of their wildlife reserve, fed us unlimited food and drink and welcomed us to their group. We had a great night learning about Mississippi, and teaching them about where we’re from.

It could have been a normal night of camping, but meeting these guys made it a night we’ll always remember. This happened so many times.

We’re writing this in the living room of our friends Kelcy and Ryan – awesome people similar age to us, who are kindly putting us up for the night.

Americans may disagree on many things, but everyone we’ve met has one thing in common. They are generous hosts, kind and incredibly welcoming.

Thank you people of America for welcoming us to your country and making this a memorable start to the trip.

If the people we meet on the rest of this adventure are half as good to us as the people here have been, then we’ll be just fine.