Monday, August 18, 2008
America: God’s own country, man’s own paradise
This travelogue wa first published in the Daily Trust newspaper, Abuja, Nigeria
By Zainab Musa Kperogi who was in the U.S.
Between late last year and early this year, my daughter and I were in the United States of America to visit with her dad. To say that the visit was a thrilling experience is, of course, to understate the tremendous sense of fulfilment that I felt setting foot in this amazing country that we in Nigeria like to call “God’s own country.” But after spending two months in this remarkable country, I am inclined to call it “man’s own paradise.” And I am saying this with the benefit of having travelled to other developed Western nations.
Getting the visa for the visit
Getting the visa for the visit to the United States of America was a wonderful feeling for me. Naturally, I was apprehensive on the day of the interview after I secured the appointment to attend the interview. While waiting in line for my turn, I observed how some Nigerians were being turned down. It was a distressing, unsettling sight for me, one that gave me a reason to doubt whether I would be successful, even though I had all the documents required to be issued a visa.
I later realised, however, that most of the people denied visa either didn’t show sufficient proof that they would return to Nigeria after visiting, or had committed offences ranging from lying about being once denied visas even though their fingerprints matched the ones in the records, to presenting fake supporting documents, etc.
After getting the visa and buying tickets for my daughter and me, we left Nigeria and arrived in Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia, the following day— after two layovers at Amsterdam in the Netherlands and at Detroit in the U.S. state of Michigan. The Hartsfield International Airport is said to be the busiest airport in the world. It’s a huge, intimidating airport that literally threw me off balance.
When we landed at the airport, I saw people rushing to enter trains that looked like the ones that are used in subways in Western countries, so I hopped onto one with my daughter. However, I jumped off again after three stops. I thought I had reached the place where people collect their luggage. I reasoned, erroneously it turned out, that no airport could be so big that it would have several platforms for people to get off the train. To my dismay, after jumping off and thinking that we would soon reach the luggage-collection point, I discovered that the road to that place seemed unending.
I trudged on with my daughter, walking tiredly along till we finally got to the customs section. After leaving the customs section, the next hurdle to cross was the main luggage-collection area. Getting there too became another puzzle because there were several points of arrival. In simple terms, I was lost in this sprawling, seemingly endless airport! By some quirk of luck, I found myself in a place where I heard my husband calling my name. He and his friend had been waiting for almost an hour. He took me to the luggage-collection centre by which time my luggage had already been taken to the unclaimed baggage section.
A day at the CNN global headquarters
After resting at home for a week, we went to the Cable News Network (CNN) Centre to visit a friend of my husband’s. It was our first outing. The man treated us to a very privileged tour of the inner recesses of CNN where we were introduced to such well-respected world-class newscasters as Jim Clancy, Ralitsa Vasileva, Jonathan Mann, Femi Oke, etc.
I found Jim Clancy an incredibly warm and friendly person. He asked my daughter, who was shy, perhaps intimidated too, to sit on the seat on which he had just sat to cast news to the world. (We watched him as he was casting news live).
Thereafter, we took photographs at the set. I felt so privileged. I am sure my daughter will appreciate the honour of sitting on the very chair world-class broadcasters in CNN sit to cast news to the world when she grows older. I must mention that I was impressed by Jim Clancy’s knowledge of Nigeria. He said, among other things, that our Federal Capital Territory (FCT) is a city that was built from the scratch.
I discovered that the CNN domestic, which is beamed only in the U.S., is quite different from the CNN International that we see here. In fact, they’re on different floors and each handles its operations differently. CNN domestic has stiff competition from other American TV/cable stations, especially Fox News, which constantly keeps CNN domestic on its toes. The American society is a very discerning one, so if any TV or radio station doesn’t meet up, the people simply switch over to the legion of other stations that are available. Other stations at the CNN Centre include TNT, CNN Hispaniola, Cartoon Network, etc.
My daughter was very excited when she saw the Cartoon Network section of CNN. She had been watching the CN before we travelled to the U.S. via our DSTV cable subscription. Prior to our visit to the Centre, I didn’t know that CNN owned CN. We went into the Cartoon Network store and bought some souvenirs.
The CNN cafeteria is huge. We ate and sight saw there. We saw a huge crowd of people on the day we visited and we were informed by our host that many tourists from both within and outside the U.S. troop in there almost every minute of each day to tour the Centre, that is, the parts open to the public. The visit to the CNN Centre was, on the whole, very enlightening.
The World of Coca-Cola
Atlanta is home to many historic sites. It’s the home of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coca Cola, the world’s first soft-drink company. The World of Coca Cola, as the Coca Cola corporate headquarters is called, is a huge building and naturally a tourist attraction. Tourists have the choice to book and pay online (which is easier and faster) or go to queue and buy the ticket there at the complex. We chose the first option. The hours for the duration of the visit have to be booked also.
At the World of Coca Cola, we were shown a documentary on how the company was started and its long journey and transitions. I didn’t like the documentary much. Although it made efforts to be cosmopolitan by including all races of the world, the African couple that was used to represent Africans was the butt of jokes from other races. The Africans in the documentary were fat and graceless.
After the documentary, we were given a tour of the complex and thereafter left to further explore on our own. The different tastes of Coke from each of the six continents of the world were on display and we tasted and compared from each continent to our fill. We were also given a small bottle of Coke each to take home.
We chose another day to visit the Georgia Aquarium, the biggest aquarium in the world. It has several aquatic species from most parts of the world. We spent more than four hours at the aquarium. Of all the places that we visited throughout our stay in Atlanta, the Aquarium was where I had the most fun, which was why the four hours that we spent there were hardly enough for me. We explored and looked at the more than 300 species of aquatic life from most parts of the world. We were told that the Aquarium was built by contributions from big Atlanta-based companies. We so loved the place that we took 300 photographs and retired home that day in pleasant spirits.
We also visited Zoo Atlanta. It’s more for the fun of children in my opinion. There were many animals and reptiles at the zoo, naturally. My daughter was very excited when she saw animals she had only seen in books. She was particularly excited to see a kangaroo and pink-coloured flamingos.
Living in the U.S.
I think one of the major reasons the United States of America is a great country is that it is very cosmopolitan and multiracial. Most, if not all, races of the world are represented there. This melting pot draws a variety of ingredients from all climes in the world, a reason why some people believe that the country may never crash since people from different parts of the world have personal stakes in the continued prosperity of the country. In the nearly two months I stayed there, I encountered people from virtually every continent of the world.
As a mother, I also can’t fail to notice the child-friendliness of the American society. I consider children born and raised in the United States very lucky. They live highly privileged and cognitively rich lives in a lot of ways. For instance, children there, at a very early age, are exposed to many educational toys. Children also have at least four TV stations dedicated to them, which educate them and mould their outlook in life. There are equally many recreation centres for them to visit and relax.
One of my favourite pastimes while there was watching TV. I was fascinated by the multiple TV channels available. These days, reality shows where TV crews stay in a family’s home and record their day-to-day activities, are the vogue. There’s a station that shows how women give birth to babies through one interesting way called bathtub delivery. The woman is made to sit in a bathtub that’s being medically prepared to relax her while she’s in labour. If the labour pains are not much, she’ll sit in the bath and deliver the baby right inside the water.
The two or three medical personnel attached to her will then hold the baby and lift him/her out of the water. I was enthralled by that. Her family members, especially her husband/partner, will be there to videotape the entire procedure. I would surely have loved to give birth in the U.S.
Another aspect of living in the U.S. that fascinates me is their excellent and well-organised public transport system. In Atlanta, for instance, there’s the Metro Atlanta Rapid Transport Authority (MARTA). They have a collection of buses and trains which run from 6 a.m. till 1:30 a.m. the following day. The buses close earlier though; it’s the trains that stay late and naturally operate on many routes in the city.
MARTA is efficiently run as far as I could tell, but my husband informed me that Atlanta residents still complain that it’s not efficient enough. Well, that’s one of the reasons why the U.S. is great. The leaders, like the people, are their own worst critics; although looking at Americans from the outside, they tend to come across as self-congratulatory and self-satisfied. Americans are very self-critical people and this makes them to keep improving on their lives.
The railway lines are beautifully intertwined and well-laid. They do not interfere with other vehicle routes. I always experienced a huge feeling of nostalgia anytime we went out, because even though Nigeria’s railway lines were not anywhere near as attractive as the ones that I saw in Atlanta, for the short period that they existed, they at least served a little purpose while they were in existence. I briefly experienced the Nigerian railway system before it went comatose.
In the buses and trains, there are transit TVs. So, while in the bus or in the train, you can still watch the major news networks. What struck me about the ads in the transit TVs—and this is true of TV ads in general—is that they centre disproportionately on credit card debts and losing weight. These two things are like diseases in the American society.
There’s too much food and the nature of their finances, where credit cards are the norm, makes it irresistible for many not to incur huge debts. It never ceased to amuse me because I felt if one really wanted to lose weight, you could simply cut down drastically on your food intake and in the case of credit card debts, you discipline yourself on your spending habit. I always believed that the companies claiming they could help debtors out of their financial difficulties would only add to them, as those companies would have to be paid for services rendered anyway.
Talking of food, I found that my taste bud was not accepting of American food. Luckily for my daughter and me, there’s an African grocery store that my husband discovered long before our visit where we usually bought African foodstuff. The African foodstuff was more expensive than American food, though. There was also the Farmers’ Market where foodstuff from all over the world can be bought. These two places helped a lot in our diet while we were in the U.S.
I realise, in ways I had not before, that God gave the different races of the world taste buds that would suit their palates, which is why the food that may be sumptuous to one race may be awful to another. It’s, as they say, different strokes for different folks.
Washing clothes with one’s hands is almost unheard of in the U.S. and it has been like that for many years. Like in every part of life in that great country, which should actually be called a continent, as I’ll explain later, the government is always trying to make life worth living for its citizens.
For people that can’t afford washing machines in their homes, public washing machines are available. All you have to do is to buy credit in the card provided by the company handling the washing machines in your immediate environment, pay one dollar or a little higher and your clothes are sparkling clean again! You then dry them in the public dryer; in fact, I never saw twines on which clothes are spread and dried.
Security of lives and properties in the U.S. is guaranteed. If you fear that an intruder is about to invade your home, all you need to do is dial 911, and in five minutes or less, police cars will be in front of your house. Their houses hardly have burglary proofs and that got me scared, because I just couldn’t get over the feeling that robbers could get into the house anytime and that the police may not respond on time to my call. My husband assured me that that could never happen. Of course, there are cases of intrusion into people’s homes where some even got killed, which I watched on TV, but offenders often eventually get caught, however long it takes.
Trip to Nashville: Home of country music
My husband, my daughter and I travelled to Nashville to visit with his friend who’s an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University. We bought the tickets for the Greyhound bus that we travelled on online. (In America, most people do their shopping either online or by phone from the comfort of their homes and have things delivered right to their doorsteps!) The Greyhound bus was comfortable. I’ve seen toilets in planes, but that was my first time of seeing one on a bus. It’s similar to the one on the plane.
Nashville is roughly five hours from Atlanta on a Greyhound bus but three or so hours by a private vehicle. The bus ride was very pleasant. We travelled between 7 p.m. and 11p.m. and not once did I feel that we would be attacked on the highway by armed robbers.
Also, Nashville is an hour behind Atlanta in time zone. The two states are on different time zones, which is a usual phenomenon in the U.S. You could have lunch in New York in the east and travel to Seattle in the pacific northwest state of Washington and still have lunch instead of dinner, because of the different time zones, which is why, if you visit the U.S, you’ll commonly hear it announced on TV whether you should watch a particular programme on Eastern, Central or Pacific time. You could also fly from one part of the U.S. to another and be in the air for 14 hours! That’s how huge the U.S. is.
Nashville, the capital of the state of Tennessee, is famous for country music and is home to the great musician, Dolly Parton. Like many states in the U.S., it’s fairly big and well-planned. We spent a couple of days there and went to a lot of interesting places with our host, his wife and their little daughter. We saw the Grand Ole Opry. If Nashville can be called the Mecca of country music, the Grand Ole Opry is its Ka’aba. No country musician is regarded as having “arrived” if she or he has not performed at the Grand Ole Opry.
Our host’s wife told me that she had doubts if she’d ever live in Nigeria again. She and her husband bought a one-storey home in one of the suburbs of Nashville. The rows of beautiful houses in their suburb reminded me of those in Wisteria Lane in the drama series “Desperate Housewives.” I don’t blame her for not wanting to come back to Nigeria. She has all the comfort that only the very rich enjoy here.
The Ghanaian on the train
On one of our numerous trips around Atlanta, we met one Ghanaian man in the train who said he had been in the U.S. for more than 12 years and only just got the Green Card a month before we saw him on the train. He informed us that he got a two-week visa from Ghana to attend a teachers’ conference, which was the opportunity that he and two of his friends who also attended the conference had been waiting for. After the conference, they never returned to Ghana and became illegal immigrants for years.
He said his two friends got their own Green Card many years before he did because they married American women who understood that they only needed the marriage to obtain the Green Card. He said he had to marry more than two women before he got lucky. Like many illegal immigrants in the U.S. who can’t work legally, he works three shifts to make ends meet, which explained his worn-out look on the day that we saw him.
Some people can do anything to be in America. I don’t envy people who live illegally in any country, not least the United States. It’s a terrible life.
Racism in the U.S.
As long as African-Americans and whites co-exist in the United States, I doubt if the issue of race can ever be erased. The three major racial groups in the U.S. are whites, blacks and Hispanics, that is, people from Latin America.
From my observation, many African-Americans are still angry that their forefathers were taken from Africa and sold into slavery. This emotional scar is still very fresh in their minds, which is probably why whenever many of them have occasion to make public speeches, they always advise their black brothers and sisters to ‘know their history.’
All my husband’s Black American friends we visited talked about ‘knowing our history.’ Unfortunately, that history is of slavery and the suffering their forebears endured in the hands of their white captors. This history that they always emphasise on is two-pronged. Many have used it to become success stories in their chosen fields and many more invoke it to justify being drug addicts and perpetual prison inmates.
In the U.S., you’ll find both the most racist people in the world and also the most tolerant people. Racism is one of the major reasons why racially-segregated neighbourhoods still exist in the U.S. In Atlanta, for instance, whites mostly live in the north and the midtown, while there’s a huge concentration of blacks in the south. The east and west are mixed, but this is not to say that there are no blacks or other races in white-populated areas and vice versa. It must be mentioned that segregated living is voluntary—or economic.
While I discuss racism in America, I am also reminded that here in Nigeria, we’re equally battling with issues of ethnic discrimination, which I personally feel is one of the contributing factors to our snail-paced development.
Reflections on the trip
I must confess that I was highly intimidated by America—right from the time we landed at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. I was also for the first time in my life very conscious of my accent, especially whenever I had to buy stuff in superstores like Wal-Mart, Macy’s, Ross and restaurants like MacDonald’s, Checkers, KFC, etc. Most Americans had difficulty understanding my accent. Americans, it seems to me, find it a little difficult to understand accents other than theirs, except you speak slowly and a bit loud. I always called my husband to help me out. I know that I won’t feel that way next time I have the opportunity to visit.
After my visit to the U.S. and given what I now know about it, my irritation at the lame excuse usually given by our rulers that Nigeria is too big to be effectively governed has increased. Nigeria is only marginally bigger than the state of Texas in terms of landmass, and we are little less than half the population of the U.S. The U.S. should ordinarily be called a continent and not a country due to its vast land and population.
For instance, even though Atlanta is the ninth largest metropolitan area in the U.S. with a population of about 6 million, it seems like an endless city. It has huge land expanse and is said to be the second fastest-growing city in the U.S. after Austin, the capital of the state of Texas where U.S. President George W. Bush hails from.
If I have to write on the many other wondrous experiences that I had during the visit, it would mean writing a whole book. Every society has its strengths and weaknesses and the U.S. is no exception. In spite of the prosperity in America, there’s poverty, for instance. I saw a man, a white man, eating from a trashcan in downtown Atlanta.
But although there is poverty, the government there has an elaborate welfare package for the unemployed and the unemployable. Unemployed people are entitled to a monthly allowance of a little over $500 for a maximum of five years before they get a job. There are “food stamps” for unemployed women with children, and subsidised housing, often called “projects” for low-income families.
I know that I would surely visit the U.S. again. I was given a one-year, multiple-entry visa and a few friends advised me to seize the opportunity and stay permanently in the U.S. like many people do. But that’s a singularly dishonourable thing to do, a reason Western embassies are reluctant to give visas to Nigerians.
Even for reasons of self-pride, I would never want to be like the Ghanaian man we met in the train and like many other illegal immigrants in the U.S. I would never want to be a fugitive constantly running from the law in someone else’s country, no matter the attractions. No one should be.