USA Reflection Blog

Wednesday, Nov 02, 2011 at 16:21

ExplorOz - David & Michelle

As promised, here is my thoughts upon reflection about America and the American way of life based on my 5 weeks in 4 states recently, keeping in mind that we are Australian small business owners working in the IT industry, and we have travelled and lived extensively throughout our country in all it's varied social and cultural segments including country, desert, rural, and city environments.

In no particular order:

INTERNET/MOBILE DATA


American businesses offers free Wi-fi for customers (on your receipt you'll get the password) so without a data plan on your mobile, you can get internet service at most coffee shops, grocery stores, restaurants, clubs, airports, motels/hotels, in fact you'll get it at most retail and entertainment precincts. Interesting, that in contrast this sort of service is so limited in Australia.

There was just one problem... many of the hotels we stayed at advertised "free high-speed internet"... and we got tricked into thinking that meant wi-fi. The speed of wi-fi connections varied considerably, and many just didn't have the range to offer good service beyond the foyer. With that said however, these hotels offered an ethernet plug, but not the cable to plug into it. Big mistake on our part! That would have been the perfect solution for free internet.

Anyway, the point is not to bother sorting out a mobile internet data plan. It appears that American telecommunications industry just isn't going down this path as we have in Australia. You can't just walk into a supermarket, airport, or department store and get bombarded with an array of pre-paid data plan options. In fact, it took us 2 days of asking questions and hunting around shops to find such a thing and when we did, it cost $75 for the plan plus a $10 account setup. Even if you could afford that, the problem is that you will find it hard to actually use it anywhere. The mobile data speed we encountered throughout California in particular was so slow it was unusable to browse the internet on our iPhones so we found our free hotel wi-fi to be the better solution.

FOOD


What is wrong with Americans? Don't they know that sugar is not one of the 5 food groups?
They seem to think that no beverage or food is complete without an overdose of added sugar. Honestly, it is appalling. To paint the picture for you, we tried for 5 weeks to find one supermarket that sold a breakfast cereal without a frosted sugar coating or added sugar. It was impossible to buy a bag of regular raw museli - plenty of sugary toasted granola in boxes, but none made with just raw oats! Breakfast, was the most dreaded meal of my day...



So don't get tricked by the "complimentary breakfast" offered in your room rate at almost ALL American motel/hotels, if you try to choose the healthy cereal option you're out of luck. And don't expect to find a fresh fruit platter or yoghurt either. No poached eggs or grilled tomatoes or mushrooms. Nothing like it... just CARBS and SUGAR

The breakfast bar in most hotels usually offers the following:
*juice bar (post-mix OJ)
*coffee (tastes worse than instant, comes out of a dripolator/filter thingy that tastes burnt)
*2 choices of cereal (usually raisin bran flakes, and frosted cornflakes). "Frosted" = icing sugar coated.
*packets of oatmeal but no microwave to cook it with hot milk, so made up with hot water out of the urn it takes like gruel. No wonder people don't like raw museli - their raw oats are horrible... how can they taste so different?
*toast - all bread is sweetened with sugar and they only offer "jelly", which isn't even jam as it has no fruit, just the sweetened jelly part! I started craving vegemite very early into the trip and sure enough, no Aussie shops anywhere we went to get any. Surprisingly, these hotel breakfast bars rarely offered peanut butter which I had though American's ate lots of, but apparently not so.
*butter - plenty of that. No marg.
*waffles - make your own by filling up a cup with batter from a commerical dispensor and pouring into a waffle maker. They come out the size of dinner plates, and you top them with "waffle syrup" which is a synthetic maple syrup so not even real maple (which is actually very good for you in moderation) OR you could top it with jelly! Oh dear, it just gets worse
*not a pancake in sight for 36 days and almost as many motels/hotels.
*donuts and muffins - right besides the bread box and the toaster you were guaranteed to see mountains of sticky, icky iced donouts - pink ones with sprinkles, chocolate, and custard. Also danish pastries and chocolate muffins.
*Yoghurt - once or twice we found yoghurt but of course it was all too sweet to eat and taste grainy like it was made up from a powdered mix? No plain natural yoghurt, or even greek. Just more sugar and flavours.
*Milk - offered as either 1% or 2% fat - no problem there.
*Fruit - boring. Either a dodgy looking orange, or apple. Nothing juicy or appealing. Once or twice we had bananas and they were awesome - huge big perfect FREE yellow bananas and we went overboard!
*Hot chocolate - powder in a pkt. I tried this one, but again without anyway of heating the milk, you had to make it on hot water and it was yuck with added sugar too of course.
*Eggs - only 1 hotel offered this and we stayed there 9 days (in Vegas) so I didn't eat them everyday. In fact, after the first I wasn't too impressed. They must have been made from powdered eggs? Just bland. No bacon, but strange looking greasy sausages which I avoided but the kids ate once or twice, didn't appeal to them either.

EATING OUT


This experienced varied throught the areas we visited but overall we found very few independent restaurants or lunch bars etc. Most food comes from commercial chains. The worst had no green food on their menu at all. Salad? Well, they only know of iceberg lettuce, potato salad and coleslaw. The best offered a buffet, which always included a salad bar - but outside of Vegas, few of them resembled a food in its original state out of the ground or off a tree. Just sad...

It was a different story in Vegas however.... each hotel wants to entice you to stay and gamble in their casino for as long as possible so food is mostly good quality and good value. Most have a buffet for a fixed price and WOW are they over-the-top and gourmet! We had heard that the Mirage buffet offered the best food and the best price and the reports were well founded. There was food from every possible country and of very high quality - as you can tell, I'm a bit fussy about food - if I'm going to eat extra calories then I want it to be worth it, and not a junk food fest so take my word, the food displays were a work of art. New York New York also had an indoor cafe stip featuring some incredible coffee shop sweet stalls - see pics, amazing cocktail bars and everything imaginable to excite the senses.

In the Grand Canyon (South Rim), whilst there are a few restaurants, you get the sense you will be ripped off. Incredibly, the restaurant that is most renowned for being upmarket, was the one that represented the best value and certainly freshest food - El Tovar. We enjoyed our meal here the most but made sure we tried out most of the other places too. One place where we ordered breakfast, the food was uneatable it was so strange and sweet. Even the kids couldn't drink their hot chocolates - we quickly learned what to ask NOT to be included with certain food orders ie. no cream or sugar with the hot chocolate please), no icing sugar on the french toast please, half a rack of ribs between 2, not a full rack, but bring on the super-sized margharitas!

In Page, a town on the border of Arizona and Utah that was created when the Colorado River was dammed in the Glen Canyon to form Lake Powell, we found the most amazing Sushi Bar. The Blue Buddha was recommended to us and it lived up to this person's statement that it was "even better sushi than you'll find in LA". We love all asian food and often go to Japanese restaurants and Teppanyaki however we have never had deep fried sushi. We did however, top this restaurant eventually in San Francisco (in Alameda actually), but it was very expensive.



We only managed to get one outdoor barbeque (cook your own) at the Cowboy Inn, and the only pizza of the trip that we bought was in a horrid town called Hurricane (past Zion National Park) at a carpark stall. The owner seemed to think that his pizzas were something special - they were certainly delicious, but just like any other wood-fired pizza. Except the price was soooo cheap - $8 for a whole gourmet large wood-fired pizza!!! We bought 3! It seems that Americans are not yet really into the whole wood-fired pizza idea yet!

In the Death Valley area in a little town called Beatty (don't blink or you'll miss it), we found the most enormous candy store - the size of a warehouse! We also found home-made icecream and real coffee! So we bought candy, nuts and even a teddy bear for Leah! We didn't buy the candy g-string, just took that as a funny photo!



Alcohol is very cheap in the US. Sadly, you can buy Australian wine for less than we buy it here (no tax) and for $17 we could get a 1.25L of Gordon's Gin in the supermarket! How about $2 for a bottle of Corona from the bottlo, or $4 from the restaurant or bar (at least $9 here).

DRIVING IN AMERICA


You've heard it all before, roads in America are huge super-highways. It is very difficult to get around without a voiced sat-nav system. However, the signs give the name of the exit as a road name and number, but the sat-nav just says "take the next exit". Problem is, in the cities, there are exits every 50m so you're never sure which exit so if you listen carefully, the sat-nav (we used the Tom Tom iPhone application) will say, "keep left and stay in the right lane".... which means don't take the next exit but get ready 'cause your exit will be coming up soon so stay in the outer lane that is not an exit. There are always 2 lanes for an exit, and at least 2 or 3 going straight on.

The funny thing is when you take an exit off a super-highway, you rarely have an exit ramp leading to traffic lights - you are typically moving from one super-highway to another via the exits - they simply merge. One of the nicest things about driving these highways, is that the speed stays constant all the time - so unlike Australian roads. This is clearly because they have enough lanes for the traffic, never merge two lanes together into one, use flyovers, and rarely use traffic lights or round-abouts. It may look like a concerte jungle but it works and it is much better to drive in America than in Australia as result because you don't spend so much energy checking and anticipating what the next idiot in the next lane might suddenly do. However, this means everyone is speeding. We found in the LA, Anaheim and San Diego areas that traffic moved about 10 miles per hour over the speed limit but we did not see one crash - oh, other than the one we had!!! Just a little bingle and no damage but a BMW clipped our rear bumper (fantastic flexy plastic, so he bounced off) in Alameda, San Francisco. There is NO road rage... no one gets upset or waves their arms about or beeps or acts irrationally on the roads - not across 4 states, and 5 weeks of constant driving in our experience. It may be different in New York, or Chicago but where we went, it was really refreshing. We noticed many times that when a person was holding up traffic (eg. reversing out into a busy street, or acting lost, or letting off a passenger, or taking their time getting into a carparking space), no one would get exasperated nor attempt to duck and weave around them. Instead, drivers would patiently wait behind the car and let them get themselves sorted! I never expected to see that from Americans.

AMERICANS HAVE MANNERS


I have never been to North America so I went with just heresay knowledge of what to expect from their people. I was very surprised to find how polite they were. They have great manners - so much it made me look at our own behaviour and our kids. They are great role models for how we should treat one another. I am not referring to customer service, which of course they are very good at, but just in general when you bump into someone walking down the street, or take your trolley to the isle in the supermarket, the Americans were the ones who were patient, polite and pleasant. They just exude a positive vibe and generally, they seem to really like people - again, we saw this in all areas we visited for 5 weeks and 4 states.

DIFFERENT ATTITUDE TO USE OF NATIONAL PARKS


In America, we visited 8 National Parks and in all, we spent time talking with the rangers and in 7 of them, they offered a Junior Ranger program, which our kids completed. One overwhelming difference to Australia's National Park system is the American's attitude to use of the park. They have the belief that parks are there for people to enjoy and they embrace visitation, recreation, and getting up close with whatever natural feature is unique and special to that region. This does create some controversy about conservation and protection but they have the attitude that people need to touch, see, and appreciate things first hand and that it is pointless to lock it off, fence it off, and restrict access to protect it. They believe that by managing it closely with attentive rangers on location, that people will do the right thing. Mostly, they do but we did see a few instances of graffitti on Indian rock art (in the Glen Canyon, and in the Valley of Fires SP), which they have now fenced off.

The parks we visited were incredible sights - beautiful natural landforms, heavily visited but well planned and managed. In terms of vehicle access, the bigger, more popular parks restricted private vehicles but instead offered a free shuttle bus system with full commentarys, and connecting walk trails so you could hop on/off the bus and walk inbetween stops. Buses would run so frequently (eg. every 5 mins) you never seemed to wait long. Zion National Park, Yosemite National Park, Bryce National Park. The only thing we found lacking was distance markers on walk trails. However, the park maps were very informative and their were always free ranger walks, and talks and coupled with the Junior Ranger program I think they have doing a wonderful thing and the Australian parks could learn a thing or two from them.

RVing IN AMERICA


We had a good look at this...there's a few factors to consider if you are an international tourist contemplating hiring an RV.

First, whilst RVing is very very popular... the privately owned RV's are like super-buses and very powerful machines that easily eat up the highways and hills and even towing the seemingly mandatory ski boat or 4WD behind, could keep up with us in our SUV hire car, lightly packed towing nothing. The rental RVs (we saw lots of them) were much older and were trucks not buses and seemed to struggle more up the hills. You would use much more fuel and take a few hours extra to get anywhere than if you drove a car.

Next, is that with just one exception (Red Canyon, Utah) RV parks, State Beaches and campgrounds are really awful places to stay. Usually no shade, often using abandoned carparks, every campground we passed was full to capacity with signs saying Sorry, we are full. This would mean, that just like us touring by car and staying in hotels, you could need to be booking your accommodation stops well ahead of time, which takes out the fun of the adventure doesn't it? Some of these places you visit are absolutely gorgeous but I wouldn't want to be staying on the hot pavement - you just end up inside so why not be at a hotel enjoy the pool and getting more privacy and space.

Cost - we worked out that you would break out about even but would probably spend more hiring an RV as in a hotel little things are included that you actually use, like laundry, coffee, complimentary breakfast, toiletries, ice, movies. The RV hire, plus fuel costs and camp fees would equal the cost of hire car and hotel, and fuel but you'd buy your toiletries, coffee, breakfast, and go to the movies (perhaps).

SELF-DRIVING TIPS


We bought an esky (40L size for $20) and although we had ice-bricks they were too big for most of the freezers in the fridge in the hotels (if there was a fridge at all) but there was always an ice-machine so we never had a problem keeping things cold. We just kept the basics, like milk, fruit, water, and things to make a roadside lunch such as cold meats, cheese, salad, for making wraps. We also bought jerky and energy bars for carrying in our backbacks for hiking.

Driving on the right-hand side of the road is easy to get used to because unlike our roads, you are almost NEVER going to find yourself not on a dual carriageway and all the lanes are very wide and there's plenty of lanes.

Turning left into a driveway or side street is done by moving into a special lane in the centre of the road (painted with yelllow lane markers) so you pull in, wait then turn without holding up another lane - nice!

Turning right at intersections, including traffic lights, is always done like a giveway sign, so you turn right even though there is a red light. (unless signed "no turn on red") - nice!

Fueling up the vehicle has to be done by pre-paying at the bowser before you fill. However the machines do not accept non-US credit cards so you have to go inside the store first to pre-pay.

TOO MANY AMERICANS SMOKE CIGARETTES


Unfortunately, Americans still allow smoking in restaurants and public places and everyone is smoking everywhere. It was very noticeable as we have now reduced smoking in Australia so much. Sad.

TAX NOT LISTED ON PRICE TAGS


It is very easy to caught out at first. Everything SEEMS cheap but tax is not included on any pricing. Each state has its own tax, but it's around 8%. It is actually 8.1% in Nevada, 9% in California and very hard to calculate so you can't get your coins out while they are making your coffee until they say the total price. Silly.

TIPPING


The other hidden cost is tipping. We finally got it sorted but it just feels like you're paying more for nothing so we still didn't like it and tried to avoid it (which is possible as I'll explain).
Tipping is a gratuity for service, not for tax or for quality of food/item. In regards to eating out, if you choose takeaway or go to a fixed-price buffet you do not pay a tip. You only pay a tip for food when you have table service and you must remember that the tip goes specificially to the person serving you, it is not put into a pool. If you don't like your food, you don't tip less. The tip is part of the wage of the server. The tricky part for us came in regards to the number of wait-persons... and I later worked out that you are meant to tip the drink waiter AND the food waiter. The scary part is that tipping should be 18% of the total bill on the low side, 20% is expected, and over 20% of the bill is considered a "good tip". If paying drink waiter and food waiter, then 12% of the beverage bill to the drink waiter, and 18% of the food bill to the table waiter. So confusing.... they don't even give you any indication of what to do. Our most embarassing moment was lunch in San Francisco... we complained about our food not coming as expected and therefore very poor value for money and the waiter went away but could not solve it so we weren't happy so we tipped very very poorly (ie. left $2 instead of $12) and he came back and said "so you are Australian? I can tell..." then came back again and said "If you don't like the food, say so, but the tip is for my service to you". Talk about embarrassed. My point was still that I he didn't fix the problem, so I wasn't happy with the service. I felt cornered and ripped off. We spent over $100 for lunch and didn't get what we expected.

I LOVE AMERICAN TOILETS!!


Fair enough, we started this trip in Vegas where everything is pristine new, perfect, and over the top! But every toilet in America (including the public toilets at the beach) flushes automatically and always has toilet paper AND seat covers AND automatic taps with pre-set warm water (no wastage) AND automatic soap dispensers which were NEVER empty and automative hand dryers or paper dispensers. It seems, when using a loo (sorry, "restroom") in America, you never have to touch anything with your hands. Only in some beach toilets were the automatic paper towel dispensers missing, but the toilets and taps were always auto activated.

In Vegas, the hotel toilets are easily accessible just inside the main entry doors and the public are welcome to use them, even if you are not a guest. There hardly seems any dress regulations either, so at 6am all sweaty in my jogging clothes and needing a "restroom", it was no trouble nipping into the fancy hotel toilets. The only problem was the water taps run warm/hot water so no good for getting a cool drink!

David (DM) & Michelle (MM)
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Always working not enough travelling!
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