Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Drivin' USA: New York City and the Southwest

Shedding prejudices always pays off. For much too long stale stereotypes and a healthy disgust for US foreign policy have kept me from travelling to America. It is not much surprise considering that it is the country who for 45 years spared no expense or effort to bring my country to a ruin in weaponless warfare and then, exuberant in schadenfreude, tried to kick it forever into the snowfields of Siberia - like Hitler once tried. But we, Russkis, are good at forgiving: you won't find a Russian who would hold a grudge against Germans, even among the surviving veterans, despite we lost 40 million lives fighting them back.

I have nothing against the average American John Doe either. Not any more anyway. Two odd weeks in New York City and ten Southwestern states completely changed my mind. I discovered some of the most breathtaking scenery I had ever seen and met possibly the most affable people I can think of. It is hard to believe that it is the same nation that elected George W. Bush twice.

Day one - New York

A surprisingly short flight from Amsterdam, just over the Pond, indeed. Friendly toothy flight attendants squeeze trays with vacuum-packed fast food in between the coach chairs, so cramped it is – US airline business going through a rough patch. Despite all horror stories, passport check is a breeze, though they do take your finger prints, the Culture of Fear at its best.

YMCA room is a shoebox, the bunk bed is a sham, the receptionist is surly. Steak in a diner on Broadway just barely edible. The wind is chilly. Public phones are a pain to use. This city is very much like Moscow: it makes you acutely aware of the need for money to buy creature comforts. With little to spare you feel like a poor man out of Dickens’ novel.

Central Park in April looks bare but the biggest kick is just to finally be in this iconic place. A classic NYC walk down Park Avenue then Broadway studded with legendary landmarks: Tiffany’s (we are dressed to shabby for it anyway), the office of Dave Letterman’s Late Show (signed up to join the audience but the date is after our departure), Times Square (doesn;'t look like a square to me, more like a busy intersection), Macy’s (could spend months there hunting for bargains!), the Flatiron Building ( symbol of young and hungry American capitalism from my high school history book), huge American flags inside the St. Patrick's Cathedral (flashy patriotism is the order of the day in this country), skating rink by the Rockefeller Center, Radio City (the glamour of the days lng gone by even before I was born). Every place rings so many bells, my head is tingling from all the chiming.

Broadway actually goes along the whole island of Manhattan. Predictably lots of skyscrapers, unexpectedly many churches: that’s where the Sin City dwellers go for atonement. That reminds me of Moscow, the familiar brownish grey hue of Art Deco buildings and churches, churches, churches, only in Moscow it's colourful Orthodox onions domes, not New York's Neo-Gothic, but the gist is the same.

I feel a little like Carrie Bradshaw, empty-headedly traipsing down the crowded streets with a vague smile. The appetising smell of New York street food, hotdogs and pretzels, is spread around by the gusts of cold April wind.

A celebrity- studded barber shop on Broadway looks unchanged since Tony Manero’s times, a real no-nonsense brisk New York: neon lights, linoleum floor, faux leather chairs. They speak 16 languages from Haitian Creole to Uzbek and the the service is cheap, quick and good. To my collections of intercontinental haircuts, I add one from a Ukrainian lady.

The formidable site of a horrible tragedy, Ground Zero. Thousands people sacrificed for political gains in a despicable false flag operation, now a mega-billion property development opportunity. The rich can't go wrong, they only go richer whatever happens.

Queues for the Liberty Island ferry are of epic proportions, the hype is rife. They won’t let you climb up the statue anyway (the 9/11 paranoia still holds its grip on the city) so we get great views of it from a free Staten Island ferry instead.

Broad Street is a real concrete jungle. Skyscrapers tower menacingly over the lines of chauffeured limos patiently waiting up for their filthy rich owners. Here is where the world pie is shared. Bloating something out of nothing as long as it holds out. Living it big on borrowed money, this country's debt is almost 9 trillion dollars. While the drivers are waiting, they are busy upstairs in their leather-and-mahogany offices deliberately keep pushing the dollar value down to repay the debts with cheaper money. Very smart but the overall debt including state pensions and veterans' benefits is actually nearing 50 trillion dollars. This economy of living way beyond its means is in fact an epic black hole ready to implode any moment.

Right next door to this hotbed of shameless financial alchemy an Ivorian street vendor gives me a handsome discount for speaking French: nice NYC souvenirs, a baseball cap and a zip hoodie.

Sunset views of downtown Manhattan from the Brooklyn side are well worth the long walk over the Brooklyn Bridge. All the staff in the famed Grimaldi Pizzeria are Mexican and I hope they are paid at least the legal minumum. The pizza is not really what it's cracked up to be. Not bad but nothing too write home about.

Day two – New York

The Grand Central Station is, well, grand but heavily underused. JackieKennedy was instrumental in saving it from untimely demolition. Train services are very far in between, the legacy of the automotive corporations deliberately uprooting rail tracks in the 30s to boost their own sale figures. The concourse with smart restaurants and superb quality delicatessen in the posh food store nearby prove Americans eat very well when they have the time and money.

The lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria is a bit of a letdown. It is cramped, crowded and looks like anything but. I remind myself not to judge by the first impression, it must be that New York setup where the more money you pay the more riches and wonders are revealed to you. Staying at the YMCA myself, I'm in no position to pass judgement on luxury accommodation in this city.

Art Deco skyscrapers are very attractive – the last architecture style that actually bothered with any semblacne of visual attractiveness. Everything after that is bland drab and technology-aided ego-bloating ambition. The Moorish-style Central Synagogue is exquisite, very similar to that in Budapest. Jews in Morocco enjoyed a protected status, perhaps, that is why Moorish art is so dear to the Jewish psyche. The receptionist in the lobby of the Chrysler Building must have some canine ancestry, she communicates through barking (and, probably, howling when she's sad). I manage to sneak a few shots and run away under a barrage of convoluted threats. This turns out my only encounter with rudeness in the city that is famous for it. Another stereotype bites the dust?

Can’t say you’ve been to New York until you hear the fat lady sing. The Color Purple matinée: predominantly Black crowd in the line, all dressed up to the nines. I hear complaints that this is the only damn show in the city where you have to queue to get inside. Eyes used to spotting racism see it everywhere, or could it be just customary bitching just for the sake of it?

The musical moves me to tears: the poignant story of human suffering, love and perseverance in the face of any kind of adversity is universally powerful. And that overwhelming message is delivered through impeccable dancing, singing that pierces your soul and rips your heart apart, superb set and costumes. Hardly anyone can beat Americans to putting shows on. The audience reacts heartily and loudly to jokes and cliff-hanging moments. Burly brothers in dark suits stand in the aisles eyeing watchfully the crowd so that no one takes pictures. I wisely stash my camera away.

Cathedral of St. John’s the Divine in Harlem is set to become one day world’s largest. Already more than a cnetury under construction, probably just as much to go. Donate more if you can’t wait. Inside, in its state of semi-completion, it is already awe-inspiring. White-robed clerics inside are very friendly, encouraging tourists to take pictures - North America surely knows how to smile.

There is a highly whimsical, cast-bronze sculpture next to the Cathedral, the Peace Fountain. A characteristically post-modern pastiche it is over-laden with symbolism. The figures adorning it include, among others, nine giraffes, a giant crab, the DNA helix, the Sun, the Moon and John Lennon. In the city that invented the industry of aggressive marketing of modern art you need to be over the top to reach the sky-high arts sensitivity threshold.

What’s in a name: Amsterdam Avenue eerily feels like Amsterdam - brown-brick buildings, vandalized bicycles, fat-bottomed girls with plain pony tails.

Harlem itself feels like another city – no white face in sight. The matinée show at the legendary Apollo theatre is a major cropper: a gospel concert turns out a huge and extremely loud bunch of White and Korean school kids caterwauling very uncomplicated Jesus songs at the top of their young and energetic lungs. Eight keyboards, ten guitars and two percussion sets enthusiastically blare at an ear-ripping volume. The din is unbelievable. When a Black girl joins in inspiredly abusing every note at the top of her voice, we have to duck and run out for safety. It is time to refill our tanks anyway.

Sylvia’s Soulfood is a legendary restaurant that in the 60s became first of the kind in New York. Service is erratic but all-time Southern favourites taste home-made and authentic, according to Memphis-born Floyd. After a long day our eyes are bigger than our stomachs so we order smothered chicken, spicy ribs, mashed potatoes with collard greens, candied yams, corn bread and a sweet potato pie. We did not know if we were in Tennessee or West Africa.

Harlem after dark appears safe enough: Giuliani surely did a good job in his time. However, a police officer advises us against walking into certain directions: “You be better off taking the train.”

First dive into the Subway: no-nonsense and functional there seems no class segregation – spiffy theatre-goers and foul-mouthed proletarians rub shoulders here habitually, if probably not quite willingly. A lot of Spanish can be heard: there are reputedly more Puerto Ricans here than in Puerto Rico. A couple of passengers look like they live on the train. They are outnumbered however by deliciously neurotic-looking Woody Allenesque urbanite types. Colourful Art Deco panneaux in some stations are reminiscent of Buenos Aires’ Subte.

Central Park at night is best enjoyed from the window of your hotel – ours has a great view. Gaily lit-up dwellings of the rich look over a drugapalooza and bumorama in the dark heart of the city. Utter luxury rubs shoulders with utter squalor in world's richest city, but who said it all would be nice, white and fluffy?

God bless Finland for inventing the sauna: nothing like it after a grinding day of walking in the cold wind.

Day three – Easter in New York

A leisurely buffet breakfast, a great cholesterol-laden and carb-rich value for your 7.99 plus tax. When you buy a coffee in the USA, it is unlimited: you can drink until it fountains from your ears. Something Dutchies would never be up to. There is an American twist to it though: you can purchase it in a small, medium or big cup, the big one being the most expensive. That's why this country has to import science graduates from Russia, China, India and Korea.

Macy's annual Easter Flower Show is a sight to behold in awe. Coming from world's reputedly largest exporter of flowers (which is Holland), we are taught a lesson in humility. Thirty thousand species of exotic plants arranged in most fanciful compositions make Keukenhof look like an industrial bulb-mongering kitchen garden (which, in fact, it is). More lessons for Keukenhof to learn: there is no entrance fee and the toilets are free to use!

Easter parade: no floats or marching bands, just freely roaming throngs of New Yorkers sporting their very imaginative, most likely self-made, headgear. Individualism at its best on the show. As always drag queens steal it – it is hard to beat them to attitude. We spot a Jackie Kennedy look-alike, I think it is a real woman though.

The archbishop of New York shows up on the entrance stairs of St. Patrick’s. The crowd is large and enthusiastic but well-mannered and without a trace of stampeding inclinations. New Yorkers may be brisk and curtly but rude and uncouth they are not. That's the difference between real city folks and redneck wannabes - a lesson for you, Amsterdammers.

It is a cinch to come close to the archbishop for a quick snapshot and a blessing. It feels very special and personal, blessed indeed.

There are bands of people showing off their dancing routines wherever you go: from the true ‘hood-style break dance to jolly Irish gyrating and Japanese martial motions. Easter here is truly a people's holiday.

Upper East Side has some really beautiful posh apartment buildings but we are here for the Met. The most understated way to describe the Metropolitan Museum is that it is overwhelmingly superb. After visiting all major museums of the world I am a tough cookie to impress but the Met sweeps me off my feet hands down. Half a day is barely enough to hurriedly skim over just a handful of major highlights: Caravaggio, Rubens, Rembrandt, Degas, Gauguin, Van Gogh, early Picasso.

There is much too much to see: African, Chinese, American furniture, Gothic and Renaissance halls, all exuberantly representative and arranged in the most enlightened and thoughtful way. A whole Egyptian temple is housed under a glass roof, said to be within the visibility range from Jackie Kennedy's former apartment. Ironically this temple was a state gift from Egypt to JFK, removed during the building of the New Aswan Dam funded by the Soviet Union. Tiffani's colour glass arrangements however reveal its not exactly noblest origins as the panderer to the tastes of New York's rags-to-riches. I feel like a hungry bee in a candy factory. Apparently a lot of money pumped into this museum, all put to good use. There are obviously some very smart and educated people behind the temporary exhibitions: we got to see Modern Photography and Middle East in Venetian Art. American Art is also well worth visiting and that was as much as we could take that day. Too much of too good can be too much.

We set out to refuel in the legendary Chinatown. People speak broken or hardly any English, my timid Mandarin barely gets me anywhere - it is a Cantonese playground. There is brisk trade in all imaginable cooking ingredients, natural remedies and cheap clothes. The delicious aromas of Oriental (a swear word in the USA, go figure!) food wafting in thick clouds through the cold air make my heart warm and my head wander off back to my Asian years. The food is great from about 15 dollars a head. All-you-can-eats for 10 dollars plus tax are quite vile. Misers who fall for those probably deserve it though.

The gay quarter, Greenwich Village looks tame. The Stonewall Bar, the cradle of world’s gay-lib movement seems to have more historical significance than social opportunities. There must be some parties going on somewhere but you would never hear or know, and that is on a Saturday night!

Christopher Street is dark and gusty but it turns out it crosses Gay Street! Not sure if it is just a coincidence.

The Chrysler Building’s classic pointed top looks beautiful from everywhere, at any time of day or night. The trip up the Empire State Building must be the priciest elevator ride in the world, a whopping 70 bucks a head. You gotta be kiddin’ me.

We walk past the UN buildings nearly breathless from exhaustion and overdosed on sightseeing. New York, New York, I hum enamouredly as I wobble back to my hotel, more than a half of must-see in my list still unticked.

New York is the Ultimate City - all the urban trappings, contrasts, stereotypes and extremes are present here in an exuberant excess, driven to distraction. The tops of human achievement and bottoms of human despair, the ostentatious wealth and the abject poverty, the vibrant mix of nations, tongues and races, crime and spirituality, congestion and loneliness. New York is the extreme antagonist of the hicks, the embodiment of everything that the (covertly wistful) countryside cannot and will never be: fast, liberal, exciting, happening, progressive, open-minded, diverse, energetic, innovative, fun, brash, bold, unbridled and creative. Those very attractive (for some) qualities sometimes can lead to ugly excesses but this is also the very environment where the talent and genius begets the new and moves the human race forward. Running in the vanguard takes cruising in overdrive and that what New York does better than all the rest.

Day four – Escape to the sun

From the freezing gusts of New York's April we leap into the sultry Texan spring. Americans are so much chattier on the planes than Europeans. They strike conversations as breezily as they finish them off. Light non-binding schmoozing is the way of life. You never know who you might be talking to next in this Land of Opportunity: a chat can turn the course of your whole life or land you an unexpected biz op (industry shorthand for 'business opportunity').

At the car rental they tell us to pick any car we want. Spoilt for choice we run around a line-up of steroidal SUV’s and mastodontic jeeps. When in Texas, do as Texans do, so we go for a muscular steel-grey Grand Cherokee.

Fort Worth is a cowboy city. Downtown has some fine Art Deco skyscrapers built with beef money but it has only recently become livelier in the evenings thanks to a revitalization program. The steak-munchers are not exactly the kind to hang out on terraces sipping aperitif. Real men still don't eat quiche here.

True to common stereotypes, big people live big here, driving chunky cars and eating Gargantuan amounts of food from vast platters. Our Aunt Lou most hospitably fixes food for us by the gallon; her gas oven is big enough for me to coil inside. At 78, the Hummer is her favourite car, 'It is so sexy and muscular', she enthuses, eyes sparkling.

Fort Worth’s old quarters hark back to the real swashbuckling cowboy times: the stockyards, live stock exchange, we miss a rodeo show just by a couple of hours. It is a true beef country: the local diet is very much like Argentine minus the wine. Each steak here is the size of the yearly protein quota for an African village.

Day five – Fort Worth

It is good to take it slow after the NYC overdose. Getting anything done here involves a lot of driving. The way the city put together, and it is typical for the US, every single little errand can only be done by car. Fetching a bag of toothpicks from the store involves a 40-minute drive there and back. The two cars we have at disposal – the Grand Cherokee and Aunt Lou's Cadillac make those trips a gas-burning extravaganza. With the central air-conditioning cranked up to the top at all times and a wall-size plasma TV, this diminutive retired widow’s lifestyle surely costs this planet a fair amount of energy. “Texas is the place to be”, Aunt Lou quips confidently. Thank God people elsewhere don’t know it, otherwise they would flock here and make the humankind run out of fuel in a couple of years.

Day six – Fort Worth

America is the place to shop, no doubt about that. The size of shopping malls is staggering. The over -abundance of goods is orgiastic. Customer service is no-questions -asked accommodating and eager-beaver enthusiastic. The never-ending supply of great and affordable things is probably what drives Americans to own several credit cards and no savings accounts, there is just too much consumerist temptation.

A marked down Calvin Klein pullover at Macy’s for 6.99 plus tax, who could resist that? There are hundreds of thousands of such bargains around. I get mental pictures of epic-sized sweatshops in China, Honduras and Bangladesh where tens of millions seamstresses work day and night to make sure that every American has at least 5 tonnes of clothes every day to choose from. Guilt-schmilt, retail therapy feels darn good, so the Cherokee’s spacious trunk fills up quickly.

Aunt Lou has astounding numbers of fancy hats to go to church. I suspect she never wears one twice but keeps them all as mementoes of particularly (or not so) nice sermons. That very pattern is repeated with everything else, apparently also across most households of this 300-million-strong country that consumes 40 percent of world’s energy. Elsewhere, up-and-coming as well as established economies rush headlong to keep up with the targets America sets for its consumerist expansion. I am just a tiny speck amongst the billions seeking happiness in owning more and more stuff. Makes you ponder.

Day seven – Oklahoma

We latch on Aunt Lou’s shopping indulgence just for the experience, since we can’t afford the stores she goes to. I take our trips as field work in regional studies.

European customer service compared to North American is blasé and lackadaisical. However, there is a flipside to it. Most people here work without contracts at their boss’ mercy, so they have nothing but to perform. Texas is particularly anti-trade union: social security and health insurance are anything but taken for granted. The minimum wage for tipped labour equals 1 euro 38 cent per hour, probably even less for numerous illegal immigrants. If you wait on tables or shelf food in supermarkets, you can just barely afford living in a trailer and the only doctor you see will be the check-out clerk in your local 24-hour pharmacy. Or an IC orderly in the emergency room of your poor man's hospital if your gun-toting neighbours shoot you for trespassing on their property looking for your wayward cat.

Enough sad stuff, we go on a fun evening drive to the lovely Turner Falls in Oklahoma for a little respite. Two hours there, two hours back – nothing by Texan standards. Climate is drastically different on the two sides of the state border that turns out not just a pure arbitrary convention: leafy Oklahoma and arid Texas are really different countries. The concept of states as federally united countries, not simple provinces, finally dawns on me.

Day Eight – Shreveport, LA

Gambling is illegal in Texas, so we drive Aunt Lou four and half hours to the closest city in Louisiana where she can indulge in her second favourite vice. The seats of her Cadillac can be heated or cooled and have a built-in massage function. Once you have mastered the electronic controls, you can totally trick your butt into feeling that you’ve shat into your pants. Awesome!

Shreveport is a depressed oil-processing town trying to turn its fortunes milking gamblers for greenbacks. A lot of panters are from the neighbouring Texas. I catch a glimpse of the Mississippi and a taste of Louisiana crayfish, or rather of the tons of salt they infuse it with. Signs in casinos are in English, Spanish and Vietnamese – a lot of people escaped here from the Vietcong and apparently refuse to learn the language of the host country.

Day Nine – El Paso and Mexico

Next day we finally embark on our Grand Tour of the Southwest. Hundreds of miles of a monotonous drive to El Paso. The torrid country here is mostly flat with bleak mountains protruding here and there – nothing much to write home about. In El Paso we walk over a bridge to Mexico. Two countries are separated by reinforced concrete moats and fences of razor wire laid in the already barren and forbidding river valley. Customs officers on the other side of the border purport to understand no word of English. Cultural defiance?

Ciudad Juarez prospers from trade with the US but the disparity with El Paso right across the Rio Grande is striking. Shady characters and roaming youths lurk on crossroads. Snazzy patrol cars wheeze down dark streets, stopping to a screeching halt to check people’s documents. The town is infamous for las muertas de Juarezhundreds of women violently murdered here since 1993, most cases unsolved. Even if you try to put stereotypes and prejudices aside, the place still has a very dodgy vibe so we grab a dinner and haste back to the relative safety of the US of A.

Day ten – New Mexico

The scenery here picks up a bit – the mountains become more photogenic. Many people speak heavily accented broken English or none at all. You can hardly order a pizza without speaking Spanish. Finaly, my Argentinian crash course comes in handy. Most of the US Southwest was annexed after a war with Mexico, now Mexicans are peacefully re-occupying their land. With a birth rate times higher than of the natural born Americans they stand every chance of making this land de facto Mexico again.

Native American settlements are a deplorable sight. Destitute looking people wander around drunk at every hour of the day. Flimsy shacks with battered jalopies parked nearby. Unemployment rate here is up to a whopping 90 percent. May of the people forcefully deprived of their traditional lifestyle could never blend in with the mainstream society, outcasts in their own land. Some really bad karma plagues this neck of the wood, even if the new owners are not aware of it.

Day eleven – Arizona

The scenery starts kicking as we are getting closer to the Grand Canyon. The shape and colours of the mountains are increasingly spectacular.

The Texas Canyon – not on any tourist map – is an impressive assortment of whimsical boulder piles and cracked rocks. Even a giant cesspool in the midst of it is very photogenic. It is privately owned and the wire mesh fence around annoyingly gets in every picture. The desert is understandably underpopulated but traffic jams around Phoenix are epic.

Black Canyon Freeway is one of the most scenic drives in the country. It gains almost 2 kilometres in altitude between Phoenix and Flagstaff offering stunning views of the rugged terrain next to it. Unfortunately it is already too dark for my camera. Time to get a better one.

In the middle of a sun-scorched desert we overnight in a motel with a giant jacuzzi, central air- conditioning and humongous ice-making machines. The energy cost of such an excessive lifestyle in a place clearly unfit for human living must be out of any proportion. That said, it is great fun to have 24-hour diners and uncountable sorts of ice-cream in the true middle of rainless nowhere. Sanctimonious trips aside, we just enjoy while it lasts. The memories of it may be the only thing to hold onto when we’ve finally screwed up our planet beyond repair.

Day twelve – Montezuma Castle, Sedona and Grand Canyon

A mud-brick castle-like dwelling clinging to the side of a rock was home to a community of Native Americans long before the European conquest. They would farm land and hunt in the river valley nearby and do the rest in the safety of their fortified four-storey home. Montezuma has never been here, he was killed in Mexico a century after the inhabitants had abandoned this eerie house.

Red Rock State Park is not on tourist maps but it is a head- spinning serpentine drive up to the top of a mountain with sweeping vistas of spruce-covered hillsides. Very urbanite Native Americans sell jewellery from makeshift stalls. These must be the integrated natives. A very sophisticated looking young Navajo lady with an educated accent sells me two lapis necklaces. She designed and made them herself, very beautiful indeed.

Sedona is quite a sight: red-brick colour sandstone rocks and deep green overgrowth at a backdrop of the intensely blue sky. Everything is striking Technicolor, many classic Westerns were shot here. Even most horrible acting must look good with such a background.

Sedona is not a national park, all land is private. Upmarket property development blocks views everywhere. You need to buy a “Red Stone Pass” before you can stop on the shoulder to admire the scenery or take pictures. The town itself is an epicentre of somewhat overzealous commercial, art and New Age activities. Sources of magic healing energy were found in the hills around. So many people here are busy making money, you can feel the air buzzing and tingling.

The Grand Canyon is too surreal to wrap your brain around. The contrast of the ease of access and the sheer superhuman scale makes it seem just a painted set. Your brain tries to shrink it and than just gives up going into overload. Two billions years (or just a few thousand, if you choose to dump all you learnt at school down the shithole) of Earth's geological history are exhibited in a most mind-boggling fashion.

As you walk or drive along the edge, it looks different from every angle. It all again changes kaleido- scopically as shadows from the clouds run over the rugged terrain. A little rain brightens up the palette, making the hues deeper and lusher. It is almost creepy to think that you get to see just about 2% of this 477-kilometre-long natural greatness.

One hundred sixty two whopping bucks gets us a room with a canyon view. Everything costs quite a pretty penny in the area: gasoline, food, water. Would you like 3 weeny chunks of wood for 14.99 for your campfire? On the other hand, the turnstiles at the entrance are not manned after 8PM so you can enter for free, if you know that before coming.

A huge jet-black raven skips and jumps among tourists on the edge of the canyon. He behaves like a very smart creature, his blueish-black eyes sparkling with intelligence. I understand why it is called the Wise One in Native American legends. He starts skipping every moment I am ready to take a picture of him, as if teasing me.

Day thirteen - Hoover Dam & Las Vegas

More and more of the Grand Canyon is never enough but can get too much. Lady at a souvenir shop confirms that it can overload your brain even when you are here every day, you just never quite get used to it.

Hoover Dam named after the lacklustre president supplies four states with energy. The blue waters of the gigantic dam lake fill a humongous brick-red and ochre rocky crack in the earth with a spectacular effect. The dam is the reason why the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon has been reduced to a mere creek. Many sites of historic importance and natural beauty were permanently flooded, thousands people relocated - just like for China's Three Gorges Dam nowadays. Progress comes at a price. Built in the 1930s, the building of the power station is adorned with attractive Art Deco bas-reliefs and statues.

There is only one place on earth that can beat the Disney World to kitsch and tack – Las Vegas. That does not make this unashamedly plastic creation any less fascinating. The sheer audacity of building a make-belief world in the middle of a parched desert is admirable. A 10-mile-long street of casinos create enough cashflow to provide two-odd million people with a livelihood in the place that under normal circumstances could sustain just a bunch of lizards and an odd armadillo. Estimated 22 million flock here every year in hope of quick riches or a celebrity glimpse: singers and performers too tired to go on tour end up giving shows in Las Vegas. For many it is the only way they can afford to see the (fake) Eiffel Tower, (fake) Venice or the (fake) pyramids.

The chintz and glitz of this city can be good fun, just take it all lightly and don’t let the tackiness get you. Gorge, for example, on Las Vegas’ epic all-you-can-eat buffets. In Hurrah twenty dollars give you unlimited access to an orgiastic variety of classic and ethnic dishes – a hundred-metre counter with piles and heaps of mouth-watering freshly cooked food. No use guilt-tripping over living in the First World, just pig out and enjoy. Stay on as lunch fare gradually supplants breakfast offerings. Nobody cares how long you stay here: this is the very heart of the Land Of Plenty, or rather its oesophagus. Quite a number of very, very obese people are rolled in on pushchairs. They look like they might be enjoying their last meal, just like Mr. Creosote.

Day fourteen – Las Vegas and Utah

You can see more of Las Vegas’s pores and warts in the daylight. Spots of unabated luxury sit next to swathes of urban desolation. Guidebooks advise against walking the southernmost miles of the Strip, unless you enjoy getting robbed at gunpoint. Broke people beg in the streets trying to raise bus fare to go home. A newly converted Dutch petit bourgeois, I have precious little compassion for those types.

The road to Utah should be declared a national park. Driving through dynamite-cut rocks with perspectives changing at every curve it feels like inside a car race computer game.

I am running out of adjectives to describe the scenery. As the sun starts going down it all becomes a Technicolor orgy. If there was a highway down in the Grand Canyon, this is what driving there would probably be like!

Clean and cosy, the little Mormon village of Springdale is a gateway to the Zion National Park. You can tell a lot about locals by their grocery stores. The one in Springdale would not be out of place in downtown Manhattan: wholemeal this, organic that, fine imported wines, not a whiff of the bottomline-driven Walmart-style edibles. Once again Utah is very different from Arizona in terms of ethnic composition and people’s lifestyle. Travelling length and width of the USA made me realize how stupid it is to paint the whole 300-million-strong country the same colour.

Day fifteen – Zion National Park

Originally called Mukuntuweap it was renamed after locals’ protests. It was White folks who ‘discovered’ it after all. Zion N.P. is essentially a large crack in the mountains, and an extraordinarily spectacular crack at that! There are many angles at which it looks more like a particularly dramatic 3D computer simulation of a fantasy world.

This area of the USA, Southern Utah is so rich in nature beauty, it is home to a whopping nine national parks. I could spend months here, feeling like a junkie in a pool of cocaine. I guess when you live among all this natural exuberance, you take it for granted. I swear I never would!

For me, it is all a very humbling experience. Only facing the nature on such a superhuman scale gives you an idea of the beauty and grandeur of God's creation. Neuroses-laden urban life of office plankton removes you from the true reality into the rate race where even the winner is still but a rat.

So spoilt are the Utahans, places like Glen Canyon and the Lake Mead are mere recreation zones for them. Every few minutes that you drive on the blue highway here you pass rock formations that in other countries would be proclaimed national monuments, fenced over and shown for money. Here they are just ‘rocks’.

Day sixteen – Monument Valley

Immortalised in scores of westerns and Marlboro ads, this a truly iconic place for the American psyche. He, most whimsical rocks looking like some castle ruins rise here and there from the flat valley floor. The colours are typical Southwest: all shades and tints of lush brownish red against the backdrop of intensely blue sky with occasional spots of green undergrowth. Mesmerising.

Night over in Mexican Hat named so after a nearby rock that looks like a Mexican man in a sombrero. Once again, the colours in the dusk are surreal. There are many more such odd nature’s whims around. Nice to have a digital camera, I would have run out of any reasonable stock of film rolls by now.

We make it to the only restaurant in the village in the nick of time before the closing. The kitchen is closed, washed and locked but despite a very late hour the lady is happy to fix us at least sandwiches and drinks. Try that in Amsterdam.

Day seventeen – Valley of the Gods and the Four Corners

Valley of the Gods is very much like the Monument Valley, just hillier. It deserves but an undeservedly slight mention in the guidebooks, so you won’t see tourist crowds there, in fact, any people at all. Stop the engine and relish the rustle of hot wind. Awesome.

The Four Corners is the point where the states or Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico meet to claim the ownership of the Four Corners Monument. Just not to fight over it, they decided to let “them Indjens” have it. It is administrated by Native American tribes who collect an entrance fee, providing some income for their people in the area where employment is scarce.

On a map back from the early days of the USA the vast swathes of land later to be shared between the four states were a loosely defined Indian Territory. It was left so until the young country developed enough appetite to swallow it.

Today we are accomplishing quite a feat: driving 1500 km back to Fort Worth. Aunt Lou in her typical manner is non-plussed about our breathless arrival past 4AM. Texans are tough cookies.

Day eighteen and nineteen – Shopping in Fort Worth

Its opera may not be world famous but Fort Worth has Macy’s – as well as brazillions of branches and outlets of all major retail companies. Two days fly by in a haze of third greatest pleasure after sex: bargain hunting. Between the two of us we can take up to about 75 kg of luggage free of charge as long as it is four pieces without the carry-ons – it’s a transatlantic flight.

North American stores are full of useful gadgets that you have never heard of but can’t live without once you’ve tried them. It is April so department stores dump winter clothes at next to peanuts. My hands can’t stop shaking. I stock up on seeds for my mother’s experimental kitchen garden. The consumerist orgy lasts well into the night, oh America, thy shops never close! Aunt Lou treats us to a farewell dinner - I have a platter of deep-fried Cajun seafood including chunks crocodile meat.

Day twenty - Back home!

Clerk at the car rental apparently shocked after seeing the odometer: 6 thousand miles, 9,600 kilometres. That’s more than a crow’s flight distance from Amsterdam to Vladivostok though it probably would involve more than a hundred crows in a round-the-clock relay to accomplish that.

Luckily, flightless apes that we are we can move quicker than that in the relative comfort of coach class. Last impression of the USA: Dubya’s statue in Houston Airport. Duh. But I still love Americans!

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New York City, NY - Fort Worth, TX - Turner Falls, OK - Shreveport, LA - El Paso, TX - Ciudad Juarez (Mexico) - Texas Canyon, AZ - Camp Verde, AZ - Sedona, AZ - Grand Canyon, AZ - Hoover Dam, AZ - Las Vegas, NV - Zion N. P., UT - Monument Valley, UT - Valley of the Gods, UT - Bluff, UT - Four Corners Monument - Fort Worth, TX

New York City - Metropolitan Museum - Fort Worth - Oklahoma - El Paso & Mexico - New Mexico - Sedona, AZ - Grand Canyon - Hoover Dam - Las Vegas - Utah - Zion N.P. - Monument Valley - Valley of the Gods