Category Archives: The United States

New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina: When the Levees Failed

During the ten years we lived on Padre Island off the coast of Texas, we talked several times of making the nine-hour drive to New Orleans and taking in the famous sights: the jazz and zydeco music, the shotgun, antebellum and Victorian homes, the guesthouses and outdoor cafes, the live oaks draped in Spanish moss and Jackson Square.  The talk abruptly ended at the end of August in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina, the largest and third strongest hurricane ever recorded in the US made landfall, wreaking devastation along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas. Along with the rest of the world, we glued ourselves to our televisions and watched with horrified fascination as the events in New Orleans unfolded in the following days.

On our last visit to the US, near the eleventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we finally made our way over the twenty-three mile causeway across Lake Pontchartrain to the city known as “The Big Easy.”  Wanting to experience all the city had to offer, we stayed at the Four Points by Sheraton on Bourbon Street – a choice that resulted in us wearing the ear plugs thoughtfully provided on the bed tables each night – and indulged in many of the typical tourist activities.  We wandered the streets around the French Quarter, devoured the beignets at the Café du Monde and visited Jackson Square, The Cabildo and the St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in the US.  An afternoon ride on the Steamboat Natchez down the Mississippi gave us a view on the city’s riverfront and levee system while the city bus tour introduced us to the wards of New Orleans.  We watched the revelers after dark, listened to the famed sounds of the city, ate some memorable meals and awoke in the mornings to watch the street cleaners washing away the sins of the previous night.

Fun memories for sure and yet, our standout recollections of our time in New Orleans weren’t any of the above. The biggest impressions were made by the “Hurricane Katrina Tour” on the New Orleans Gray Line, a simple exhibit called, “Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond” at the Presbytère, and a taxi ride around the lower ninth ward on a dreary, rainy morning with a drawling, middle-aged driver named Junior.  We learned about New Orleans, more about Hurricane Katrina and its devastating aftermath and were forced to question how our middle-class assumptions had shaped our views of the victims as well as our expectations of our government.

Neighborhoods (source)

As with any story, a little context and history are necessary.  An important trade route along the Mississippi River and a shortcut to the Gulf of Mexico, New Orleans was founded in 1718 by the French, ruled for forty years by the Spanish, returned to France again and sold to the United States in 1803 as a part of the Louisiana Purchase.  A polyglot of different cultures, including American, French, Spanish, Celtic, English, German and African (free and enslaved), the city also received an influx of Creoles fleeing the revolution in Haiti.  Originally built on the slightly higher ground along the Mississippi River, the city built levees to control the flood-prone river which paradoxically increased the risk of flooding from the Gulf of Mexico.  As the city grew, it began to drain (about 1890 to the 1910’s) the area between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi, known as the “back swamp” or “back woods” because of its cypress groves, using large pumps.  It took several decades before it became apparent that this reclaimed land was slowly sinking; many neighborhoods developed after the 1900’s are now below sea level, an area equivalent to about half of the city’s 200 square miles.  As our bus tour guide explained, it’s easier to understand how the flooding occurred if you think of New Orleans as a shallow bowl.  Earthen levees, as well as concrete and steel flood walls, are tasked with the job of protecting the homes.  (A spoiler: Investigations after Hurricane Katrina into the failure of the flood wall system that existed in 2005 called them the “largest civil engineering disaster in the history of the United States.”)

Elevation map (source)

Before the storm:  On Friday, August 26th, 2005, the city of New Orleans was alerted that a major hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico was heading for the Gulf Coast.  Saturday, the 27th, when the predicted track of the Category 3 hurricane shifted to the Mississippi-Louisiana state line, New Orleans issued a voluntary evacuation order for its citizens. All major roads (Interstates 10, 55 and 59) leading out of the city were converted to outbound traffic only.  On Sunday, August 28th, Hurricane Katrina gained strength as a Category 4 storm, then was upgraded a few hours later to a Category 5 with winds estimated at 160 miles per hour.  A mandatory evacuation order for the city was issued, the first in its history.  The Superdome was opened as a “shelter of last resort.”  Approximately 1 million people left the city with an estimated 100,000 remaining.  The National Weather Service issued the following statement:

“Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks … perhaps longer. At least one-half of well-constructed homes will have roof and wall failure… Water shortages will make human suffering incredible by modern standards.”

The day of the storm:  Hurricane Katrina, stretching across 400 miles, made landfall on the morning of August 29th as a Category 3 hurricane, preceded by hours of heavy rains and with winds ranging up to 140 miles per hour. Flooding began even before the hurricane reached the city and, once the storm surge arrived, the towering waves overtopped some of the levees while water below the canal walls seeped through the soil and breached areas along levees on four of the city’s canals. Flood waters rushed through the ruptures and the water rose so swiftly in low-lying places like St. Bernard Parish and the Ninth Ward, that many people had little time to reach the safety of a second floor or attic.

After the storm:  Picture if you will, Louisiana in late August after a heavy rain.  The heat would have been sweltering, in the high 90’s coupled with an ungodly level of humidity.  The sun would have been a blinding reflection off a toxic soup of sea water and mud, gas and oil from ruptured pipes, sewage from shattered lines, and all manner of household and yard debris as well as hundreds of drowned animals and floating human corpses. Survivors sitting in attics or on roofs had to have been completely overwhelmed and stunned as they surveyed the aftermath.  And perhaps the worst was yet to come in the days following the hurricane as thousands made their way to the Superdome seeking water, shelter, food and medicine.  According to one of the information signs at the “…Katrina and Beyond” exhibition at the Presbytère, the majority of the deaths were due to drowning (many residents did not know how to swim) or physical trauma caused by debris.  However,

“… A substantial number died in attics or unflooded homes due to dehydration, heat stroke, heart attack, stroke or lack of medicine. The elderly were most at risk with almost half of Louisiana’s fatalities over the age of 75.”

Initially, parts of New Orleans seemed to come through the hurricane with little damage but as more levees were breached, they too experienced flooding the day following the hurricane. It’s estimated that as much as 80% of the city experienced some flooding and in places the water may have been as deep as 25 feet.

 

explanation for “Katrina Crosses”

What we remember most in the days following Katrina, while we watched the horrific devastation unfold on our TV’s along with millions of others, was the appalling disconnect between what was being reported and our government’s botched response. Thousands of people desperately awaited water, food, shelter and medicine. FEMA’s (Federal Emergency Management Agency) eventual response, assistance and evacuation plans were miserably inadequate.  In the first days following the storm, New Orleans relied almost completely on the heroic efforts of hundreds of first responders, the US Coast Guard, medical personnel, neighbors and ordinary citizens. We watched civilization break down inside the Superdome where hasty preparations had been made to shelter no more than 10,000 citizens as a last resort; up to 35,000 people sought assistance in a reeking space where the heat was stifling, the plumbing systems had failed, the dead were unceremoniously discarded and violence and mayhem reigned. Outside was no better. Our thoughts were similar to Clarence Page, a Chicago Tribune columnist, who asked, “Is this America?”

Perhaps our most sobering lesson came, during our time at the museum exhibit when we found ourselves examining our own biases and assumptions about the New Orleans victims of Hurricane Katrina. Our biggest question over the years had been, “Why did so many stay?” The eye-opener was realizing how, for many, poverty can truly cut off avenues of escape as more than a quarter of New Orleans residents at the time of Hurricane Katrina lived below the poverty line.  Almost 30% of the city’s residents did not own a car nor did they have a place to escape to or a social support network outside the city.  Many lived on government assistance and, since it was the end of the month, had no available cash nor a credit card to pay for any expenses away from home.  Many were disabled, elderly or caring for someone else with chronic disabilities, the aged or young.  Many, who relied on their TV’s for information, learned of the impending hurricane far too late to take advantage of any public transportation that would have helped them flee the city.  One of the saddest and most ironic stories we heard from our tour bus driver was that many of the drivers authorized to provide emergency transportation out of the city had left New Orleans during the voluntary evacuation.

Sculpture of house in a tree – Katrina Bus Tour

Hurricane Katrina was the worst urban disaster in modern US history and the emergency response to the people of New Orleans following the storm was a national disgrace.  No one knows for sure how many people died during and after Hurricane Katrina although the estimate most quoted is 1,836 with 1,577 from Louisiana. It was over a month before the city was dry and many of those who evacuated the city following the hurricane never returned.

We were happy to have a chance to visit New Orleans after all the years we’d dreamed of going and found it to be a charming city that well deserves to be on anyone’s bucket list.  In fact, if you didn’t know about its recent history, you might not question how many neighborhoods seem to be refurbished or new, the numerous boarded-up buildings, the ongoing construction or the many vacant lots that still remain in the Ninth Ward.   In the French Quarter, there are few troubling reminders from the storm that ravished “The Big Easy.” Life goes on and it’s an awesome place to celebrate a special occasion or just the sheer joy of living.  But, like other cities that span a few centuries, there’s a tragic side to the city as well and it’s well worth the time to learn those stories as well.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

Vacant lots and empty houses, Ninth Ward – September, 2016

Three Days in July, A Cyclorama and the Enduring Symbolism of Gettysburg

Gettysburg Battlefield, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To GoIt was hard to imagine the brutality of war as we drove through the Pennsylvania countryside.   The landscape was fifty shades of green with rolling hills, great rock outcroppings and a sky of brilliant blue.  And yet, on the days of July 1st through July 3rd of 1863, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War was fought with over 51,000 soldiers wounded, missing or dead at its end.  A war that had begun over states’ rights and numerous contentious issues of free versus slave states, which foreshadowed the greater question of the preservation of the Union, gradually had evolved into an all-out effort to subjugate the old South and banish the institution of slavery.  Like all American school kids, we’d grown up learning the bones of the story and reciting dry facts.  As adults, we’d read our share of the countless books and essays that have been written about it.  And yet, during our visit to the Gettysburg National Military Park, the significance of the Civil War seemed especially sobering in view of the great rifts and divides currently afoot among the people of the United States today. Gettysburg Battlefield monument, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

At the Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center we watched a short film which sketched in the historical events leading to the Civil War and, two years into the war, explained the importance of Gettysburg as a turning point in the conflict.  Nearby, a massive painting called a cyclorama piqued our interest and got our undivided attention as it showed in painstaking detail, the final battle in Gettysburg where the Confederate infantry brigades attacked and made one last attempt to overwhelm the Union soldiers.  Known as Pickett’s Charge, the decisive defeat of the south at Gettysburg came in less than half-an-hour with more than 5,000 Confederate men broken upon the fields: missing, wounded, dying or dead.Cyclorama at Gettysburg Museum, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Cyclorama at Gettysburg Museum, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To GoA trendy form of entertainment in the late nineteenth century, cycloramas were panoramic images built in the round that gave the viewer, who stood in the middle, a 360-degree view of the action; battles, of course, were popular depictions.  Hundreds of cycloramas were made and the most popular ones would travel from city to city to be displayed, often accompanied by music and narration to make the viewing of the image a complete performance. Today, only about thirty survive worldwide with three cycloramas located in the United States: Gettysburg, Atlanta and Boston.  The Gettysburg Cyclorama, painted by French artist Paul Philippoteaux, is enormous at 42 feet high (4 stories) and longer than a football field at about 380 feet. After spending months of research on the battlefield, it took Philippoteaux and his assistants well over a year to complete the huge canvas in the early 1880s.  First exhibited in Boston in 1884, the painting suffered a lot of abuse over the years including being sliced into panels and trimmed down to fit into exhibit spaces as well as temperature and humidity fluctuations, water damage, rotting and tears and fire damage not to mention improper storage.  By the time the National Park Service acquired the cyclorama in the 1950’s, and did some restoration work before exhibiting it for the centennial anniversary of the battle, it was in sad shape.  In the late 1990’s a massive conservation effort, the largest of its kind in North America, restored and repaired this historical artwork so that it could be appreciated by the more than 1 million visitors who visit Gettysburg every year. Cyclorama at Gettysburg Museum, Pennsylvania. photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Cyclorama at Gettysburg Museum. Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To GoAfter spending quite a bit of time walking around and examining the cyclorama, we piled back into the car and took the self-guided audio tour around the huge park which covers over nine square miles.  There are approximately 1,300 markers and monuments scattered in the fields and along the roads describing what occurred and commemorating the relevant brigades who fought there. Gettysburg Battlefield monument, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Gettysburg Battlefield monuments, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Gettysburg Battlefield monument, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To GoIn the July heat following the Battle of Gettysburg, the smell of thousands of dead soldiers decomposing permeated the countryside and residents in and around the nearby town of Gettysburg carried peppermint oil and pennyroyal to help mask the stench.  Fearing an epidemic, the bodies of the dead were hastily buried, many only crudely identified with a pencil written note on a board.  Many more corpses, unnamed, were buried in shallow trenches and mass graves. Shortly thereafter, the State of Pennsylvania appropriated funds for the Soldiers’ National Cemetery and purchased a site which included the ridge where the Union forced back Pickett’s Charge.  The reburial of the Union dead began on October 27th, 1863, nearly four months after the battle, with countless graves reopened and the remains identified if possible, many by the things they carried. The bodies clad in Union uniform were placed in wooden coffins and moved to their final resting place.  The grisly exhumation of the original graves took months to accomplish and was overseen by Samuel Weaver who made sure that only the boys in blue were placed in Gettysburg’s National Cemetery.  Any grave containing Confederate dead was closed again, the corpses left in place.Gettysburg Cemetery, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

And what of the dead wearing the Confederate gray, moldering on a battlefield far from their homes?  A women’s group in North Carolina began to advocate for the return of these southern soldiers so that they too could be honored for their sacrifice and laid to rest.  And finally, after nine years, the first of the shipments south of the remains of 3,320 soldiers began. Most of the dead were reinterred in the Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia, but many also found their final resting places in the town cemeteries of Raleigh, Savannah and Charleston. Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

November 19th is Remembrance Day at Gettysburg.  The day honors those who gave their lives in the war and commemorates the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery and Abraham Lincoln’s eloquent address.  In his brief speech honoring the men who had fought and sacrificed their lives, President Lincoln urged the living to continue their fight for the preservation of the country.  In the years following the Civil War, Gettysburg has become a symbol of healing, a place where former Union and Confederate soldiers returned to reflect upon the battle, but also to shake the hand of a former enemy.  Maybe we all need to remember, despite the contentious political climate that exists today, what has kept our nation united these many years since the Civil War… We can only hope.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

Transitions, Changes and Americus the Beautiful

And then we waited … And waited… And … We were at loose ends after we submitted our application in late August to the Portuguese Embassy in Washington D.C. for a long-term visa.  According to the fine print in the application, the review and approval process could take up to three months. (The fact that we received our visas in under two months could be seen as testimony to the alacrity with which the Portuguese bureaucracy can move when it sees a couple of prime candidates for immigration.) But given this gift of free time, and we did after all have a car again, we decided to take a road ramble with only a loose itinerary, following our inclinations with no particular place to go.

Wyoming

Wyoming

Our time in the US could have been measured in the places we stayed: one rental apartment, two housesits, six guest rooms with friends and family and, lastly, fifteen hotel rooms.  We could have counted our time in miles spent crisscrossing the USA: approximately 5800 miles.  Or the number of states we drove through, seventeen, from Texas through Colorado to Washington and Montana and then through a part of the midwest and the deep south to Florida and finally to Georgia where we left our car with family. Or tallied the airport flight connections and boarding areas we sat in from the time we left Portugal in mid-July to our return in November, a mind-numbing seventeen.  We could enumerate the number of photos of old friends (friends old in the longevity of our association as well as longer of tooth) and family with whom we spent time catching up, laughing and playing “remember when?” or the countless pictures of breathtaking scenery and small town life as the miles rolled by.

Montana

Montana

Florida

Florida

During our sojourn we fell in love with our home country, this time as travelers seeing it from a new and different perspective after our three years spent out of the US.  The vast road system woven throughout the states, driving Interstate highways around the big cities and state highways through small cities and towns with their flags and banners displayed.  Friendly clerks at countless gas stations, waitresses greeting us with smiles and refilling our cups of coffee time after time, places where people take pride in their hometowns.

Livingston, Montana

Livingston, Montana

We whiled away an afternoon in Livingston, Montana where the Yellowstone River flows north from its headwaters in the Park through the Paradise Valley flanked by the majestic Absaroka Mountains. We stayed one night in Americus, Georgia and visited the site of nearby Andersonville Prison, a name synonymous with the horrors of the Civil War in our own country.

Andersonville Cemetery

Andersonville Cemetery

In nearby Plains, Georgia, yards had signs showing their support: “Jimmy Carter for Cancer Survivor.” Meanwhile, a Confederate flag hung side-by-side next to an American flag across the street from the Secret Service sentry booth outside President Carter’s family compound. In the other direction and a hundred miles or so down the road was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s summer home, “The Little White House,” in Warm Springs where he showed people that America and the world could be fixed again and hope could thrive.

Watching the nightly news and the Republican and Democrat debates told us what was wrong with the US – in divisive and contentious language and finger-pointing accusations.  But our travels showed us another story: what was positive, strong and right with our country.  Many things may be broken but there’s a lot that works and a lot of which to be proud.

Alabama

Alabama

We left the US this time with a deep appreciation for what it represents but glad to be resuming our lives in Europe, with the opportunity to learn about new countries and cultures, art and architecture as well as to meet new people and hopefully, become a part of a community.  And here we are, finally and barely a week into setting up a new life in Lagos, Portugal, transitioning from full-time nomads to traveling expats with a home from which to venture forth and return.

Anita and Richard

 

Back in the Land of Too Much: Round Pegs in Square Holes

We returned to the US with a mission: Obtain approval from the Portuguese government for a long-term visa.  In addition to amassing the documents and jumping through the bureaucratic hoops we looked forward to visiting with friends and fam.  However, our return to “The Homeland” seemed to be a slow downhill slide from simplicity to unanticipated complications.

Now don’t get us wrong; we are true-blue, passport-carrying Americans.  We like to think of ourselves as a contented mix of sunny, southern California and mountainous, western Montana (the hot and the cold, the yin and the yang) who willing relocated in 2002 to North Padre Island in South Texas. Having experienced the phenomenon of reverse culture shock previously we prepared ourselves again for the symptoms and looked forward to our return with great expectations and anticipation. That was until things began to go decidedly south.

It began just before we left Portugal for a return to the States, three days before our departure, with a scramble for alternative accommodations after we received news that the place we were going to stay was no longer available due to a family emergency.  Summer in Corpus Christi is high season and, as beachgoers pour into the city to visit the seashore and island, availability goes down as prices go up.  We reached out to our former property manager/realtor who scoured her listings and found us an efficiency apartment – overpriced but within our budget and on the island for our stay.

Miles of beach and open sky - Padre Island

Miles of beach and open sky – Padre Island

Our second indication of the deep do-do which awaited us was found at the car rental counter of the airport in our adopted city. We had reserved a rental car for a couple of days with the idea that we’d find a cheaper rental offsite later. It was during this transaction that we discovered if you did not own an automobile, which was of necessity insured, you could not cover a rental with your car insurance. Well duh! So, (and here’s the rub) if the car was X dollars per day to rent the insurance was a whopping 2X dollars per day. Somehow $111.95 per day was a bit steep for a sub-compact auto which barely held us and our luggage.  We tried another car rental agency the next day with a representative who oozed charm (but no ethics) and tried to finagle the insurance issue.  Luckily for us, our insurance agent called him on the slight-of-hand, the distinction between renting and leasing a car.  If we’d had an accident it could have been ugly. And so we accepted that a rental car was not an option.

Plan B, suggested by our insurance agent – with rhyming first and last names, a wide and very white smile, brightly colored talons, who called us “Sugar” and blessed our day – was to lease a car. We grasped the lifeline and decided upon a $1300/month car from the only short-term lease agency in town.  We’d gotten our insurance down to a manageable rate but the 2000 a month mileage cap, which we’d been assured was something we could negotiate, was chiseled from granite.  A short time later, wiser and poorer, we finally shed ourselves of the lease vehicle and settled on Plan C:  We bought a car.  The deed was accomplished in less than three hours with the assistance from a friend who was also manager of one of a multi-sited, new/used dealership; we were the grudging but proud owners of a 2014 Toyota.  From dedicated minimalists to All-American automobile owners … again! We were going in reverse!!

But now, back to our temporary abode at the “resort.”  (Caution! Whining involved!) We’d always thought resort sounded a bit posh but found the name to be only a hopeful aspiration. Since our apartment was on the third floor we’d asked, and been assured that there was an elevator which we (kind of ) assumed worked reliably.  We did our grocery shopping during our stay with the idea in the back of our minds that one of us might have to lug that 10 pound watermelon up three flights of stairs.  We hung bags of Damp Rid around as festive decorations  to combat the atmosphere of cold clamminess resulting from a temperamental air conditioner. And, after a couple of years traveling in Central and South America where our lips touched only bottled water, we came home to a boil water order. However, we were still begrudgingly pleased to have a place in which to spread out, cook a few meals and call home as we visited with friends and family and worked on gathering the necessary documents for the long-term visas for Portugal. Never mind that we had to buy our own Wi-Fi hotspot for the apartment rather than trek to the common area, sans air conditioning, sweltering and seemingly dedicated to the idea of defining “humid.”  All in all our home-sweet-home was a place to flop and infinitely preferable to a motel on the sleazy side of the city.

And so it was that we chipped away at the tasks of daily living, with the attendant aggravations of all of the above mentioned, and worked on jumping through hoops and the issues of starting the process towards obtaining residency visas in Portugal. And slowly the tide turned.  We were fortunate to have been given an opportunity to housesit for very dear friends for three weeks and we gratefully escaped the 3rd floor apartment. We flew to Washington D.C. to present our long-term visa request to the Consulate’s Section of the Portuguese Embassy and visit family.  We spent a lot of time at the beach and catching up with friends. We made arrangements to store our car with other family members near Atlanta, a boon over storing it in a secured lot with no attention in south Texas. And we whiled away the remainder of our waiting period by taking off on what we called “Our Epic Road Trip” which encompassed crisscrossing the country a couple of times.

image available atbwww.jokesandhumor.com

image available atbwww.jokesandhumor.com

In the end the salient points were driven home amid the strangeness and the familiarity.  America is the land where what you need is available and what you want is within tantalizing reach.  It’s the land of too much, the land where things are expected to work. In return, each must play their role. Deviating from the act of acquiring is not an admired trait – it is met with incredulity, intransigence and roadblocks. Without a home, a car, a cell phone, internet connection, insurance, ad finitum, ad nauseum you are at the mercy of the marketeers. We felt but a smidgen of this disfavor and it was uncomfortably frustrating.  We were, in a real sense, strangers in a strange land.

By Richard and Anita

Back in the U-S-S-A

The sun was well up as the plane descended into the Miami International Airport.  It was just shy of twenty-three months since we’d loaded up two cars, deposited the keys with the property management company who would handle leasing our last substantial possession, our house on Padre Island, and headed north to drop off the last of the belongings with our son in Denver, CO. From there we’d flown to Mexico for several months of traveling around the Yucatan Peninsula followed by wanderings that encompassed every country in Central America.  And now, we were coming back “home”; wondering if we’d experience the reverse culture shock that we’d heard about from other long-term travelers.Flag photo from Padre Island

In Latin America we’d found border crossings to be either ridiculously easy affairs or protracted and potentially problematic even though we’d experienced nothing worse than inconvenient delays, minor price gouging and nasty public toilets. But the effortless return to the States was totally unexpected. We were directed to the Global Entry kiosks where we scanned our passports, filled in a bit of data, mugged for the camera, grabbed our print-outs and went to the friendly customs agents who welcomed us back home. Claiming our bags was not a problem and with no more than a nod and a smile we wandered off to find our next terminal to re-check our baggage en route to our first stop, Newark. So easy. It was all coming back to us. This is the States; things worked here, just like they were supposed to.

Since we’d been gone so long visiting family and friends was a priority and so we spent the month of August journeying from New Jersey to Virginia and then Washington, Colorado and, finally, Texas.  However, besides catching up with F&F we came to S-H-O-P. We were consumers with a mission to replace everything that was battered, tattered and worn from months on the road.  We needed new laptops; the original ones we had purchased were too large, too heavy and needed some major fixin’ expertise. New Kindle Fires had been ordered and awaited us at a relative’s home as well as new I-pods and all the other things that may not be essential but certainly make life easier as well as more enjoyable. We also replaced our luggage in a successful attempt to shed pounds by swapping out the 24-inch hard-sided, spinner-wheels suitcases. They were durable but not really practical for use on cobblestone streets or rutted roadways. And clothing; what we hadn’t abandoned in our last month in Panama was faded and limp, much of it obtained from the Nicaraguan stores called “Ropa Americanas” that sold slightly used clothing unwanted in the US.  And so we shopped from the east coast to the west coast to the Gulf coast for the light-weight, quick-dry, no-fuss clothing necessary for the tropical climes.  Lastly, we snagged new light-weight backpacks at REI in Denver as well as countless other little things on the list like vitamins, sunglasses, etc.

Consumerism is a crass word; it’s so negative and judgmental. It’s also quite apt. We shopped unabashedly. We shopped with glee and gusto. We shopped until we nearly imploded from sensory overload. It’s not possible for us to describe the experience. But a friend named Peter, a transplanted Floridian living in Costa Rica, referred to the US as the “land of too much”  and in this we can wholeheartedly concur.

And the take-aways? The reverse culture shock we’d been told of by fellow travelers? There were a few moments that were a bit disorienting, especially in some of the mega-grocery stores but the culture shock was much less than we’d expected.  However, some observations were duly impressed upon us.

Long distance travel in the States requires air transportation; flying is a necessary evil. There are really no practical or economical options. Of course, there’s Amtrak or Greyhound but chances are the destinations are not on the route or out-of-the-way. And, if you find a workable route it can take, literally, days to reach your destination and may actually be more expensive. For long distance traveling flying the friendly skies is really the only practical option. And for short distances it’s a private vehicle. Buses are inconvenient, cabs are prohibitively expensive and most cities are too spread out to be pedestrian friendly. Quite a contrast to our life on the road using feet, buses, shuttles, tuk-tuks, inexpensive taxis, pangas and water taxis; all forms of economical travel that don’t require an airport or SUV.

We put our home on North Padre Island on the market with little sentimentality and concern only for the market realities of supply/demand and what we may be able to pocket from the transaction.  It was a wonderful place while we were there and we’d intended it as our retirement home. But, it became our last possession that kept us rooted to a place that no longer fitted our needs. We suspect that we’re abnormal in this regard but there are a whole lot of places yet to be seen.

So no; there was no culture shock. But there was no culture fixation either. The US is unique both in history and in current time. It is pre-eminent for many reasons. And we love it dearly. It has given us the freedom to pursue this passion of ours for travel and new experiences. We are not spurning the US; we are bidding a temporary adieu. We shall return to visit and okay, “consume” quite often.

By Richard and Anita