Welcome to the USA!

August 2014, my brother and friends are visiting the USA for the first time. My brother came over a few days early to visit me in Dallas and experience the ‘Cowboy way of life’. His main goal in Texas was to find an outfit and dress up like a hillbilly, similar to the ‘Cletus’ character from ‘The Simpsons’.  The search for the jeans overall and cowboy hat was an adventure on itself. We’ve visited several ‘Western Wear’ shops where people would look at us, shaking their head in disbelieve. ‘It is summer’, was the most common answer. ‘Nobody wears that in summer’. We finally found a store in Louisville that actually had the overalls in stock and we also found a great cowboy hat. We did all kind of ‘Texan’ activities, such as buying ammo (In Walmart, ammo is stored in the aisle next to the children toys… cliche confirmed), going to the shooting range with my American friend, visiting the Stockyards cattle drive, the Stockyards Rodeo, eating steak and having Texan BBQ. And although he did not actually wear the overall anywhere (a bit too hot), it were good times. After a few days of Dallas and Fort Worth, we took the plane to New York where we would meet two mutual friends from Belgium.

Originally the plan was to stay at an apartment in Jersey City that we rented through AirBnB. Unfortunately, they cancelled 2 days before we arrived due to ‘boiler problems’. We were forced to get a new spot asap, and basically did not have a choice of where we wanted to stay. We ended up booking something else through AirBnB in Brooklyn, which seemed looking at the map as not too distant from Manhattan. We turned out to be really bad at reading maps… We arrived at two different airports. My brother and I ended up in EWR (close to the original Jersey City location) and our friends ended up on JFK. Although they landed over an hour before us, and they were closer to the new location, we still ended up arriving first in Brooklyn. The cabdriver was not happy to cross NY and get into Brooklyn at all. When he saw the neighborhood we were getting into, he was even less pleased. And so were we… We spend almost 2 hours in traffic before we got to our destination. Our friends ended up waiting for almost 4 hours in immigration (JFK is the worst airport to enter the USA, if possible, always choose another!) and once they get a cab, the driver had no clue where to drive, and asked them several times if they were sure about the address. Living in the USA for some time now, I understood this neighborhood was not the best, to say the least, but for people trying to enjoy their holidays coming from Belgium, this place was worse than their worst nightmares. We had 2 studios. The first one was quite reasonably OK, something you would expect to find when backpacking through poor countries, but certainly not to our standards. The second studio was just plain really bad, and not a place you would want to stay at all. Dirty mattress, etc. We decided to make the best of it, and go out for dinner, since we’ve all had a long day of travel already. But it was obvious nobody was very happy with the place we got into.

It was getting dark, and we did not feel very comfortable walking 5 blocks to the nearest subway station, so I decided to introduce my friends to ‘Uber’. Uber is actually illegal in Belgium, so they were very surprised how good, safe, fast and cheap the app really is. We get into the Uber car, and the driver just looks at us and asks: “What are four white boys doing in a neighborhood like this?”. The tone was set and the driver recommended us to either get out of that place or at least use Uber to get out and in every time. Which we kind of already realized those were our two options. It was actually a really fun ride. “I was not planning to pick anyone up around here”, the driver said, “but I got your request and I noticed you had 5 stars… so I thought, well let’s go take a look”. “Nobody around here has 5 starts”, he said. I did not realize the Uber drivers also rated their passengers, but it was a pleasant surprise to hear I have the highest rating. He explained to us that we were not in the very worst part of town, but pretty near to it. ‘They are trying to clean it up”, he said. We were not sure what that actually meant at that point. Just being around there only a few hours, we had noticed at least 3 drug deals. The driver dropped us off at Little Italy, where one of my friends who recently moved to New York joined us for dinner. Making some jokes about ‘All Belgians being the same’ and discussing the place we ended up in a bad part of Brooklyn. Walking to the subway after dinner – we wanted to go see Times Square- faces and conversations were still a bit dark and gloomy. However, the second we walked out of the subway and saw Times Square, all of our faces lighted up and my friends were skipping around like little girls. ‘WTF is this?!”, “This is awesome”, “I feel so small”, “Daaaaaaaaaaaaaamn!”. We had a few drinks and decided to Uber it back ‘home’. This driver was a bit confused about where we were going… “Are you sure that is where you want to go?”. The drive made it clear what the first driver meant with ‘they are cleaning it up’: This was a Saturday night and there were at least 2 cops on every intersection. I’ve never seen that many police officers, and I live in Texas… Once we got into our Neigherbood, it was actually quiet and there were no flashing lights or anything. The Uber driver waited for us to get in the house, before taking off to his next customers. My friends thought that was weird, and it enforced their believe we should get out of there. It had been a long day, and we went to sleep.

We woke up the next day, and all was fine. Sun was out, people were quietly walking the street, and there was this general feeling of confusion in our group. “Was this now a bad place to be, or not”, we slept OK, but in the end we decided we could not stay there. The mattress and bathrooms were just not good enough and some of us were scared they would catch some kind of diseases. In the end, when you are on holiday you should feel comfortable. The Uber drive also cost us a decent amount, and we just wanted to be closer to the city as was the original plan. So we decided to move out. I booked one of the Courtyard Marriotts downtown and we moved out. We called the owners to let them know we would be leaving and ask if we could get a partial refund. I’m not sure how exactly that worked out,  all I know is that at some point they called us racists. We wanted to leave there because it is a black neighborhood was their assumption. Oh well. The whole experience lead to my brother and friends cancelling their AirBnB scheduled for their trip to LA the next week. “Not this again”, was their general feeling. AirBnB actually got back to my brother about it, but I do not know how that ended and if we were given any type of refund. All I know is that if you want to be comfortable, do not get anything through AirBnB. I’m sure it works really well for people on a low budget or backpacking, but for us this is just not the type of service we expect. In fact, since the Marriott gave us a huge room with 2 queen beds and a coach, and the most expensive day of the week (Saturday) was already gone, the price of the hotel room was quite reasonable and we felt really stupid to even have tried the AirBnB service.

After that, New York was awesome. We did all kinds of touristy stuff and just enjoyed the whole city. It was amazing. ‘Top of the Rock’ (going up the Rockefeller building), gives you an insane view over the city. It was the first time in my life I was actually scared in an elevator. it just keeps on going up! Biking through Central Park,… Cherry on the cake was the Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon”. It is anti-religious, very politically incorrect and awesome. Not only the performance itself is absolutely brilliant, the reactions of the public is worth it too! Half the public (including myself) loves the whole show, while the other half seems to feel uncomfortable, and perplexed. To see how some people cope with it is hilarious in itself.  Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez (you know the first two as the creators of South Park), really did a great thing here. If you have a chance, go see it! Book your tickets well in advance, though. They are sold out every day for many days in advance.

After five days New York, we traveled south to Washington DC. The original plan was to take the train, but when checking we realized it would cost us 600 USD and we could not take luggage, which is kind of a showstopper. No worries, we decided to rent a car and just drive there. Stopping whenever we felt like it, and so we did. I was a bit disappointed on our road trip, the scenery between New York and Washington is mostly just forest. A bit boring. We did stop at an authentic diner and had great burgers. I had to explain my friends the concept of tipping again, again and again. Which was funny.

Washington is a great city. We were only there for one and a half days, and I think we all felt we should have stayed longer. Basically we did the National Mall the entire day, and did not even take the time to wander around every park. Washington is certainly a great place to visit. My friends and brother ended up flying to Vegas after that. I had to drive back north, to Philadelphia, for work. And so ended our holiday in the USA together. They visited Vegas, the Grand Canyon and LA without me. They tell me they loved their visit to the USA and it looks like they would not object coming back later!

I believe we made a really good choice of visiting different places. My brother visited Dallas, New York, Washington, Las Vegas, The Grand Canyon National Park and Los Angeles in about three weeks. This was a very diverse road trip and they’ve seen the different faces this great country has. And honestly, I was just happy to see my friends without needing to fly all the way back to rainy Belgium! :)


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