The World Versus the USA

Still from Casino Royale

Sitting here in my temporary abode watching Daniel Craig in his first outing as 007, a film I first saw with a young inmate from the prison where I was working who was out on his first community visit, I had a brief thought about traveling done recently and realized that the world, in terms of travel versus the USA, are two very different experiences.

Despite the fact that quite a number of people in these modern times are accomplished world travelers, many having visited more exotic places than I ever have, there is still a large portion of the average man or woman who haven’t bothered to traverse the borders of their home country, indeed, some have never left their home state, or county.

Cruising the Internet, one can find any number of jobs that advertise for writers who want to travel. Presumably these men and women can provide information for Joe or Jane Average who may want to visit Guadalajara or some third world destination not yet on everyone’s tongue. A golden opportunity for those who wish to explore this rapidly shrinking globe and not too bothered about the pay packet being overly generous.

The part of the film that triggered this random observation was at the beginning. Bond is chasing the parkour specializing villain across a number of different film sets and the baddie is finally caught, and dispatched, at a foreign embassy of some African nation. This brought South Africa to mind, as I’d been there in 2013, hunting down several sources that informed the publication I worked for in those days that the great Nelson Mandela had died back in June. The world believed that Madiba was still fighting for life on a number of support systems and the man was not “allowed” to die until December that year.

South Africa Nelson Mandela House
Author at Nelson Mandela House Soweto 2013.

All this travel and adrenaline pulsing investigative journalism was very heady for an aged beginner. I met a few people who had very interesting stories to tell and one lady, a television news broadcaster, invited me back to speak with her as well as the chance to meet her husband who was a bright man rising pretty rapidly in the same political party as Mandela.

The trip had been scheduled for four days and there were still people I needed to meet. The ability to extend the ticket, and my stay, was not overly expensive, but enough that the publisher refused to borrow any more funds to allow the publication to continue questioning other sources.

Still, despite the shortness of the journey, much was learned. While not all of it was about the former world leader’s dying, or death, all facts gleaned were fascinating and not a little disturbing. For instance; there are a lot of Chinese in South Africa. Not just private citizens either. In the peninsula as well as Johannesburg and surrounding areas, there are military troops, weapons, vehicles and at least one, if not two, army bases that the Chinese out rightly own.

Other interesting facts included that many, as well as the government, believed that when Mandela was declared dead, massive civil war would break out and officials were prepared to turn the entire country into a police state and instigate martial law. This information was received from a very interesting source who was prepared to react to the prophecies of a Boer named Van Rensburg.

He was not alone in his beliefs, as quite a number of people were/are hoarding food, weapons, medical supplies and ammunition. Even the military were aware that something was happening. An Army major had information about Madiba’s June death and in the end; the man went into hiding after getting death threats. Before dropping out of sight, however, the officer told of how the police and the government were getting ready for civil unrest on a regular and very “low key” basis.

But the point behind this article was not the troubles of South Africa; it is about travel and the freedom of it in a country that still features wide-open spaces. For around 32 years I lived in a civilized yet crowded world. England was, and is, considered part of Europe by the US, although the truth was, and is, far different.

Travelling around Europe changed somewhat after the formalization of the EEC. Eventually there was that common currency, the Euro, which Great Britain never embraced and never will and the promise of border free travel never transpired either. England never agreed to the line of hassle free entry to the country and never will.

The World Versus the USA

Border free travel meant that the showing of passports, travel visas and other documents would become passé. Reality, however, was very different from the envisioned “United States of Europe.” As anyone who worked in the Her Majesty’s Prison Service can attest, illegal aliens flooded into the country with a variety of fake IDs, visas and other falsified documents.

Proof that these forms were still required. Al Qaeda along with 9/11 and other world terror attacks also proved that border constraints were needed, even though these passport control points do not deter terrorists. Other criminals also thumb their noses at these legal obstacles. In the UK, the only smugglers caught on a regular basis with a van full of cheap fags (cigarettes) or booze were the Terry and June couples who wanted to make a bit of side money.

(A side note of explanation: Terry and June was a very popular 1970s British sitcom about a middle-aged couple (Terry Scott and June Whitfield as Terry and June) who were perfectly cast as a comedic Mr. and Mrs. Average and the show was a classic.)

Professionals rarely get caught at the border, even those who specialize in human trafficking, Chinese immigrants along with other nationalities, are never caught unless it is by accident. While working security at a yeast factory near the docks of Felixstowe port in Suffolk, the police stopped by to warn me that around 40 Chinese immigrants had escaped from their cargo container and were roaming the grounds around the harbor.

The Port constable who spoke to me warned that they could be dangerous and not to approach them, but to ring them directly if spotted. He also said that this was not an uncommon occurrence despite an increase of officers around the port.

Felixstowe Port
Port of Felixstowe

Certainly the US has Mexico to the south of the country and apparently there is still an issue of illegal aliens crossing the border. Years ago, Mexico and Canada were the only places where one had to show passports on the same continent. Of course people are still stopped before entering California, but this is in the area of pestilence control, not people monitoring.

In essence, the entire country of the United States can be traversed without one bit of international identification. A driver’s license will suffice, or a driving permit, or other type of ID card will do nicely but none of these are required to pass from one state into the next. In fact if one pulls out an International driver’s license, the individual looking at it will pause and ask, “What’s this?”

Of course one thing that both forms of travel have in common is the difference between people met at different locales. Just as Europe has countries with different customs, ways of speaking and traditions that have been tailor made for that area, so too do states and within those states, various areas.

Just as the American people were divided into the North and South during the Civil War, there are divides between the East and the West as well. Clashes of vernacular, tastes in particular culinary specialties and slang terms for everyday things all vary, sometimes wildly, from town to town as well as state to state.

This is not peculiar to the US alone, in England there were also different terms for similar, if not the same, items. The humble sandwich was known as a “butty” and “sarnie” in various parts of the same country.

Still, this rumination is not about slang terms either. It is about travel and the way the rest of the world do it compared to the American mode of transport and the fact that average people do not need to have a passport to get from one end of the continent to the other.

The USA is really the “land of the car” and anyone who doesn’t believe that has never been without a vehicle for an extended period of time. In England, and Europe, public transport is commonplace. Certainly buses are used to a large degree in bigger towns and cities in the US, but in the UK alone, buses run not just in the cities and towns, but between small villages as well.

The World Versus the USA

In Europe, trains run practically everywhere and British Rail may not have quite the same reputation as, say, Holland whose trains are rarely late, the train service in England does try to reach most areas.

In the US trains are used mainly for movement of cargo and not people. In all honesty, that could have changed over the 32 years I lived overseas, but since my return, I’ve not seen one train station.

Cabs, or taxis, are expensive no matter where you reside.

So there you have it. My thoughts, such as they are, on travel. Nothing earth shattering, but some food for thought. I have realized that over 32 years in England spoiled me. Despite the fact that I, along with every other Brit living on that island, loathed public transport; it was available and pretty easy to figure out. No such system appears to exist outside, say New York or some of the larger metropolis type cities. What do you think? And before you answer, ask yourself this, “When is the last time you had to use your passport?”

21 January, 2015

South Africa a Personal Journey: On the Road to Pretoria


While in South Africa, I visited many neighbourhoods and townships around Johannesburg as well as outlying towns. After our visit to Soweto, we waited until the next day for Pretoria. My personal journey was all too quickly coming to an end. My excitement during the entire trip was tinged with disappointment that the stay would end so soon.

But it almost got extended by a pretty significant amount of time.

After finding out a wealth of information from the first interview that D and I conducted, I realised that this part of the world, besides being a fairly dangerous place to live if you didn’t know the rules, was fascinating enough to give me material for several news stories. I relayed that information to the paper and they agreed that perhaps I should stay longer. DiMarkco just needed to check a few things out.

He left the issue open and said that we would talk about it after my second interview, which was scheduled the next day.

The second interview, revealed even more things that were fascinating and opened up many other avenues of interest. After that day had finished, L and I rang the paper on Skype to report our findings.

Speaking to DiMarkco, our boss, he asked about the possibility of extending my stay. Did I have anything to stop me from staying longer, he asked. I replied that the only thing necessitating a return would be my heart medication. But first I needed to see if I could extend my ticket. After trying to do it over the internet, I gave up and finally called the airline.

The answer was a straight forward no. There was no room for negotiation, you flew back on the original day of booking or you bought another ticket. Buying another ticket was an option that DiMarkco had thrown out there so I checked prices and found that a one way flight from Johannesburg would cost more than the paper had paid to fly me out and back.

I relayed the information to the big guy and he asked if I could stay till the middle of the month. By that time we would have our money in from advertisers to fund the ticket back. I couldn’t do it. I didn’t bring enough heart medication with me and I couldn’t afford to go to a private doctor and purchase the replacements in South Africa. I would have to leave and then come back.

That meant that I had one more day to see everything I’d been sent to see. It also meant missing out on one of the biggest interviews that had been set up. But that was my fault as I’d incorrectly said I was leaving on Tuesday morning.  I was woefully out of practise in the world travelling department.

For someone who had, at one time, travelled quite frequently; I made a few errors. One was reading my return flight information incorrectly. I had decided in my infinite wisdom that I would be departing Johannesburg  on the Tuesday, but, I was departing Monday night and arriving back in the UK on Tuesday.  Then I misread the ticket again, and decided I was leaving in the morning and not at night!

There were two incidents that gave all  those around me (and me especially) abject heart failure. The lovely people who put up with me for the four days I was in South Africa, C and L, had planned a couple of special events for my stay. A South African barbecue one evening and a traditional stew the next. I wound up missing both due to the long days D and I were putting in. I did get to sample some “left overs” from the barbecue and it was delicious, even after being warmed up in the microwave!

One of the heart attack inducing moments took place in these lovely people’s home. I decided to get all my things organised so that when I packed up, I didn’t inadvertently leave anything behind. As I gathered medication and toiletries, I decided to clear out my wallet except for some Euro’s that I’d purchased in Amsterdam.

My room during my stay.
My room during my stay.

As I went through my wallet, I noticed that my credit card was missing. I stopped and immediately started searching my luggage. It wasn’t in my suitcase or my toiletry bag. I checked my wallet, trouser pockets, shirt pockets and even sifted through my dirty laundry pile. I then remembered that C had offered to wash my travel clothes.

Eureka! I just knew that the card would be in those two items.

Wrong. They were not. L was getting very concerned, he told me if I’d dropped it anywhere whilst we had been travelling around, I needed to get it cancelled immediately, if it was not already too late.  My anxiety level cranked up another notch or two and I began another close scrutiny of all my clothing once again. It was when I bent down that I remembered one place I had not checked.

I have a place where I keep all my important things when I travel. Passports, driving license’s and credit cards. I checked and sure enough, that was where I’d put the card. it had been so long since I’d travelled that I forgot to look there when I couldn’t find it in my wallet. Calling myself many very uncomplimentary names, I went out to inform C and L that the daft old bugger had found his card.

The relief I felt was shared by all.

The second thing I messed up, as I mentioned above, was the departure day of my return flight and then the times that I needed to be at the airport. All in all, I think I impressed everyone with my overwhelming ability to be an idiot!

Luckily, my newly discovered idiocy did not extend to my work and that was done reasonably well. I went to all the places I was meant to and took well over 1,600 pictures. Some, I have used on my blog posts, and many more are being lumped into places and shared with the writing team.

On the last day of my personal and professional journey to South Africa, I packed my bags, said goodbye to one of my hosts, C as L had gone to work already. I then took myself and my bags out to the vehicle and we started on our way to  Pretoria.

To be continued…

View of Pretoria from the Union Building.
View of Pretoria from the Union Building.
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