When we arrived in JFK Airport in New York on 2 May 2011 after our 16-hour direct flight from Johannesburg one of the first things we heard was, “Everything works – the toilets, the traffic lights, the phones, you name it, in America everything works!”
This was good news (conveyed by a South African couple who were frequent visitors to the US, and who spent an hour and a half with us in the snaking queue leading to the dreaded immigration officials). Good news, because up to that point everything had not worked to perfection. Our flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg had been delayed for nearly an hour while we waited patiently for containers of food to be brought to the plane. Eventually they gave up, and issued us with meal vouchers which we could redeem at the airport in Johannesburg.
The next leg of our journey on SA Airways turned out to be the inaugural non-stop flight from Joburg to NY (prior to that there had been a stop at Dakar in Senegal along the way). Apparently this was news to the flight attendants who were expecting to be relieved in Dakar. Now they would have too many consecutive flying hours under their belts. So we all sat on the tarmac for an hour while a new crew was rustled up. At least we had food (but had to wait until we took off before we could be served any).
Actually I’m quite a fan of SAA food. On this flight I found it to be hot, tasty, in ample quantity, and served in clever compact containers with real steel knives and forks. (I’m sure I could have staged a hijacking with them if I’d felt like it.) I marvelled at all those stories that food had to be fresh and “just-cooked” to taste right. Some of our meals (there were quite a few on this long flight) must have been many hours old, and yet they tasted just fine to me. I must add that I am easily pleased by food that I did not have to cook myself . . .
I’m not such a fan of SAA’s in-flight entertainment system, though. For a start, movies are edited and censored, presumably so that whole families can watch them together. I’m not fond of the resulting bland fare, and would have happily fitted any sensitive souls near me with blinkers. When I eventually found a movie that seemed to be worth watching, more than once there would be a glitch, and I would have to restart it. Then I tried the music system and found the selection too jarring. All I wanted was some melodic background stuff so I could get on with reading about the USA. But something kept going wrong with the one classical channel that I could find. My Hot Chick companion, who is pretty deft with anything electronic, found similar difficulties.
Mind you, the internal American and Canadian flights we went on were very stingy when it came to free snacks. I once got a small packet of pretzels, and that was it for a month of travelling.
Anyway, we finally arrived in the Big Apple and the first bit of electrically operated apparatus that we encountered after retrieving our luggage was a “moving sidewalk” that refused to move. We walked next to it giving it threatening looks. But nothin’ doin’. So it was with some amusement that I listened to the story that everything works. I was going to have fun with this one . . .
But this story was true; at least it was till we got to the Nob Hill Hotel, San Francisco a few weeks later. (There, our tiny room’s hot water supply failed and the telephone refused to work. They had to move us to a better room and promised us a $40 a night refund.)
By and large everything does seem to work there. American plumbing is particularly impressive. Their toilets are designed so that the water level in toilet bowls is higher than ours. This means that there are no skid marks on the porcelain, and no toilet brushes are needed. There is always plenty of paper: Americans are obviously more honest than us, so there is no need for our frustrating vertical toilet roll holders that make it difficult to steal rolls, and damned difficult to get hold of the one above the empty cardboard tube that I seem to be faced with every second time I get to use a local stall. USA toilet rolls are stacked horizontally above each other, and when one roll gets used up another obligingly rolls into place. Their door locks all work perfectly. Ours, in public facilities, look like they have been stolen and replaced many times, with numerous scars on the woodwork; few work smoothly.
In the USA, faucets, or taps as we call them, seem to have disappeared years ago. Instead there are nifty levers (one lever doing the work of two taps). And, unlike with us, their public facilities always seem to have hot water. And liquid soap. And they’ve got decent paper towels, and/or air hand dryers that actually dry your hands.
Their pedestrian crossings, or “crosswalks”, definitely work better than ours – for a couple of reasons. Firstly, American city blocks are a lot bigger than those in Cape Town. This means that pedestrians walk a fair distance between crossings, and are not faced with crossing a street every few seconds as one would be walking up Long Street. This means they are more inclined to wait for lights to change when they come across them. Secondly, the orange hand telling you to stop and wait is bigger than our little red man and looks more authoritative (the “Walk” “Don’t Walk” signs of old have been replaced by symbols). The white “running man” is the signal to cross, and it gives pedestrians much more time than our green man, which turns to a flashing red man by the time one has only got to the centre island (many local drivers think this means they can now turn across the path of pedestrians, and this forces the nervous to remain stranded in the centre of the road). American drivers wait for everyone to get across, and towards the end of the crossing period the flashing light usually gives a countdown in seconds.
In quieter residential areas, where crossings are not controlled by lights, cars on both sides of the road screech to a halt if a pedestrian looks like she is even vaguely thinking of crossing the road some time in the future. A woman in Minnesota (where people are renowned for their “niceness”), told me that sometimes she takes pity on motorists who have stopped for her. She obligingly crosses the street so as not to disappoint them, and then sneaks back later when they have moved on.
Incidentally, nobody knows how big a city block is, or how far anything is away from anything else. When asked, people usually say that a landmark is so many blocks, or hours away, but can’t be more precise. One person on the east coast, and another on the west coast told me that there are 12 blocks to the mile. According to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/City_block there is not a word of truth in this belief. The standard block in Manhattan is about 264 by 900 feet (80 × 270 m).
Parks, especially Central Park, are well laid out, and have beautiful deciduous trees. Beech, birch, elm, cedar, cherry, crabapple, horse-chestnut, maple, myrtle and oak abound. Wide, smooth cycling paths snake through the parks. I have not seen a public park in South Africa that compares with those in the USA or Canada. Generally in Canada and USA cycling paths are plentiful and much better designed than the few crappy ones that we have. Cities also have plenty of parking places for bicycles. At the University of Minnesota I noticed a huge area where hundreds of student bikes were parked; and I’ve heard that this sight is common at other universities. Yet at the University of Stellenbosch, where the terrain is flat and ideal for cycling, only a few bikes are to be seen. Sad.
Incidentally, did you know that Prof Chris Barnard, who did the world’s first heart transplant in Cape Town in 1967, was at the University of Minnesota from 1956 to 1958, and was awarded two degrees there: Master of Science in Surgery, and a PhD? That was after he had studied at UCT and gained the degrees of MB ChB, Master of Medicine and Doctor of Medicine (MD). I mention this in case you thought he was just a pretty face.
But I digress. Most of our main roads and highways beat theirs hollow. Especially in the Western Cape our principal roads are smooth and well-maintained, while most of the roads we encountered in New York, San Francisco and LA were pretty bumpy. Only Washington DC seemed to have good roads. During the last seven years many visitors from the USA that I have driven around Cape Town have commented favourably on the excellence of our roads. (Of course they don’t get to see the many potholes that occur on our lesser roads.)
Maybe it’s just me, but I couldn’t buy a cup of coffee in the US that I enjoyed. No matter where I went, or which of the many options I asked for satisfied me. They just seem to make it too strong and bitter. The cartons at Starbucks etc are huge (the smallest is labelled “tall”, and it’s bigger by far than the ones in SA), and each needed four sachets of sugar to make the contents drinkable. Even then a bitter taste remained in my mouth for hours afterwards. After three weeks of trying I gave up and settled for Coke. And don’t even attempt to get a decent cup of tea . . .