Across East U.S.A. – Km 121,547
I entered the United States from Canada, through Maine’s Route 6. On my way to Portland I had several days of rain, long distances to bike and few places to camp for free. Everything here is fenced, even the woods, which make up 80% of the state’s surface. This may be why cyclist travelers don’t come to this part of the continent. A camp parcel can cost 45 USD, no matter if one comes on foot, biking or in an expensive motor home. To travel in the East of the United States one needs a lot of money, I had been warned. It didn’t matter to me; my antics were to camp by night, secretly. Sometimes, even in the backyards of the kind of mansions you see on American TV. One morning I had to explain myself to an afroamerican who was huge and muscular, who was acting aggressively towards me. I was able to keep his emotions at bay, but I still left in a matter of seconds, even though I had barely woken up.
Of the 14 states I crossed in the East of the U.S., I never found one as California, where state parks have a special camping fee of 5.00 USD for those traveling on foot or cycling. In 2012, when I pedalled through the West of the country, I met into tens of cyclists who were crossing America, but none was interested in pedalling this part of the country. In my case, I was drawn by the curiosity of seeing how they live here, in the richest and most populated part of the U.S.
I arrived in the small city of Portland on a Friday late afternoon. It was a cold and rainy day. On the way to downtown I took notice of all the people who live on the streets or in shelters. Last year, when I entered the U.S. for the first time, I had the same shock: homeless people wearing rags, carrying their belongings in a grocery cart, and walking aimlessly with lost gazes. During my stay in Kittery, Karen, a lady who hosted me in her house, shared with me: “Some are drug addicts and others have mental issues, although many others are war veterans or simply people affected by the recent economic crisis, and who lost everything.”
At my arrival to Boston, I learned Linda’s story: a teenager who studied medicine for 8 years and upon graduation, she owed $400,000.00 USD to the bank for her college credit.
About this, Harry, someone who hosted me months later in Georgia, told me in anger, how education was in the United States 40 years ago: “When I was a kid my dad died, and so I had to work since I was 11. At 18 I started university, but I only went to school 6 months of the year, and I worked the other 6. I remember paying 130 USD per month of university, and university residency was 120 USD. When I graduated from engineering, I wasn’t considering to continue my studies, but I received a scholarship for graduate school. I was paid $400 per month, which was a decent wage. After a year I bought a Corvette and paid $4,500.00 for it. Today, the same car is $45,000.00, but the same university degree, depending where you take it, is not only 10 times the price I paid, but 20 or 30, and graduate school is a fortune.”
“Currently, students are spending millions of dollars they don’t have in getting training for jobs that don’t exist. They’ll take a shameful mortgage before having a regular income. Youth are pressured into accepting a damaging debt that only benefits banks. Education has turned into bank and corporation profit. Useless degrees are imposed on vulnerable people, at expensive costs. It’s an abuse, but it’s profitable. In the U.S., students owe a billion dollars in university credit and the government is risk free as long as the institutions who are owed are allowed to charge through any method. An income-slavery generation is being created; student loan will be the new credit bubble”.
When I arrived in New York I was hosted in Brooklyn by Lewis, and also by Ross in Queens. Ross immediately offered: “You can stay at my place as long as you need.” I was lucky, because good old Ross was a one-of-a-kind guy. From the 50 people I contacted to seek hosting on couchsurfing and warmshowers.org, only Ross and Lewis OK’d me. New York turned out to be the hardest destination to find accommodation for even a couple of days.
After cycling through Long Island, I entered the big metropolis through the East, at night, crossing the Jamaican neighbourhood. I later learned that this is the most dangerous zone in the city. I was afraid, because I got lost and had to resort to vagabonds that were in the area. I was mad at myself, because I know one shouldn’t arrive in a big city at night and not knowing my way. Seeking a culprit I took it out on my Nokia Navigator phone, which doesn’t allow to download new maps because the website won’t recognize my device anymore; it’s simply too old. So then I ask: Why should I get a new one if the one I have works perfectly? Not even a new one, fairly priced, would allow me to change the SIM card and use it in the Latin American countries that I’m about to travel.
That’s how this Pablo traveler is. A non-consumerism guy, who only spends in basic needs, and so gets lost like a dummy in each city he crosses in the U.S.A.
Throughout these 12 years of traveling, I’ve noticed more and more how corporations create false consumer needs, manipulating politics and governments. Here in the U.S.A. I have heard of the astronomical contributions to electoral candidates from corporations, and tons of stories about company-related corruption. Here, most people are possessed by the capitalist society consumerism. This society is addicted to credit and links consumerism to happiness, social success and personal prestige. You can see this even in immigrants, who purchase not out of vital need, but to raise their self-esteem and try to be better than what they think they could be. Here people are happy when they work overtime.
During my stay in New York I went to see a dentist. After a 2-minute consultation, the guy says: “It is two molars that provoke the pain. Since they were already fixed, there’s need for a root canal. The price of each one is $2,200.00 USD, including the sealant.” So I said: “But doctor, $4,400.00 is a lot of money.” “It is what we charge here,” he replied. I explained: “Doctor, I cannot pay that money; it would be cheaper for me to take a plane and fix them in Argentina. Although I’ll be in Mexico in a couple of months. Do you think I’ll be able to bear the pain and fix my molars there?” He said: “Perhaps, although I don’t know how they work in Mexico.” I came back with: “But doctor, what are you saying? Dentists in Mexico studied the same you did at school…”
That was the last of our conversation, as the guy stopped smiling, prescribed an antibiotic and asked me to leave, as he had “a lot of work”.
“Dental services are very expensive and unattainable for many,” Ross would tell me. “Healthcare in this country is a business. Health providers deal with great amounts of money in political campaigns and proposals that are convenient to themselves, mainly. Individual health insurance can be 700 or 800 USD a month; a 9 mile ambulance ride cost 2000 usd In the U.S. medical care is a luxury and not a free universal right. Currently there are 50 million citizens with no health coverage, and ironically we are the most powerful country in the world. There have been many proposals to modify the American health system, but without success. Interests created in this industry are too many”.
The food industry is also a target to north americans. The amount of overweight people is unusual for an advanced nation that acts as a reference in the world. According to studies released by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of Diseases), nearly 80 million Americans (35 % of the population) are obese, while the other third of the U.S. population is overweight.
Complaints and criticism derive from several fronts: ecologists, farmer groups and citizens demand laws that care for the interests of all and not only for the large multinational food businesses. As It was explained to me, nowadays laws protect the small group of corporations that control the entire food process, including patented seeds. Lawyers who sued big tobacco companies in the U.S. and won, are now taking the food industry to court, claiming that thirty multinationals, controls almost the entire food market. The main legal strategy is not to prove that certain foods are harmful to your health or that advertising is misleading, but that its labeling is false or illegal.
Americans are obese not only due to the type and amount of food they eat, but because of their disorderly eating habits. They don’t destine time to prepare lunch and dinner; instead they choose for eating, fast food or buy frozen meals. Their free time is set aside for leisure, in sedentary activities such as watching TV, surfing the Internet or playing video games. Exercise is not a distraction.
With exception for some small islands in the South Pacific, the United States is the country with the highest percentage of overweight in the world and according to the CDC, if this tendency continues by 2030, 42% of Americans could be obese.
During my travel in the United States I have visited more than ten farmers markets, unlike supermarkets these sell fruits and vegetables that are organic and locally grown . These markets are present in all cities and usually tend to operate on weekends. With the purpose of exposing my trip and selling the documentary I used to ask permission to the organizers. I have almost always resulted as an attraction, people are sympathetic to talk to me, know about my project and even willing to take some pictures. This way I was able to expose on the Farmer’s Market in Portland Maine, Boston, New York, Washington, Jacksonville and Boca Raton. I was not allowed to do so in Wilmington, NC or Charleston, SC. The reason for this was because I needed the approval of the municipality. Anyway, the sales I achieved, where I was allowed to expose, covered my expenses in this country. I remember a foreigner who advised me to go to the market in Bethesda near Washington, “it is an area of millionaires, you will sell a lot” she told me. But honestly it was one of the days I sold less.
The idea that the average American is wealthy is wrong. The same idea is believed in northern Africa with respect to Europeans. They think everyone is rich and everything is easy. There is an abundance of ignorance in those countries where people only think of emigrating and where in most cases, families and friends spend all their money to fund what really is an odyssey based on an illusion. Rather than creating new immigration reforms, Europe and North America should create awareness groups and educate people in any possible way because at the end they are only looking for a better alternative for their lives.
In the state of North Carolina, Andrew received me. He had hosted me in Seoul during my tour of South Korea in 2010. Andrew is not the consumerist stereotype, he lives a modest, simple life. He is an engineer and works for an oil company for over two years now. During those days he was happy because they had announced him a 4% increase in his salary for the coming year . “Due to my college studies which I am still paying, rent of our house, our health insurance plan and other expenses, we barely make ends meet. Olivia, my wife works part time, we are on a tight budget. Olivia will be traveling to Korea to visit her family, after three long years of living in the U.S., where we have managed to barely even save for half the cost of her ticket. The other half we will pay with credit card.
In Savannah, GA I also visited my friend Will, who received me in Bahrain in 2009. Will, who had been a soldier in North Korea and Iraq, worked in Bahrain as an aerospace engineer, creating defense missiles in the Middle East, he earned good money and lived in luxuries. I remember after he saw my old laptop he went out, bought one and gave it to me. He is one of those guys who likes to do good and help those who he can. But when I arrived to Savannah Will surprised me again because he had no more money and did not live luxuriously. He lived in an old house in an African-American neighborhood, in the poorest area of the city. Regarding that matter he said, “during the years I lived abroad I had the opportunity to travel for pleasure around the world, I traveled to 47 countries and I witnessed poverty, something most people do not get to experience. I began to feel sick because I was part of a company that benefited from the war. Maybe I was trying to do the right thing, yet, the company for which I worked was causing the poverty that I was watching at. After I decided to not be part of it any longer, it took me years to have the courage to quit, because I was addicted to money”. Will now opened “Serene Metal”, a small company that manufactures and sells metal musical instruments such as space drums. They are affordable and shipped worldwide.
My journey in the eastern U.S., took me to know the “Outer Banks”, a chain of islands that cover half the coast of North Carolina, surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Pamlico Sound the country’s largest lagoon on the other. I have pedaled for 150 Km. on the Hatteras and Ocracoke islands, the latter is only accessible by ferry and has over 20 kilometers of completely uninterrupted virgin beaches, perfect for camping if it weren’t for the thousands of mosquitoes of the place. Nonetheless, I found these islands to be some of the most beautiful things on the east of this country.
Experiencing a sensory isolation tank
During my tour around the U.S. I heard people talk about sensory isolation tanks or floatation tanks as they are also called. Wanting to experience one, I began to look into it and wrote to the main spa centers that have them and that were on my way.
When I arrived at Charleston, SC Steve, who is the owner of Glowspa, greeted me. He not only offered the experience in the flotation tank for free, but also gave me a sauna session and two hours of excellent massages. That day I ended up so relaxed that I struggled to get on the bike to go. In Boca Raton, FL I was also pampered by Dr Emmanuel Adam Kadmon who invited me to a session without charge to his center Floatessence. In this regard he explained: “in the floatation chamber the body floats like there is no gravity, while it hears no sounds or sees any light, it feels no heat of cold. My flotation tank is a rectangular chamber that is 1.5 m wide by 2.5 m long. It contains 600 liters of water and 450 kg of Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) . The salt concentration causes the body to float, as it occurs in the Dead Sea. The water, which has a depth of 25 cm, is kept at a stable temperature of 36 º C. Once inside, the person who must use earplugs, lays down and floats, he receives no outside stimulus, therefore reducing 90% of the signals sent to the brain. Thus, the mind relaxes profoundly, as does the body. It’s easy to lose track of time. You go into a state of intense meditation. The sensory isolation you get inside the tank is absolute. All the muscles of the body relax and mind finds equilibrium.
Flotation is specially intended to reduce stress, muscle tension, heart rate, respiratory rate, insomnia, depression, anxiety, headaches or migraine, premenstrual pain and even chronic pain”.
I left U.S. relaxed, happy to have come to this side of the country and have learned a little more of the idiosyncrasy of Americans. In total, I have traveled over 11,000 km across 23 states. With the help of websites like: warmshowers.org and Couschsurfing.org, I was hosted by more than 60 families, most of them Americans but also Brazilians, Venezuelans, Mexicans and Argentines among others. Many thanks to all of them.
But the greatest joy in my tour of the U.S. was in Miami, after meeting up after 8 years with one of the guys from the neighborhood, a true friend, Ezequiel Olivet, who received me with his family and of course with a good Argentinean barbeque. Hopefully, meeting again won’t take as long, and as it is customary I can beat him in ping pong again.