Yesterday I arrived in Portland into the seedy area around the train station. A girl asked me for $4 toward a train ticket for her and her boyfriend to go home to Boise. I gave her two dollar bills and regretted it as soon as I saw her scuzzy boyfriend come out and give her a high five. I saw a group of 10 men getting tickets for drinking in public. Someone offered to sell me some herb. While I waited for the bus, a passing gutter punk blew smoke in my face.
But I made it to Pat and Marika’s pace in a much nicer part of Portland and have since had three great meals and a few $2.50 pints of craft beer. I think I’m gonna like this city.
On the train here from Seattle, I sat in the lounge car and found myself in conversation with a 61-year-old woman bemoaning the decline of America. “Corporate interest runs the country. It used to be great. A Bachelor’s degree used to mean something. Now they’ve sent the jobs away, sold us downriver. Obama’s a huge disappointment and Romney scares the hell out of me. Republican, Democrat, it’s all the same. Too bad for your generation. It’s so hard now to even find a job.”
You’ve heard it all before, I’m sure. But the conversation got interesting when she confessed to leaving the Mormon church four years earlier. “Why are you going to Salt Lake City?” she asked. “They’ll run you right out of town. Don’t give ’em your name in Temple Square.”
I don’t know if Temple Square will be as inhospitable as she made it seem, but up in Seattle, I couldn’t believe my luck when I found my hostel right next to Pike Place Market in the heart of the city. (Click here for my sensory descriptions of and video from the market.) Pike Place Market doesn’t contain the typical homogenized artifacts of consumer culture you can expect to find in any mall–strip or otherwise–in America. The stores there dealt in antiques and relics from a time before all goods required mass production. (“Every one of us,” the woman from the train said, “are wearing clothes made for fifty cents overseas.”)
And the food–oh my lord. On my first day in Seattle, the hostel couldn’t check me in for 40 mintues, so I wandered through the market, saw and smelled the crab cakes and seafood stews, the Mexican pastries and Asian skewers, and found myself speed-walking toward an ATM to stuff my face.
Besides the proximity to the market, staying at the Green Tortoise Hostel included the bonus of meeting and hanging with young travelers from around the world. I signed up for the Dead Man’s Tour of Seattle and a Japanese-Canadian-American tour guide drove me and another Floridan, three Brits, two Aussies, and a German to Bruce Lee’s grave, the Jimi Hendrix gravemorial, the house where Kurt Cobain died, and other various points of interest along the way.
The nine of us ate at an Indian restuarant near Microsoft headquarters where, our tour guide told us, Indian employees expect authentic Indian food. I must say, the buffet was delicious, and I had two heaping plates. “I’ve never seen this much food in one place!” one Australian girl exclaimed.
Beyond commenting on the scrumptiousness of the food while we sopped through it with fresh-baked naan, the travelers had some questions about why America is the way it is. The girls were shocked to hear the Ku Klux Klan still exists in America. They struggled to understand the Bible Belt, Scientology, Mormonism. The group talked a lot about gun control, finding it hard to grasp that America hadn’t changed its constitution to ban all firearms.
Perhaps the recent shootings in Colorado caused their curiosity, but there seemed to be a consensus among the six international travelers that allowing citizens to own guns is just asking for a high murder rate.
The American citizens, however, would have none of it. “I keep a gun by my bed at night and it makes me feel safe,” said the other guy from Florida.
“Most gun-related crime comes from people who aren’t registered,” said the tour guide. “We’d still have murders. That’s just the way it is.”
“One day the citizens might have to form a militia to fight back against the corporatocracy,” I said.
All of these travelers put at least as much of Canada on their itineraries as they did America. Later that night I went out for drinks with three Canadians I met in the hostel, an Indian guy going to college in South Dakota, and the same German. The Canadians couldn’t believe the cheap price of beer in America. Talking with all of them gave me perspective on our country.
America can’t call itself Number One, I’m realizing, just one of many. So we flood our people with booze, dope them up on pharmaceuticals, let our citizens blow each other away, and dissemble the truth with polarized news reporting that leaves a vacuum in the middle in which corporate interest operates to highjack the political system.
So it’s not perfect. But hey, we’ve produced the most popular music on the planet now for a century or more, have art and literature to be proud of, have a constitution that (ideally) protects our rights to speak out against the injustices of the system. It’s time for the Olympics, and we’ll probably take home the most medals. We invented American football, basketball, baseball.
Speaking of baseball, I visited Wrigley Field for back in Chicago for my first MLB game. My seat was right behind a load-bearing beam which obstructed my view of the pitcher, it was hot and balmy and I had sweaty dudes on either side of me, and beers started at $8. Fittingly, the Cubs lost handily to the Marlins, topping off the American experience of discomfort and frustration made bareable by a staunch devotion to our way of life, good or bad.
The other great experience of my time in Chicago this trip was riding my friend’s bike around the city. Man, that’s the way to travel. Trains for the long distances, bicycles for inside the city. You go fast at ground level, covering plenty of ground while feeling immersed in each city block. Plus it’s free, and you can lock your bicycle up right out front.
And hey–now I’m in the cyclingest city in the nation, Portland, so excuse me while I ride off into the early evening and see what Rip City has to show me.