Impressions of the U.S.

2008-01-10 00:00

My impressions of the United States have left me awestruck and I have to wonder: what will a First-world tourist make of South Africa when he or she arrives for the Soccer World Cup in 2010?

When I walk through Santa Rosa’s clean, safe streets I find myself making unavoidable comparisons with our crime-stricken, litter-strewn environment back home. We are visiting my husband’s family in California and my relatives in Idaho and I am taken aback by the contrasts between affluent United States and developing South Africa. When I visited San Francisco in 1997 the contrast between the U.S. and home was less obvious than it is now.

Driving uphill past the illustrious suburb of Fountain Grove I gawk at elegant mansions that lord it over their view of the city and beyond, the burglar-guard free expansive windows glinting in the grape-ripening afternoon sun. There are no electric fences or palisade spikes around these opulent homes. Admittedly the U.S. is not crime free, but one feels indescribably safer here, as if an enormous subconscious syndrome of hyper-vigilance has evaporated. My niece’s bicycle was left outside the front door at night, 10 metres from the verge, parked next to the cars, since we have taken up space in the garage. There it remained, untouched for a few nights. Ivan Vladislavic’s “wall” of suburban paranoia does not exist here and it is refreshingly sane. But then the U.S. does not have an unemployment rate of 40%. How do we begin to change that?

Santa Rosa in Sonoma County, California is an attractive city tucked in among winter-green hills. It almost sparkles. It is my South African perspective of reality that is distorted and escaping offers me a fresh frame of reference. The city parks are clean and safe and have jungle gyms on steroids. I find myself comparing Howarth Park, where the children run free, to Alexandra Park, where prostitutes and drug dealers lurk.

Confetti blankets of late autumn leaves frame the pathways leading to the park, but the pathways themselves are as clean as a whistle and leaf free. As for litter, I have yet to notice a discarded wrapper in Santa Rosa, although some of the streets in San Francisco are a little dirtier. Unfortunately graffiti is a problem here. Clearly every city has those who prefer to destroy rather than enjoy the environment. But in Sonoma County one can be fined up to $1 000 for littering, so, like in Singapore, the streets are clean.

This reminds me of a balmy afternoon driving through Howick. Gazing from the car window, my six-year-old daughter exclaimed: “Look at all the junk. Why do people leave their junk everywhere?” She had similar comments about Pietermaritzburg. Santa Rosa has not elicited the same wide-eyed dismay from her.

Despite all of the pros, there are aspects of American culture that seem excessive to me. It is gloriously abundant here; unimaginably clean with polite, friendly people who seem blissfully oblivious of the pending disaster of global warming. Americans like big cars and trucks — trucks like Bigfoot with gargantuan wheels that could squash the average Mini like a cockroach underfoot.

I wonder what one needs such a guzzler for besides compensation for masculine inadequacies. However, this feminist explanation does not entirely cut it, because I have even seen grannies whizzing past in enormous tanks on Highway 101.

Consumerism is rampant here. Even in California, the liberal state, there seems to be little awareness or accountability regarding the environment. Yes they recycle, far better than we do, but the extravagance of this country will require about three worlds to sustain its insatiable hunger. They love to live well and give generously.

A car pulled up alongside a beggar at a stop sign the other day and the driver handed him a wrapped Christmas present which he accepted gratefully. Unlike their pejorative reputation around the world, Americans appear to be a people with heart.

The U.S. is indeed a land of milk and honey. Coming from Africa, it took me days to stop gawking at this land of plenty. When I think about our enormous poor population and the resultant crime, it feels as if some of our troubles are insurmountable.

I have no solutions, merely observations about what seems like another world and wishes for better times for South Africa. Certainly the government will have to perform miracles if it wants our first impression to be a good one for visitors in 2010.

• Kate Richards is a full-time mother and freelance copywriter.

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