This is a long-overdue mishmash of my impressions of the tiny bit of the country I’ve now seen – I’ve never been to the states before so it was my first trip over the Atlantic and first immersive experience of our cousins separated from us by a common language across the pond. I’ve got some ranting to do as well. So if you’re looking for something sciencey, not this time!
I enjoyed the long flight actually; watched some films, food was fine. But we had to change at Newark and having been awake for too long already, hanging around the airport was quite dull and then the shorter flight to Orlando was hellish.
I had a really bad cold at the time and anyone who’s flown with one surely knows how f*@&%$! painful it is.
An utterly overwhelmingly huge thing it was, with around 16,000 delegates – held in the Orange County Convention Centre, the second-largest in the States, according to wikipedia. The four of us in our lab plus a few other people from our building presented posters and our boss flew over just for one day (!) to give a talk. So we went to a few presentations and discussion groups but… well the sun was out most of the time 😉
I’ve never really been one for lazing in the sun, but someone lent me a couple of Sherlock Holmes stories so ended up reading these by the pool; the feeling of some warm sun and a light breeze… silky and extremely pleasant. Turned me into a bit of a sun-worshipper it has! Can also recommend A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four – will have to check out some more.
The first adjustment was to the general environment; to the differing flora and fauna. Palm trees everywhere, the grass is odd (really thick, stumpy blades – obviously where it’s been cut – compared to ours); birds mostly different but still pigeons, starlings and collared doves; little lizards everywhere, which I think is brilliant but people from non-UK places were not bothered at all.
Then there’s just the scale of everything. Used to being all squished and cooped-up (cozy!) in England but their buildings are huge and far apart, because they can be.
Of course, it’s the one aspect we really know about, but like just about everything else, it’s not until you experience it that you can really appreciate the difference.
It varied in quality, as it does everywhere, from expensive-and-horrific to surprisingly-cheap-but-quite-amazing.
For the most part, things were horribly over-processed, artificially coloured and sweetened and for all the work we’ve still to do here in optimising food quality with availability, it’s undoubtedly many times worse there – and we know what the consequences are.
We need this chain here in the UK but I guess we don’t really have as ready access to the ingredients. Totally fell in love with Red Lobster – great cocktails, friendly staff, tasty lobster (obviously).
Again, we’re aware the portions differ somewhat. You can’t get a small coke, it’s a litre whether you want it or not. Starters are the size of my main meal for the day – the idea of anyone sitting down for a full 3-course meal turns my stomach a bit. But again, people clearly do and not that infrequently.
Americans have quite a different idea of entertainment from us, in a lot of cases, it seems. We’re a bit more down-to-Earth here, we like our tradition, things that are ‘proper’ and fitting for the occasion. Perhaps it’s similar to the famous English manners, I don’t know, but American things seem plasticy and artificial. Whether it’s your restaurant or evening entertainment, it seemed the cheap-and-cheerful was far more common than anything else.
I’m sure it’s a case of going to the right places, but it wasn’t just food and such.
I had reservations about going to Seaworld – I don’t agree with keeping huge animals in captivity, I’m not a big fan of going to zoos generally (I appreciate conservation work, but seeing things pacing their enclosures, bored out of their minds, it upsets me).
I wasn’t sure about their standards or their sources but did a bit of research beforehand and was recommended to go by a few friends. I might not be in Florida again and our hotels were walking distance, plus the conference gave us money off tickets so why not. Apparently it does a lot to educate people about wildlife, I appreciate that. Let’s check it out.
The walk-through tunnels were lovely, I do like aquariums – fish are hardly very aware of their surroundings so I don’t feel quite as sorry for them (… speciesist). We wandered over to the Shamu stadium to catch thebig show, which has been changed dramatically since one of the trainers was killed – they don’t get in the water with them any more.
Overall, I found it difficult. They are fantastic animals (I’d seen them at Bristol zoo as a kid so not my first time) that clearly should not be in such a space behaving in this way, while the trainers are clearly enthusiastic. However…
The over-acting by the trainers, the ridiculous Disney music, making such a huge deal out of people’s ‘dreams’ and much less about the animals themselves… the worst bit was that they kept showing a short film about a boy who loved whales, made a wooden whale tail necklace etc. and at one point they picked a girl from the audience (clearly rehearsed) and asked her what she wanted to be.
“Oh wow what an amazing dream, that’s fantastic. Well, I’ve got something really special for you, stand up, come down here..!” We thought she was going to get to touch a whale or something and were incredibly jealous. But then it was her onscreen with a trainer as he put one of the whale necklaces* on her. It was so very awfully cheesey, I felt quite ill.
*Of course, said necklaces were available from the shops and from wandering vendors all around the park for a small fortune.
It was a recurring theme, lots of ridiculous ‘follow your dreams!’ type crap and we were all just staring at each other with boredom/disbelief at times.
Also at the start they did… something, to get people to cheer the armed forces “of the USA and our allies in the United Kingdom and everywhere else!” – the trainers asked them and members of their families to stand up while everyone applauded. As the camera went around you could see people getting very excited, except for the actual soldiers, who looked very embarrassed.
It really amazes me that people still think what they want is applause and glory. Those who do are the ones pictured with their thumbs up next to dead bodies, the trigger-happy idiots (I knew one or two myself). The rest have experienced traumatic things and what they need is support, not cheers. You’d think people would have learned by now, but apparently not. I felt very uncomfortable surrounded by so many people whooping and cheering for the war. I have nothing personal against servicemen, but I found it pretty distasteful.
The dolphin show was possibly even worse for the cheesiness, with some unfollowable sort-of-plot around parrots and, I don’t know, maybe a princess.
The thing that annoyed me most about the park in general was lack of educational info. You had to hunt for it and when found, it was minimal. Most surprising was when a huge Andean condor flew over the crowd in the dolphin show, without warning or repeat, and I presume you had to ask the trainers at the end what it was if you wanted to know. Heard most people talking about vultures and monsters (they are rather scary). Hardly inspiring awe in nature now, is it?
I’ve got an angry comment on my youtube video – apparently I’m just not getting the ‘connection’ between the trainers and the animals. Sorry, but if you claim to be showing people how great animals are and how awesome nature can be, making big plastic sets, playing stupid music and doing set-pieces with kids just cheapens everything and brings it all back to humanity in its selfishness and over-inflated sense of importance. These creatures are magnificent and they manage to make them seem more unreal than anything else – not in a good way.
I think I’ll stop there, could whine about that for ages. But the rollercoaster was rather good fun.
After the conference we drove down to South Beach, Miami in a (massive, naturally) hire car.
It’s pretty much what you expect; lots of plasticy-pretty people, loud bars, pool parties, mostly-naked beach bums an unnatural shade of brown (or red!), ridiculously buff people running/skating around and loads of limousines.
The main thing that had my brow furrowed (probably its usual state) was the overwhelming amount of pro-surgery stuff around. Saw a lot of scary women who had been under the knife far too many times, adverts on buses for surgery clinics and probably most shocking to me, the mannequins.
Over here we sometimes have problems with window models that are ridiculously small; they’re a size 0-4 or something. There, they were… huge. But only in the chest area. Like Lara Croft huge, but moreso. Mad.
One of my favourite parts of the whole trip, I think. Obviously an amazing ecosystem, I very much enjoyed seeing some wildlife and getting some actual snippets of education from the locals. Still somewhat for-the-tourists in the safari park, of course, but even then they did well to get a lot in and be very entertaining at the same time.
I paid my $3 to have a hold of little Snappy (left)!
We went a bit further down to the actual national park bit, where you’re more free to just wander around. Unfortunately it was so hot we had to leave after quite a short time but it was lovely to see so many baby alligators milling about in the river. It’s amazing how well-camouflaged even the huge ones are. And a little scary.
I slightly regret that we couldn’t see more of the Keys; I hired a bike and cycled around the first one, Key Biscayne, for an hour, which was lovely – especially when you can jump in the sea to cool off afterwards! Definitely should have copied Bernardo’s lobster-for-last-lunch decision, too.
On the way to Miami airport in the shuttle I ended up next to a leathery older guy wearing a Power Balance Band. It took quite a lot not to blurt out that they’re utter bollocks, but I managed it, partly out of fear that he’d throw me out of the window or something.
The flight back was somewhat uncomfortable due to sunburn (through F50!) from a day on South Beach, the usual crying children and inability to sleep. Massive Virgin Atlantic plane though, quite impressive. They give you nice things like a blanket, eye mask, toothbrush etc.! I like free things.
I don’t think I’d want to live in the States. I would still like to visit San Francisco and New York and see some of the landscapes around the country; Yosemite, Rockies, Grand Canyon, that sort of thing. Feels like it should be done. But the culture I can do without, it really ain’t my style. Although that was expected. They don’t like the heathen atheists either; I can do without that worry.
It was a nice break, interesting and one more place to add to my pitiful travel experience!!
Some random video bits:
Edit 2014: #blackfish