24 hours in America

The plane descended over the Pacific. I could see mountains ahead: or were they distant cloud banks? Soon the coast became more discernible, and the southern suburbs of LA floated beneath us through creamy-silver smog. We did a fly-by past a bank of skyscrapers which must have been downtown LA, but we could not see the Hollywood sign anywhere on that backdrop of hills.

We touched down at LAX at 6.29am on Tuesday morning, exactly the same time as our taxi had picked us up in Melbourne… on Tuesday morning. We’d been on the road for sixteen hours but the International Date Line had made sure we hadn’t aged a minute.

LAX was not the nightmare we had feared, nor did it particularly feel like a huge international hub. We queued patiently for forty-five minutes to get fingerprinted and scrutinised by a surprisingly pleasant Department of Homeland Security official. Within the hour we were through security with our bags and breathing for the first time in more than a decade the fresh air of Obama’s America. As we passed through, the Customs guy smiled at us and said “Enjoy your honeymoon!”.

A few hundred yards along, and back into the domestic terminal for the Miami leg. This part of LAX looked a little the worse for wear than the International terminal. Another queue – gasp! – for security. Shocking. Surely Orlando’s frequent flyer status immunised us from all queuing everywhere in the world? Perhaps not.

For the first time in a while I baulked at removing my shoes. The floor wasn’t dirty; it was just, well, shabby. We both got to stand for just long enough beside the poster showing exactly how much of our anatomy these new x-ray machines actually reveal, before Orlando had to walk through… and still got patted down afterwards. I somehow escaped with the old-fashioned scanner walk-through device only, so my junk remained unseen to fight another day.

At the Admiral’s Club the lunchtime cheese platter looked good, but the tempting-looking hunks of yellow-orange cheddar turned out, predictably, to be that tasteless plastic stuff the Americans call cheese. Gruesome. Orlando found some delicious-tasting jalapeno crisps: delicious, that is, until I read the nutritional information:

18% fat
8% sodium
9% potassium

Did that mean the crisps were no more than 65% potato? I put the packet down and stepped away before I burst a blood vessel.

Things Americans do well #1: courtesy and respect.

Each person we interacted with at both LAX and Miami was genuinely courteous and pleasant. Each “You’re welcome” I got after every thank-you was unforced and amiably delivered. We were addressed formally by surname when it was known, and as “sir” or “ma’am” otherwise.

At the Miami Hilton we settled in for our brief overnight stay ahead of our early-morning flight to Barbados next morning. Our hotel room was about half as big as our house. No balcony, sadly, but a huge king-sized bed and a generous living area we would never get to use.

Exhausted as we were, the taxi ride to Miami Beach for a cocktail and a promenade was just beyond us. We headed straight down to the lobby for a drink and a bite to eat. What’s a more American way of spending our only night on US soil than watching the game in a bar with a plate of buffalo wings? Probably doing all of that with a beer in hand, I suppose. We would make do with cocktails.

It was game four of the NBA play-offs, Miami Heat vs Dallas Mavericks. The barstools at the small horseshoe bar was fully occupied at first so we settled in near the TV and ordered. Miami were leading two games to one at this point. I sensed Dallas would win, even though we were only in the second quarter, but I felt compelled to cheer for the Heat as we were on their turf.

Our waiter, Manny, was a short man in his late fifties, Cuban, as attentive and brisk as a favourite uncle when you come to visit. He got us two seats at the bar when our food came and we perched between a handful of other drinkers. They appeared to know each other a little, but I could not make out whether it was a fleeting one-night-in-a-hotel-bar thing or a longer acquaintance. I sensed they were all at the same convention or meeting, but hadn’t seen any signs in the lobby.

We snacked on smoked turkey and white bean chilli (try it), chicken wings and chicken sliders, which appeared to be tiny chicken schnitzels in a tiny bun with spicy sauce. My blue cocktail was strong and sweet. Orlando’s Long Beach Iced Tea didn’t need to be explained twice to be served perfectly.

A woman of a certain age sat alongside Orlando sipping red wine, not her first. She chatted familiarly in Spanish to Manny as he wandered back and forth.

Another guy on the opposite side of the bar spent his time establishing his Cuban credentials to Manny’s colleague, also Cuban. Manny and the other bartender joked that every Cuban in the US says they are from Havana, but Havana is not big enough for that to be true.

A man who’d had one too many was helped out of the lobby by Manny before he threw up. We heard from the bartender and the rest of our drinking companions about a girl who’d become so drunk the night before, that she’d been removed from the bar in a wheelchair. That was only the second time in the twenty years he’d worked at the Hilton that somebody had left in that state, the bartender said.

The game eked out its final minute with time-out after time-out. We paid our bill and headed to bed. In six hours we’d be up again, and on the last leg of our epic trip. Next stop, Barbados.

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