A world of small differences

This isn’t a trampey-related post, but I thought I’d write an update about what’s going on. In short, I made it to the USA without any incidents.

After an overnight stop in San Francisco, we flew into JFK in New York last Saturday (Sunday NZ time), and were taxi’d to our hotel in New Jersey, which is the main base for a couple of weeks while we do some work-related things with a company that’s 5 minutes down the road. And I use that phrase loosely, because as with everything here, it’s a 5 minute drive. It’s actually very frustrating, because although the hotel is quite nice there is nothing nearby. It’s an island in the middle of a freeway, and it’s impossible to get anywhere without driving, which is a a problem when there’s no car. Even food is a problem, because the hotel doesn’t have any proper restaurant — they just expect people to have cars.

Being trapped in a place like this also highlights many little things that I often take for granted. Getting laundry done is one of these things. Obviously there’s no laundromat nearby (without a car). The hotel runs a laundry service that’s insanely expensive (eg. US$3 for each pair of undies), so screw that — I’m washing my stuff in the bath and then blasting it with the heater in my room to get it dry.

We’re here because the company recommended it. They’re nice people and the recommendation was made in good faith, but perhaps without realising that we’d have a few issues with renting a car and driving to places. I might learn to drive in this kind of environment one day, but I don’t want to be thrown in the deep end. We’ve arranged daily transport to and from where we need to be, and the work side of things is going well at this time. Outside of this, though, I can’t wait for this stage of the trip to be over. It’s just so complicated to organise simple things, such as what to do for dinner after getting back quite tired at 6pm.

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A couple of San Francisco’s
trams on Powell Street.

We did get out a little, though. On Friday (a very long Friday), I spent the afternoon walking around a small part of San Francisco to get a feel for the place. We stayed at a hotel on Geary Street, and I walked down Market Street to The Embarcadero, and around to Fisherman’s Wharf before heading back up Powell Street. There wasn’t a chance to really do anything, but I hope I’ll have a better idea of what to expect when I next visit.

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Part of Times Square.

On Sunday afternoon (local time), we figured out how to catch a bus into New York, and had a look around. I went up the Empire State Building, which I hadn’t ever imagined would be such a human conveyor belt. The way they churn people through the system is very efficient. There was quite a good view from the top — very flat and lots of buildings. Best of all, I can now say that I’ve done it. Later, we went for a wander towards Times Square, and saw the giant indoor ferris wheel at Toys R Us.

I suppose the first thing one tends to notice about a new place is all the differences, and the the biggest difference I’ve so far noticed in the USA is the very non-explicit attitude to asking for money. Tipping is the most obvious example of this, and it’s what I was most concerned about before I came. (Who do I need to tip? Am I tipping the right amount? The usual suspects.) Coming from a culture where you simply expect that people get paid proper wages for doing their job, and that if money is expected for something then it’ll be explicitly asked for, it takes a lot of getting used to. If someone offers to help when you’re looking at a map, you can never be quite sure if they’re going to try and demand a tip afterwards. It’s just a conventional difference, but it’s one I’m having difficulty getting used to.

The other manifestation of this difference is with the convention of almost never including tax in an advertised price. So, of course, an item or service advertised as $9.95 will actually cost more than that. A side-effect of this, which I still haven’t worked out how to cope with, is that things end up costing very obscure amounts. I suppose a bus ticket is advertised as costing $4 because it’s a nice round number, but when it translates to $4.43 at the time money actually changes hands, I’m confused about what the advantage was to advertising a round number in the first place. I’ve ended up with a wallet full of shrapnel, and I don’t know what to do with all the 1 cent and 5 cent coins that build up.

Another difference that I didn’t expect is just how much the whole society here still seems to depend on cash. I don’t know where I obtained the impression, but I thought that the USA had become a society built around plastic a long time ago… yet cash is prevalent (perhaps because so many people need tips) and there are still coin phones all over New York City! Having noted this, there’s also a lot of trust with credit cards. Places just swipe them without requiring signatures and without requiring PIN numbers, and you just have to hope that they’ll charge the right amount. I’m quite annoyed about this, too, because the hotel in San Francisco handed me an invoice for $111.86 but my online credit statement says they charged $186.86. I’ve been harassing them for several days now to try and get back the $75 they overcharged, but in the end I might need to go to Mastercard and dispute it.

Oh, and Television is as useless here as it is back in NZ, except in different ways. It’s about 40% commercials, and most of them are advertising health insurance or medical treatments. The mind boggles.

It’s not as bad as I probably make it sound, though, and I think it’ll be much better once we’re free to roam around more. New York seems like a fascinating place, and it’s huge. I’m just frustrated that I’ll be stuck in a hotel prison for the better part of 2 weeks to begin with, and having to think very seriously about how to arrange simple little things that I normally take for granted like edible food and laundry when they’re simply not available at the hotel. All this because I don’t fit into the stereotypical American frame of driving a car everywhere. I’m looking forward to the time when I’ll get to go and visit Shaun in New York City, and perhaps be in a better position to figure out the subway and get around by myself and actually see things instead of being stuck in a place that ends at its parking lot.

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