Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Is America the Best Country on Earth?

Many of you will probably assume this is an opportunity for me to point out America's shortcomings, but honestly I don't want to. Everyone talks about the American Dream, but no one (except a minority of Europhiles) talks about the European dream. Is America really better than the rest of the world? I'm certain many people think so, both native and foreign, and there's also many who would disagree. From our public television, to our national health-care, there are many things left to be desired, in contrast to Europe. Yet. there are a lot of things genuinely and uniquely American which are better. I'm quite sure everyone has their own unique perspective on the question, Is America Better?, but I'll name a few:

America is better at:
1) Muscle Cars.
2) Comfort Foods and drinks. (Reese's Pieces, Doritos, & Doctor Pepper).
3) Large portions.
4) Freedom**

Okay, technically this isn't going so well. I could list: war, rednecks, religion, but those aren't positive examples. Let's see what the other people have to say. Shall we?

Politician Eric Cantro has stated:

Are we better than any[one] else because of the exceptional nature of who we are? Yes.

There's also (was) a Facebook page for those who wish to tell the world "America is better", to which I draw this excerpt:
Budweiser, fake tits, the V8, Little Debbies, the Fourth of July, all you can eat buffets, Viagra, yeah, America invented all that. Not enough for you? Tell you what, every other country that’s been to the moon raise your hand.

That’s what we thought.
Sarah Palin denies and supports American exceptionalism:

But what do we mean when we say America is an exceptional country? We're not saying we're better than anyone else, or that we have a right to tell other people in other countries how to live their lives. When we say America is exceptional we're saying we are the lucky heirs to a unique set of beliefs and national qualities, and that we need to preserve those values and beliefs.
Glenn Beck believes America's health-care is better:
Americans have a better survival rate for 13 of the 16 most common cancers than Europe. Take prostate cancer: 91.9 percent of men live through it, versus 73.7 percent in France and just 51.1 percent in Britain

Which makes me wonder if the belief in American exceptionalism, to be a conservative-right thing? Which is scary, because super patriotism and overt nationalism is a characteristic of totalitarianism. Of course there are some arguments to the contrary of America's superiority:

As T.R. Reid puts it in The United States of Europe, “Yes, Americans put up huge billboards reading ‘Love Thy Neighbor,’ but they murder and rape their neighbors at rates that would shock any European nation.” cite

One is reminded [with America] of Oliver Goldsmith’s mordant reflections upon an earlier age of private greed and public indifference:

Ill fares the land, to hast’ning ills a prey,

Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.

Some people point to the fact we won the War of Independence (among many wars) and therefore are vastly superior, but I question if all this talk about America being the greatest country on Earth, isn't our way of trying to prove to ourselves what we want as fact but question as opinion. Are we insecure as a nation that we need self-gratitude?

But then oddly enough while searching for quotes and data on the subject I did run across several "Britain is Better than America" lists written by Brits, but only one attempt at a America is better than Britain list. Now I might argue that the reason for this is the disconnection or lack of understanding of Europe or Britain. In fact, one of bullet points commonly argued against America being better, is the fact many citizens don't have passports. I must say the America is better than Britain list does have some "compelling" content though, look at #6:

King Ralph. King Ralph was that movie starring John Goodman. It’s about an American who is a descendant of British royalty that is the heir to the Royal thrown after the entire Royal family is electrocuted during a family photo. Of course, conforming to British standards, King Ralph is a loudmouth, uncouth slob from America with no social boundaries or redeeming qualities. And of course, you guessed it, everybody in England is classy and sophisticated. They spend the entire movie trying to make John Goodman conform to British social standards.  cite

I suppose I could go on, but the truth is, wouldn't the deciding factor of what country is better be determined by the citizens happiness? I live in a world called America, home of 24-hour drive-thrus, flat-screen TVs, and SUVs. It's heaven to many people, despite the fact that America is one of the least happiest places on earth. We're not even in the top 10. (We did beat the U.K., Belgium, and France) The question then becomes, if happiness doesn't qualify a country as better or exceptional, then do we really want to call ourselves "The best country on earth?".

I think, different places fit different people for different reasons. I think, this is also the reason for the culture war currently going on in America. Conservatives such as the Tea Party are challenging the ever-changing younger America who are demanding their happiness in place of the a dated image of what this country should be. It is a revolution which could decide exactly how much of the country is happy, and ultimately decide America's image as the best country in the world.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Souvenirs That Mean something but cost nothing.

A framed place-mat from Quik Burger.
So one of the topics I promised to write on, but haven't had the time to do yet was on souvenirs. "souvenir" is a cool word we get from the (oddly enough) French meaning memento, or more important remembrance. People love to take a piece of their vacation home with them, but you often end up with some Chinese made crap that you paid too much for, and which really has no sentimental value. "Let's remember plastic crap made in China, Yuck!"

Since we're currently poor students, who just recently got back from travelling, and who stayed at a $12 a night Hostel in Cairo, I thought I'd share some of my souvenirs. Souvenirs that do have meaning, and were practically free. Feel free to try it yourself on your next vacation. You'll be glad you did.

1. Frame a place-mat.
This particular one is from Quick Burger. I have a particular fascination with this chain and their "Giant" burger. It's written in both French and Dutch, so it's kind of got that cool foreign factor here in the U.S.- A conversation piece, whereas in Belgium-it's just another place-mat. Perhaps I'll frame some Taco Bell place-mats and sell them there? Either way it's uber cool, and better yet, it's the actual place-mat from our rainy day adventure in Ghent. On a side-note, since it has been hanging in my kitchen, I've craved and purchased more cheeseburgers than I ever have before.

Egyptian pound necklace.
2. Make a necklace out of a coin.
Egyptian money is worthless, and trading in the coins seemed futile when we got home. And at a value of less than twenty cents per US dollar, their Egyptian Pound, is perfect to bring home, drill a hole in and make into a necklace. We purchased the additional materials at a hobby store for $10, and then placed them in these cool bags to give as gifts. What makes it cooler than a souvenir from a souvenir shop is that this is real money, and it has been touched by thousands, if not millions of Egyptians hands, and lives. (At a time of a revolution, to be precise!)

Egyptian money.
3. Frame some paper money.
For the same reasons as above, we took some black construction paper and a cheap $3 frame and framed a some really radically cool money from Egypt. Perhaps when the dollar increases over the Euro, I'll frame some of those too. Or maybe I'll just frame the dollar when I find a way to escape and live abroad.
4. Rocks.
This is a piece of the Great Pyramid of Giza. (No seriously!) I did not however break it off, but was offered to me as a "gift" from one of the desert dwellers. "A gift from the people of Egypt", he told me, asking for money in return. Now I'd never condone breaking apart things; but, often things like rocks on the ground can make really cool souvenirs. I suppose I could break it down further and give it out as souvenirs, however, I'll keep it how it is, preserved in my climatized, suburban home, unlike the poor other rocks belonging to our Egyptian "friend." Thousands of years old and it's in my house!!
A rock, from the pyramids.

5. Receipts and Rubbish.
Welcome to my wall collage. I've got receipts from Great Western trains, pictures from the BBC, a Doctor Who map, a hand-written tray table for an upcoming book. All little memories, which could be scraped book, or in my case tossed on the wall, so I can sleep and dream of all the wonderful places I've gone, and all the people I've met. Some of the papers still smell like the places they've come from. I actually just started digging all this out of boxes and piecing it together a few weeks ago. Much more has to go up... but for now it's a start.

My bedroom wall.
So there you have it. Souvenirs don't have to be expensive, just memorable. Save your money on your next vacation and bring home some loose change and some trash.... soon you'll find what you've really brought home, is all the joys of your trip.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Tips For Surviving British Airways

Our plane out of Egypt!
Another thing I wanted to talk about after we got home from abroad, and that I haven't had the chance to, was British Airways. In fact I think I finally found something, that we Americans do better than the British: air travel. Back in the days of my traveling naivete (I'm still naive to travel in many ways) I dreamt of flying on BA (pronounced bee a), as they call it. I suppose I expected a huge cultural difference, which there is of course, but after flying Egypt Air, I can say that those reason seems rather silly now. However I don't want to give you the wrong idea, the flight, the British Air flight that is, was better, more comfortable, and probably the nicest flight I've ever taken. However, the customer service prior to the flight, left me prior to our trip, wishing for my American Airline expectations.

See in that lies the problem. When I booked the flight, I booked a British Airways Itinerary knowing that it would be mostly served by AA metal on the international flight. Even when it was the BA's, posher birds, I'd still accrue AAdvantage miles on my trip. Now when I book my flight through AA, I'm able to immediately pick my seat and rest in comfort for the remainder of the time leading up to the trip, knowing my tuchus has a place not reserved in the luggage hold. However, with British Airways, they don't let you choose your seats till 24 hours prior to departure, unless you're willing to pay an additional sum of money. A lot of money, which after you do the mental mathematic olympics, converting Great British pounds into dollars, seems like an unthinkable amount of money on a student ticket. What this means is, if you're traveling in tandem with a companion, as I was, there is a possibility of being separated. Of course I didn't find this out from BA, they refused to respond to my email. (Still un-replied till this day.) After talking to some veteran flyers, they walked me through the process. Not only did I have to wait, but I also needed to obtain the appropriate record locator number since the one I had was for one system, and BA uses another. (Recognizable by not being able to log-in to BA's site.) May I also mention, this British Airways policy also locks you out of choosing your AA seats because it's a code-share, and despite it being an American Airlines aircraft, and despite it showing on my AA reservations account, you're forced to suffer the cruelty of the monarchy. Eventually I emailed a second request to British Airways asking for the locator number, so when in fact the 24 hour period arrived, (I'd be in Belgium at the time,) I could hunt down some Internet and pick our seats. Luckily our friend Christie let me do just that. But wait, let's get back to the email. They never replied to that one either. Ever. (Do they even check their email?) So as the date of our trip approached, I resorted to how my grandparents used to contact people before email and twitter, and rang the 1-800 number for British Airways. There I was greeted with a rather friendly Hindu sounding man (Hey... I thought you were British!) who kindly gave me the number then hung-up on me before I could ask him any further questions.

On our last day in Brussels, we had already exited Belgian immigration and were trying to find our gate when we realized British Airways had cancelled our flight to London. We were supposed to be in Cairo that night, but now we were forced to go back through immigration, re-enter Brussels and find a British Airways worker. (Not to mention contact Cairo and tell them of our conundrum.) While the British Airway's agent was nice and did book us on the first Egypt Air flight, direct, I think I sensed some hesitation in her voice because she realized that what she had just done was traded us her Egyptian donkey pulling a cart, for our British luxury sports car. In the end, we were so glad we did have the experience that we did on Egypt Air, despite the fact it was cramped, and hot with no A/C. However the one downside was we wouldn't get miles for that leg of our journey, because it wasn't on a One World partner plane. Of course that was the whole reason for booking with BA and AA, to use our money wisely and be able to travel again soon.  I didn't know this at the time of course, and it's not like I can email them now.

Other than that the whole experience wasn't too bad. It felt like we won the lotto when we boarded the BA 777 in Cairo to return to London. I found the very last row on the port side of the craft, a two person love-seat, was the sweet spot since there's extra recline room with no one behind you, and the bulk head is a few feet back. The seats are definitely bigger than AA's 767, and there seemed to be more legroom. The food, a full English breakfast was one of my favorites I've ever had on a plane, though I was slightly perplexed how our flight attendant was French.  In the end we did get to sit together on all our flights, and we learned to bend to the socialistic ways of the British. Perhaps if I just stopped trying to micromanage everything like an American and just let things be, none of this would of mattered- but never the less, I thought I'd commit these tips to words for the the next time I fly any other airline, including British Airways, because not every airline operates the American way.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Las Vegas's Stratosphere Roller Coaster

The rush of riding Insanity the Ride: it has seats tethered to an arm that swings out beyond the tower leaving riders dangling 1000 feet in the air. As the ride begins its circular motion, the seats rise and tilt downward to the Strip. 
Let's talk about regrets for a second. For a short time after living in California, and before moving back to North Carolina, I lived in a city in Arizona called Bullhead City. The city is only ninety miles south of Las Vegas which made getting to Sin City an easy and convenient trip. While we did make several pilgrimages to the center of the known gambling universe, we were uncompromisingly poor when we lived there, which prevented us from doing things normal people do.

The element of extreme fear is always in the back of your head.

One of the things we failed to ever do was go to the Stratosphere Theme Park which sits aloft the tallest casino in Las Vegas. The Stratosphere looks like a giant space needle but is actually a hotel. On the top of the hotel they built a roller-coaster (Sky Coaster) and several other rides that would leave even those with a lack of  fear of heights in a complete panic.

Made for maniacs.
For the longest time I've expected one day to read in the newspapers that the riders of the roller coaster on top of the Stratosphere Casino would plummet to their death in the ultimate of theme park carnage. It hasn't happened yet but it's bound to happen (or has it)? You may be asking yourself if there's any record of anyone dying on these thrill rides and the answer, surprisingly, is yes. Of course in every occasion, the deaths were considered suicides, however you can decide if the coroners were persuaded in their judgement or not. If death doesn't get you a power-outage or high-winds might. Both situations have occurred and in both instances it resulted in passengers dangling upside down over side of the tower for hours. If that's not enough to satisfy the thrill seeker in you, don't forget your on the biggest lightening road in Nevada.

Maybe that's why I never rode the stratosphere roller-coaster? Maybe my experience inside of Las Vegas casinos taught me that the House always wins, and the odds are in the favor of destruction when you consider the probability for mistakes both in construction and inspection (do they really check every nut?) of a very unique amusement park on top of the Stratosphere Tower. That one mistake may shoot me off the top of the casino in a blazing stream of coaster cars, resulting in the most uneventful of deaths.Then again maybe that's the way to go?

Information and prices of the Stratosphere's ride can be found online at their website here, and range from $15 for Big Shot, X-Scream, or Insanity and about $110 for SkyJump