A Brief History of Puerto Rica

  • Puerto Rico (Spanish for 'Rich Port') is not just one island, but a Caribbean archipelago, officially the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
  • The islands, strategically situated on the trade winds route, were colonised by Spain as early as 1493, on Columbus’ second voyage. They were used as a vital harbour facility, to establish their New World Empire.
  • Columbus named the island San Juan Bautista after St. John the Baptist. Because of the amount of gold and other riches being exported, the Spanish named the first city on the island (later abandoned), Ciudad de Puerto Rico, (Rich Port City). Eventually, the shortened name was applied to the whole island. (It seems that gold was everywhere.)
  • Puerto Rico was the general headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition in the Americas
  •  Spanish rule led to the displacement and assimilation of the native population, the forced migration of African slaves, and settlement, primarily from the Canary Islands and Andalusia. The result is a very distinct Puerto Rican identity, a fusion of indigenous, African, and European elements lurking underneath American infrastructure.
  • Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States, designated a commonwealth, 'acquired' in 1898, following the Spanish-American War. Before the war, the US offered to purchase Puerto Rico and Cuba for a sum of $160 million, but were turned down.
  • Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens since 1917, and can move freely between the island and the mainland. However, they don't get a federal vote,or pay federal taxes. There is ongoing debate about this situation.

The Language Barrier

Spanish and English are the official languages in Puerto Rico. Wikipedia says that Spanish still predominates. A slight understatement. Many folk don’t speak English at all. I can get by with my rusty Spanish in the supermarket ‘donde este…’ but trying to track down a covid test is much trickier. Everything on the internet is in Spanish. Thank God for Google Translate

Facts and Factoids

  • Just 111 miles long and 36 miles wide, Puerto Rico has a population of 3.9 million people, making it one of the most densely populated places in the world.
  • The Puerto Ricans are called “Boricuas”, after the original settlers, which is sometimes rendered as “Borincanos” or “Borinqueños” and by extension into English as “Borinqueneers
  • The US dollar is the currency used in Puerto Rico, but locals call it a “peso” or “dolar.”
  • Puerto Rico competes as an “independent nation” in the Olympics and Miss Universe, as well as in many other international events.(Puerto Rico has won the Miss Universe title five times!)
  • The island has the largest cave network in the Western Hemisphere

Food in Puerto Rico

Food in Puerto Rico has its own identity too. Mofongo, fried pickled plantain is the unofficial national dish, and the official one is arroz con gandules (rice and pigeon peas). Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of seafood. Snapper. Delicious prawns in coconut sauce or garlic sauce and a marinaded pork chop called a Kan Kan, which is a huge semi circular slice - a meat mohawk. Most of it is served in the open air, because of Covid and the weather. Which means I have to battle the flies and the beady eyed great tailed grackles (great name for these very common birds) looking for their share. And of course - empanadas - the Spanish version of the Cornish pasty.

What to See in Puerto Rico?

Puerto Rico's (self imposed) nickname is Island of Enchantment, in deference to the gorgeous scenery. There's plenty to entertain and fabulous mountains, forests and 270 miles of beaches to enjoy. Puerto Rico has three bioluminescent bays - Mosquito is recognised as the brightest in the world. I went to:

A Car, A Car, My Kingdom for a Car - in Puerto Rico

From San Juan, to the opposite - south west - corner of Puerto Rico. I'm searching for the scenery that gives Puerto Rico the nickname of The Enchanted Isle. I'm particularly excited about hunting down some gorgeous beaches.

I’ve booked a hire car through an agent in the UK and I order an Uber to take me to the pick up office, opposite the air port. It’s a seedy dilapidated area. And I’m deposited, after some difficulty in finding the address, outside a shuttered building. The Uber departs and it quickly becomes obvious that thus branch of SIXT is no longer functioning. There’s even a post lady with a little van complaining that she has no forwarding address. Several phone calls later, another Uber is summoned and I’m off to the other side of the airport and the new office. They’ve been there four months they say. You would think they would have told people, including the post office, by now.

The toilets for clients aren’t working and they haven’t picked up the flashing tyre pressure indicator on my Nissan Versa either. There’s no GPS and no GPS connection with my phone. So I’m having to navigate with my mobile balanced on my knee. I’m not in the best of moods.

(Trying to) Drive Across Puerto Rico

I’m taking the toll highway. I’ve been warned that Puerto Rican roads through the mountains are narrow and precipitous, with no guard rails. I don’t think they sound like a good idea, as I’m GPS lap driving. Fortunately, Google’s directions are easy to follow. The road surface is mainly good, but even the toll road is subject to the odd pothole.

And the measuring systems here are even more confused than those in the UK. Speed signs and speedometers give miles per hour. The distance makers alongside the roads are all in kilometres.

The mountain scenery down to Ponce (guess who that’s named after) is stunning. Though there is no stopping place en route as far as I can see, so no chance to enjoy it or take photos. And all the signposting is in Spanish. Maybe there are directions to filling stations and rest areas. As far as I can see you just have to go exploring down a slip road if you need something.

La Parguera

My hotel is on the outskirts of La Parguera, a port to the south of Lajas. There’s much more of a colourful Caribbean vibe down here. The town is dotted with brightly painted timber bars and booths. But it’s quiet. Much is still closed. The supermarket has little of interest. No fresh fruit or vegetables. Or fresh deli for that matter. So it’s ice cream for dinner. And breakfast. The hotel restaurant is closed two days a week as well. But the bar is open, so I can still get cocktails to go with the ice cream.

La Parguera Bioluminescent Bay

There are a line of boats on the pier at La Parguera, waiting to sail visitors through the mangroves to the reefs and little cays dotted off shore. Snorkelling off one of the cays is on offer, as are trips to the nearby Bioluminescent Bay. So a combination of the two seems like a good idea. The snorkelling isn’t magnificent, but there is some fan coral and a smattering of fish. The other 19 folk on the boat are all Americans with no idea of snorkelling etiquette. I’m battered and bruised.

The Bioluminescent Bay is warm, but still moonlit – and pitch dark is required to see the glow properly. Boats are moored alongside each other to try and create some cover. We swim though, in our masks. Funnelling around 40 folk, with no sense of decorum is fraught. but there are green firework like specks to be seen radiating through the water and filmy swirls around hands and feet.

Beaches of La Parguera

There’s no beach though - even though the hotel blurb says it’s near one. I’ve read that Playita Rosada is a six minute drive away. But no, this man made pool and decked area is closed off. The nearest decent seashore is a 30 minute drive away.

Playa Buye

So, I’m off searching for the elusive sand. I’ve looked up the best beaches in Puerto Rico and headed for Boquerón, on the west coast. As usual, I’ve forgotten that I’m driving on the right this morning, until I spot a car coming towards me on the same side of the road. But, in my defence, the Puerto Ricans don’t seem to drive on any particular side of the road for the most part. In their defence, the country highways are narrow and drivers have to be constantly vigilant for the potholes, taking last minute action to avoid them.

The drive is worth it. Playa Buye, just to the north of Boquerón, is deservedly on the list. White sand, dappled turquoise water, patchwork casuarina trees and iguanas. Utterly gorgeous. And it deserves more than one visit. Except the restaurant here is closed on Tuesday too. What is it with Tuesdays and eating?

It seems that beaches here tend to be accessed via paths through beach resorts. A captive clientele. Except that most of the visitors in this part of the island are locals. They’ve brought picnics in cool boxes. There’s even a guy with a trolley who helps roll the picnics and deckchairs down to the beach from the car park.

It’s 26 degrees Celsius. Perfect for me, though the locals think it’s cold. Blissful sunbathing, except for the mosquitoes. All my hotel rooms here are plagued with the tiny no-see- ums. I’m covered in bites by Day 2 and stuffing antihistamines. The day on my beach begins in relatively tranquil fashion. But others obviously rate the beach highly too. There’s a steady procession of sun worshippers and the sand fills up. The locals kindly share their soundboxes. And behind me there’s the relentless squeaking of a metal detector.

Playa Boquerón

Next on the list, Boquerón town beach. This too is accessed through a resort . Though the gates are barred to cars and guarded. It’s a long strip of golden sand, but it’s browner, a little more concretey, backed by a few buildings. Nowhere near as pretty as Buye.

Playa El Combate

Further south still, El Combate. Another small town and another long stretch of pretty sand, softened by low bushes. I’ll rate this one number 2.

Playa Sucia

Down to the tip of Cabo Rojo (Red Cape) area, crossing a wild life refuge. On the way, Las Salinas de Cabo Rojo. Heaps of salt, alongside flat rectangular evaporation lakes. The salt pans beautifully reflect the clouds in rosy hued seawater. The route follows a narrow spit down to the lighthouse, El Faro Los Morrillos. Here the land widens into a small horseshoe at the bottom of the peninsula. This is called, slightly confusingly, Rojo Cabo. It’s a rough ride. Increasingly huge potholes more like craters, along the spit eventually give way to a horribly bumpy stretch, with no surface at all. It’s like being in an earthquake.

The lighthouse is closed, of course, but the scramble, up to the top of the cliffs forming the horseshoe, delivers a great view down the 200 foot cliffs to the jagged stacks and pillars beneath. To the east, an impressive headland and the long curve of white sand that is Playa Sucia. The sea inlets behind have turned it into a tombolo, almost surrounded by water. It’s a good place to go if you want seclusion. Initially, I bump El Combate down to three and make this number two. It’s lovely, but it’s a ten minute hike from the car park. No men with trolleys here. And definitely no restaurants.

But after spending all day on Buye, perhaps it should be promoted to number one.

A PCR test in Puerto Rico?

Trying to track down a covid test is tricky. And I need one to get into Anguilla. It seems that you can’t get a PCR for travelling at all on Puerto Rico. They are only done on a doctors referral. Antigen tests have to be done no more than 48 hours before arrival. It’s all very disconcerting.

So, Puerto Rico is surprising and very rewarding. Anguilla next. If the test results come through…(And read more about Puerto Rico here.)

Puerto Rico - the Rich Port

Last time I came to Puerto Rico it was a forced stop at the airport at San Juan, as my Avianca plane had developed an engine fault en route to Bogota and then Ecuador. It was the middle of the night and we weren't allowed to leave the airport (which was closed anyway). so, I'm finally back for a proper look. And I'm surprised. Puerto Rico is a fascinating mish mash of Spanish Colonial heritage, American culture, jungle, mountain scenery and glorious beaches.

San Juan, Capital of Puerto Rico

About 80% of the population of Puerto Rico lives and works in the metropolitan area of  San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico. San Juan was founded by the Spanish colonists in 1521, That makes it the third oldest European-established capital city in the Americas, after Santo Domingo and Panama City, in Panama. It is also the oldest European-established city under United States sovereignty. The Spaniards originally called it Ciudad de Puerto Rico (City of Puerto Rico).

The old city was built on the western half of a small island called the Isleta de San Juan, today connected to the mainland by two bridges and a causeway. My Air BNB guest house is slap bang in the middle of this area. I’m really glad I’ve waited to hire a car. The streets are jampacked and on Sunday afternoon nose to tail with day trippers’ vehicles. I can walk everywhere from here.

Old San Juan Fortifications

Massive fortifications. – walls and forts - surround a large part of the island city. This is the Malta of the Caribbean. The biggest forts are run by the American National Parks Service. They’re in charge of the trail that leads round the headland below the walls. There are great views across to the mainland and balmy breezes turning into  bracing wake you up winds as I head north to the Atlantic coast. The path clearing volunteers have also taken on the care of the city’s stray cats. There are hundreds of them emerging from the bushes, mewing hopefully.

The key fortifications are the  sprawling sixteenth-century Fort San Felipe del Morro, with its lighthouse and green spaces on the headland - kite (chiringo) flying is popular here in the ocean breezes - and the seventeenth-century Fort San Cristóbal, defending the hinterland. They are both part of the national Parks San Juan National Historic Site. Countless picturesque turrets demand to be photographed, not to mention gates, the Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery, with its red domed church located just outside the city walls and La Princesa, the former jail.

There’s also  the 16th-century El Palacio de Santa Catalina, known as La Fortaleza, but that now  serves as the governor's mansion and the police won’t let you close enough to get a good look. That maybe because there were riots here not so long ago. The street used to have canopy of umbrellas but they were all burnt during the demonstrations

The Rest of Old San Juan

The very narrow streets in the enclosed city are a tasteful grey - blue rectangular cobblestone (Farrow and Ball would be proud) . They are edged with pastel houses, shops and bars. It’s very atmospheric. The balconies are festooned with Father Christmases and Wise Men, all mixed indiscriminately  together. There’s clearly no edict here about taking your decorations down by January 6th.

There are statues of Christopher Columbus, it goes without saying. There’s also the elaborate façade of the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista (construction began in the 1520s, it was destroyed in a hurricane and rebuilt in 1540). It contains the tomb of the Spanish explorer and settlement founder Juan Ponce de León. He was a volunteer on Columbus’ second expedition, led the first exploration of Florida  and searched fruitlessly, for the Fountain of Youth. Nevertheless, he wound up, very rich, as governor of Puerto Rico. I saw Ponce de Leon's statue, standing in a square close by, but since I got home, it's been toppled.

Other buildings of interest predating the 20th century are the Ayuntamiento or Alcaldía (San Juan City Hall), the Diputación Provincial and the Real Intendencia buildings, which house the Puerto Rico Department of State (the Casa Rosa), the pretty San José Church (1523- the second oldest church structure in existence in the Americas, and the oldest church in the Americas, still in use) and the adjacent Hotel El Convento ( the former house of the Ponce de León family, known as Casa Blanca), the Teatro Tapia, and the former Spanish barracks (now the Museum of Ballajá). Below the city walls, to the north, is La Perla, low cost housing for the original city workers. Latin music blasts out, as it does from most of the bars.

American San Juan

The other half of the Isleta hosts most of Puerto Rico's central government buildings, including the casino and the very grand Commonwealth Capitol Building. Puerto Rico is represented federally by just one non-voting member of the House, known as a Resident Commissioner. Puerto Rico has had its own governor since 1952 and its political status is a matter of ongoing debate.  

 Literally camped outside here are some flag waving anti vaccination protestors. Opposite, is the Walkway of Presidents. A line up of bronzes of all the presidents who have held sway over Puerto Rico. It stops at Obama. I’m wondering if they haven’t got round to Trump yet, or if they’re just not going to.

It’s a fascinating and surprising walk, San Juan might be the nicest city in the Caribbean. I had no idea.

Tourism and San Juan

Down the hill, to the south, gigantic cruise liners. line the bay between the island and the mainland. There have been  a series of economic projects aimed at developing Puerto Rico into an industrial high-income economy. Tourism and hospitality, of course feature strongly. Whilst these have been successful 40 % of the population still live below the poverty line. (It’s 13% in mainland USA). The damage caused in 2017 by Hurricane Maria was extensive and an additional  set back. Covid is clearly not helping.

Condado Beach

Each  side of the Isleta de San Juan are beach resort areas. Slightly grander ones to the west. I’m heading for Condado Beach to the east. It’s only a mile or so from the airport and has a long wide strip of deep golden brown sand . It’s exceptionally soft and  deep. Hotels, apartment towers, bars and chain restaurants back the beach. I’m staying in a BnB in a Spanish style low slung house, in a small residential street. It's encircled by said high rise blocks. The beach is just up the road.

 The burger joint I venture into has well over a 100 brands of beer. There are three columns on each side of the menu and a build your burger card, that takes about 10 minute to fill in. I’ve also tried an Argentinian steak house. Grilled short rib and Manchego ice cream. Both are excellent.

Next up - South Western Puerto Rico.......And read more about Puerto Rico here.

San Francisco

My first stop coming from England on my way to Australia. San Francisco, founded in 1776, is named for Francis of Assisi. It's obviously a strategic port city. located on the famous Bay Area, but it grew rapidly as a result of The California Gold Rush in 1849. It was then the the largest city on the West Coast. Notoriously, San Francisco lies on the San Andreas fault and it was three quarters destroyed in 1906, by earthquake and fire. It was the birthplace of the United Nations in 1945 and over succeeding years - including the Summer of Love in 1967, has become synonymous with the Peace Movement, sexual freedom and liberal activism.

Touring San Francisco

So, I'm humming Scott McKenzie and The Flowerpot Men, as I whizz round San Francisco, revisiting all the sights, first on foot and then on a tourist bus. It's an understatement to say the city is busy, despite the reputation for cool summers, fog and steep rolling hills. This is still a massive tourist destination.

Fisherman’s Wharf (doubled in size),  Pier 39, also hugely extended looking across to the Golden Gate Bridge, now familiarly disappearing in rolling cloud, Grace Cathedral, with its white spires looking like something out of Disneyland, Chinatown, the odd zig-zag of the Crookedest Street with its floral decoration and  the Nob Hill area, with all the beautiful timber houses. Trolley buses, trams and cable cars. It's an eclectic mix of architecture, and landmarks. Fireman’s hose shaped  Coit Tower perched on Telegraph Hill and the weird triangular skyscraper that is the TransAmerica Pyramid crown the many scrapers. San Francisco is the headquarters of Wells Fargo, Twitter, Square, Airbnb, Levi Strauss & Co., Gap Inc., Salesforce, Dropbox, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, Uber, and Lyft.

Alcatraz and Pier 39, San Francisco

The boats are running to the renowned former Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary on its island today, but I'm opting out. I've got a pretty good view from all my vantage points and I'm not sure what there is to be gained by taking to the chilly water. I’m eating on the run as OMG  the pound doesn't go far here. San Francisco is one of the most expensive cities in the USA anyway and the Brexit effect on the currency isn’t helping. Fortunately, the Pier 39 clam chowder is still delicious.

Yosemite - Mariposa Grove

There’s also time for a (very long) day trip to Yosemite National Park from San Francisco. Yosemite is one of the most famous national parks in the USA. it gained its charter in 1864. It's also a UN heritage site. and I've been wanting to visit for a very long time. Ponderosa pine and chaparral bush line the route. I’m reliving my TV-watching youth. Our first stop is what’s advertised as a very arduous hike to see the sequoias in Mariposa Grove. These trees are 3000 years old and  thirty feet in girth (but not the oldest  trees in the world, which are the Bristol pines at 5000 years old.).

They’re not lying about the arduous, though the track looks deceptively easy on the way down. It’s gruelling climbing the mile back up the steep hill in the heat. It's 40 degrees Celsius and I’m still suffering from yesterday's hilly walks and eight hours’ worth of jet lag. I’m convinced a heart attack is imminent. To be honest, I’m not convinced it was worth the effort. There's a few, huge but not especially beautiful specimens. At least I didn’t miss out.

Yosemite - a Tourist Magnet

Here, traversing the Sierra Nevada, the lowest and highest points in California are  juxtaposed: Death Valley and Mount Whitney. When we finally reach tiny Yosemite Valley, it is horribly congested. The roads and  car parks are chock a block and all the viewing spots crammed with camera waving tourists. Yosemite draws over four million visitors each year (and even began requiring reservations to access the park during peak periods in 2020)

Yosemite Valley

I can see why they come. The mountain views are straight out of Microsoft screensavers. El Capitan, a sheer towering rock face, with pin pricks of intrepid (or stupid) climbers (they take up to three days to ascend), Half Dome Rock, Bridal Veil Falls (definitely the most popular name for waterfalls around the world) and Yosemite Falls. Granitic Sentinel Rock towers over the valley, another magnet for climbers.

The tour really consists of looking at these four sights from several different vantage points, sometimes in spectacular combination. We have an hour and a half’s stop at the Park Lodge near the 2,400 feet Yosemite Falls. this is the highest waterfall in North America. The rock pool where the lower fall cascades is  crowned with foam and heaving with splashing bodies. Ninety minutes  sounds like enough time for a restful sunbathe, but queuing for ice cream takes longer than the half hour walk to the bottom of the falls and back. Then it's return to the bus.

Next stop Sydney.

Hagatna, Guam

Well I’ve now made it to Hagatna, the capital of Guam, after British Airways delayed my trip via Seoul and Saipan. I'm at the beginning of a two month trip into Oceania. And they have no idea where my luggage is.

More (Probably Boring) Ranting About British Airways

Our national airline has done its utmost to ruin my trip. They won’t speak to my travel agent, ‘on the grounds of security’ which means I have to call them, on international rates and wait 15 minutes minimum before anyone answers the phone. That’s if the call doesn’t get dropped. Then I speak to someone who clearly couldn’t care less and gives me a lot of misinformation. Several times. I’m told that my bag won’t have been located yet as I didn’t report it missing. I did on, Monday. They’ve already logged that. And then that it won’t be found as I haven’t described the contents. I did, verbally, but the ‘lady’ concerned didn’t bother to add it to the file. So far I’ve spent £175 on additional transport and hotels, £240 on changing my connecting flight, and about $200 on clothes, a sports bag to transport my stuff and toiletries. After much trial and tribulation I manage to get a clinic appointment – with the Seventh Day Adventists and waste another two hours of sunbathing time re-filling my prescriptions. That’s another $250.

The BA luggage tracing website just keeps telling me that my bag has not been located yet. So it’s miraculous when Korean Air (who eventually got me to Seoul) call to say they have my bag at Seoul. They promise to send it over on a flight that arrives in Guam at 1 a.m. and then to dispatch it over to my hotel. I leave at six in the morning to catch an 8.20 flight. This is going to be a stressful and close-run thing.

What to Do in Guam

Meanwhile, ('Finally?' you ask) what of Guam? It’s fortunate that I have read there isn’t a great deal to see. It’s much more built up than Saipan and is mostly known for the important US naval base here. My hotel is perched above Tumon Bay which is scenic, as advertised. The water is azure, framed by the reef and some cliffs topped by ‘Two Lovers Point’. Dotted round the bay itself are some sandy beaches and some monstrous concrete hotels. Tumon is Guam's economic centre; tourism makes up more than half the economy of the island.

The sea is filled with rash-suited Korean and Chinese tourists snorkelling frenetically in the choppy water. There’s no beach where I am, I have to settle for admiring the sands in the distance from my cabana. That’s ok, I don’t have the energy to actually do anything.

The Hilton doesn’t quite hit luxury hotel for me. My Tasi Club room is nice enough, with great views of the ocean. The breakfast here in the club is adequate, - not even proper squeezed orange juice? The food is expensive, but available 24 hours from the café. No room service! The pool area is again, adequate, but by no means luxurious, as are the pool cafes. Staff are mixed. Some very helpful, others less so, but that might be because in those cases their English isn’t very good.

Backing onto the hotels is a another sea - of malls and shopping centres. This is where Guan makes its money. There are arguments about what else to add. Casinos are in the frame.

Onwards and Upwards from Guam

Sleep came easily last night but didn’t last very long. I checked the time when I awoke and was surprised to discover it was only 11 pm. After that, it was fitful at best. A mixture of bodily confusion at the rapid time zone change, anticipation of early rising- 5.a.m- and worry as to whether my bag will actually turn up.  It does - hallelujah!

The United Island Hopper flight to Kosrae leaves late, as it takes an age to board all the returning islanders. They waddle on board with armfuls of carry-on baggage and the stewards puzzle over where to stash it all. There’s no leg room left whatsoever. As we gain height over Guam the view suggests that I’ve at least seen all that is worth seeing.

A Very Brief History of Guam

The island now known as Guam was settled by the Chamorro people, (of Malay origin) in about 500 A.D. It was first visited by the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan in 1521, while sailing for the King of Spain, and it became a Spanish colony from 1565, until it was captured by the Americans in 1898. Guam was occupied by the Japanese during World War II.

Is Guam Part of the United States of America?

  • Guam is officially an unincorporated and organised island territory of the United States in Micronesia.
  • Guam is of great strategic importance to the U.S.A. and is a key defence base.
  • The inhabitants of Guam are called Guamanians, and they are American citizens by birth. Indigenous Guamanians (pre Spanish origin) are known as Chamorros, after the first settlers.

Facts and Factoids

  • The capital city of Guam is Hagåtña and the most populous city is Dededo.
  • Guam is a coral island, so the beaches are powdered coral, not sand. Paved roads in Guam are made by mixing coral and cement together.
  • Ferdinand Magellan, initially called the island,' Isla de Ladrones', (Island of Thieves) because the islanders took whatever they could from his ship, (perhaps understandably), as payment for the food and water they had given the crew. Later, when sailors from Spain came to Guam, the native Chamorro people would run out to their ships to sell fruit, calling “Guahan!”“Guahan” means “I have,” but it sounded like “Guam” to the Spanish sailors, who named the island after this greeting.
  • Guam is also known as the Hub of the Pacific and the Island of Warriors. As American citizens the Guamanians serve in the country’s military, but at a rate three times higher than the rest of the United States. There's a film called Island of Warriors, that testifies to this.
  • A Japanese soldier hid in Guam’s jungle for nearly three decades. He was discovered in 1972 - he hadn’t realised that the war had ended.

What to Do in Guam?

Visit to Guam are mainly about outdoor leisure - beaches, snorkelling and hiking. Read about mine here - I had other things on my mind!

The USA. by train

My mission is to visit all fifty states in the USA. I have  ten to go, so I’ve booked four Amtrak rail journeys. That’s rather over covering my bets, but each of the blurbs said that their journey was the most scenic in the states.

My trips starts at Emeryville, Oakland, where I've arrived from American Samoa. I’m already beginning to think I might have been a little rash. The California Zephyr train to Chicago is positively antique. There is one locomotive, pulling maybe a dozen silver double decker carriages, four of which are sleepers. There’s a formal dining car and an observation car with a café and snacks beneath. It’s freezing on board - the air vents are duct-taped over, as there’s a problem with the system, and it won’t stop blowing cold air. There’s no Wi-Fi and the electric socket says razors only. I think the carriage was built before mobile phones were invented. It’s two and a half days to Chicago. And I can feel the Gang of Three’s virus brewing –their parting gift, which is most unfair, as there definitely weren’t any hugs and kisses.

Zephyr - California, USA.

There’s the usual smog over the whole Bay Area, but the sun comes out as we head west towards Sacramento, though I’m still waiting for the scenery. There are a plethora of iron bridges, cargo boats, gas tanks and the odd refinery. Then some yellow rolling hills and drooping sunflowers.

Now we’re chugging uphill towards the Sierra Nevada. The whistle blows constantly and my ears are popping; there are lakes and pine forests and little towns straight out of westerns. When I say chugging I mean really crawling. We’ve already had one half hour total stop while Union Pacific ‘fix the track’ and a twenty minute wait for a freight train. (Freight trains get priority over Amtrak in the U.S.A., which often results in expensive delays, as they have to compensate to accommodate passengers). If it’s this slow in the foothills what’s it going to be like in the mountains proper? I’m wondering if we ever get to any decent views. I’m seeing a lot of trees.

The journey is accompanied by a barrage of barked tannoy instructions. ‘Wait here’. ‘Do not embark yet’. ‘Do not go to the dining car until the conductor gives the all clear.’ ‘First come, first served. You have been warned.’

Counting Calories

I eat lunch with Randy and his adult son and ‘friend’ (they didn’t tell me their names). Randy and Friend have just retired from teaching in San Francisco and are off adventuring. The food is included, as is soda (maximum of three per person per meal) and the menu is a foretaste of things to come. I can choose between a variety of burgers, sliders or cheese quesadillas. Dessert is cheesecake or chocolate cake. They thoughtfully list the calorie count for each item, though that makes it even more stressful, as there aren’t any low calorie options, except for the side salad.

The Angus Burger is a whopping 1088 calories, without the additional cheese slice. Son turns constructing his into an art form, layering various garnishes and drizzling different sauces until it’s a huge tower, which he consumes with alacrity, alongside guacamole and kettle chips. I take my cheesecake ‘to go’ – afternoon snack. At three o’clock the tannoy informs us that the lounge bar café is open and serving again. A lady at Emeryville Station has already given me a pink iced doughnut for my breakfast.

Nevada, USA.

Finally, mountains. Lots more trees, larches this time, but definitely mountains, and more lakes - the Tahoe National Forest. We’re already running two and a half hours late by the time we reach Truckee, the nearest stop to Lake Tahoe which straddles the border with Nevada. Thank goodness I'm breaking the journey to New York with a night in Chicago. At this rate I’m going to be lucky to make the connection a day later.

On the eastern flank of the mountains and on to Reno (the Silver City), the scenery is suddenly very different. The peaks are arid, with rocky crests and tussocks of bluish grass, the edges of the Nevada Desert. The tussocks take on a yellowish tinge and start to sputter out, leaving desert and the stark saw edge mountain ranges that give the name sierra.

Dinner with three delightful Japanese women visiting family and sightseeing. This is a very chatty train. Really good steak and baked potato with sour cream. I think the calorie count has been more than excessive today.

Utah, USA.

Overnight we’ve trundled through Nevada and into Utah. We’re running even later because they’ve had to change the locomotive and borrow one from Union Pacific. I’ve set my alarm for six, despite the loss of yet another hour as we enter Mountain Time, as I don’t want to miss the promised spectacular views of The Rockies. We’re just leaving Salt Lake City as I go to breakfast, another selection of large cooked meals again. This is going to do long term damage. There’s no possibility of exercise. There’s a pink sunrise over the cordillera and ongoing desert interspersed by a series of very wide mesas. But it’s overcast and my camera is sitting idle, so I may go back to my couch. (It wasn’t a great night, the bed in my little cubicle is very hard.) Tannoy permitting, that is. We’ve already had the hi-de-hi wake-up call at seven.

Colorado, USA.

We pick up the Colorado River just before entering Colorado State and spend the remainder of the day winding through a series of spectacular tiered canyons of yellow, green and red hues. It’s a close up view of river life and I’m waving at white-water rafters drifting down below in their red inflatables and matching helmets. Scarlet complements the green of the canyons and also has the advantage of not showing the blood.

For some time we follow the interstate highway. The engineering is incredible, with three tiers at times, a double carriageway going in each direction and a pedestrian/cycle way down below at river level. Then the train diverts from the roadway. This is a good opportunity to plug the rail trip. ‘You’re getting to see things you can’t see from the car, folks.’ The valley widens and there’s a swath of grassy farmland with round Hockney hay bales as we enter The Rockies proper. It is as stunning as I remember, with plummeting gorges, pine trees, craggy peaks and glacial lakes.

Rocky Mountain High

However, it’s getting dusky, as the train is late, the cloud is low and there are thunderstorms rolling around the long valley into Denver (the Mile High City). There’s only the odd glimpse of splendour. The conductor tries to convince us that Denver looks even better when it’s dark. I’m going to have to retrieve those spectacular views from my memory and sing a verse or two of Rocky Mountain High instead.

I abstain from lunch. I don’t think I can fit any more food into my body. Dinner is another round of steak, with a Texan and her two granddaughters. Donald Trump has featured in every dining car conversation so far and I haven’t found anyone in the USA who likes him yet. The cabaret tonight is the ejection of a passenger found smoking marijuana in the toilet. (I think it might have been Son.) A long lecture over the tannoy ensues, labouring the penalties imposed by law for smoking tobacco or drugs on the train (even if it is legal in Colorado). Rocky Mountain High indeed.

Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois, USA.

Because the train is running so late I get to see Nebraska in daylight. I’ve only driven across a corner of it before (I think). It’s very flat prairie, lots of corn and silos. And it’s still raining, so I’m dozing. Jet lag and my cold are taking their toll.

Into Iowa, where the terrain is much the same, though there is some gentle undulation at times, to add a little interest. The train is now running so late - nearly five hours - that we have had to stop to get renewed permission to cross some native reservation lands, as the original authority has lapsed. I would definitely have missed my connection if I had scheduled the New York train for today. Thank goodness I didn’t plan to board at any intermediate stations on my travels, it would have been worse than waiting at an airport (except maybe Honiara).

I’ve hardly been off the train for three days, the halts have been so short, so a night on solid ground and in a decent bed will be nice. (I ran for anti-cold tablets at Denver and I noticed that the shop floor was swaying.) The bossy conductors are having a mega stressed tannoy time trying to track down passengers who are having connection problems and manage the stops. ‘Do not get off the train at Mount Pleasant unless it is your final stop, or you wish it to be your final stop’.

Sadly, I can’t see much of the towns and villages. There is little around the stations when we do halt. They are mostly very remote, except for odd moments when there’s a blink-and-you-miss-it shot of a brick high street with crenelated store fronts and saloon bars. As we travel east there’s more burgundy, grey and white clapboard nestling in the fields and churches with tall wizard hat steeples.

My Kind of Town, Indiana, USA.

Finally, Illinois, and there are blue skies celebrating our tardy arrival.

'I have struck a city — a real city — and they call it Chicago… Having seen it, I urgently desire never to see it again. It is inhabited by savages.'
Rudyard Kipling, From Sea to Sea - Letters of Travel 
'I came to discover that Chicago is that most American of American cities, but one where citizens from more than 130 nations inhabit a rich tapestry of distinctive neighborhoods. Each one of those neighborhoods -- from Greektown to the Ukrainian Village; from Devon to Pilsen to Washington Park -- has its own unique character, its own unique history, its songs, its language. But each is also part of our city -- one city -- a city where I finally found a home.'
Barack Obama, The Huffington Post

Back in Chicago I’m staying in the Congress Plaza Hotel, which was once iconic but is now in need of some TLC. The lobby still smacks of the grand old days, but there is peeling paper in the beige corridors and my room, whilst spacious, isn’t quite sure what it is. The seventies style wavy pattern nets are hung inside the shiny grey curtains and the furniture is white melamine. More interestingly, Al Capone had a permanent suite on the floor below me and ran much of his ‘business’ from here. It’s also supposed to be one of the most haunted buildings in Chicago, though most of the action, thankfully, seems to take place in the other tower.

Exploring Chicago

My train doesn’t leave until the afternoon so I’ve retraced my steps of four years ago, down by the lakeshore, round the edge of the museums, though the parks and all round The Loop. The last, shopping area, is my favourite. The 1930s architecture doesn’t fail to fascinate and this time I can take my time and look for detail, corner clocks, sculptures, the sweeping lines of the subway entrances, the clunky, but oh so atmospheric, iron gantries of the overhead railways and, of course, the scrapers. The trains clatter madly overhead. I had forgotten what crazy names the streets have: Wabash Avenue, East Wacker Drive. And I’ve realised that when the weather forecast says there’s a 10% chance of rain they’ve missed a 0 out.

I’ve noticed that men in the USA are much more likely to hold doors open and offer to help me with my bags than in other parts of the world, which I welcome. I have a bad back. But service behaviour and shop signs seem to get even more aggressive and controlling as I move east. ‘Wait here.' 'Move those bags out of the way' (for no apparent reason – the unfortunate guest is just about to pick them up), 'Straight down there', 'No substitutions or changes for any reason'. Not a please or thank you in evidence.

The Cardinal

On the Cardinal train this evening (the bird not the high ranking priest), to The Big Apple. The compartment is an improvement on the Zephyr - I was afraid to touch anything on the last sleeper, as none of it looked too savoury. I went through a whole packet of hygienic wipes cleaning it up. Here, I have a little toilet and tiny fold up sink in my room, though there is absolutely no floor space left at all to deposit my possessions when I’m in bed mode. There’s a boy in the room opposite who the spitting image of the child who Chandler told he was adopted in Friends. Same hair, same clothes. And even louder. I’ve shut the door.

Indiana, USA.

We're straight into Indiana tonight. Its name means, literally Indian lands. First some industry around Lake Michigan, then time to more farmsteads. Flat topped seas of cultivation, enlivened by the setting sun.

Dinner tonight with a friendly couple, Charlie and Anne-Marie, from Pennsylvania, returning home via Philadelphia. No steak on the menu this time, it’s all pre-packaged and microwaved, like plane food, so I’ve had to settle for veggie noodles. Very disappointing, especially as the special, vanilla pudding, is sold out. Already. We’ve only just left. We have already been delayed by an hour – a freight train (going so fast, not). So, if you can’t beat them, join them. I’ve been chatting to the boy opposite. He’s called Hayden, he’s ten, travel mad and had visited all fifty states by the time he was eight. Very impressive. He’s going to look at my Oceania pictures tomorrow, with a view to encouraging his father to take him there.

Ohio and Kentucky, USA.

I’ve woken up to Cincinnati, so we’re now running over two hours late. I’ve found out that the city was named, after Cincinnatus, a Roman called to serve as a dictator, who resigned to go farming, immediately he had solved the problem. The civic buildings are all lit up, very pretty. The sun rises, well sort of, it’s still cloudy, over the sweeping Ohio (Big Sandy) as we cross over into Kentucky and hug the banks of the river for the length of that state, with glimpses back over to Ohio State and the tree laden hills. It’s going to be a busy day. There are lots more states to visit.

West Virginia, USA.

We follow the Big Sandy all morning, into West Virginia, (apart from the odd bend that gets lopped off) where it becomes the Kanawha and then the New River. The hills are higher, still tree covered and would be astonishingly pretty if it wasn’t raining. The streams of cloud hanging over the forest valleys are quite atmospheric. I can just make out the ornate gold dome of the capitol building at Charleston.

The New River is a series of weirs, rocks and rapids with attendant inflatable rafts, as it descends into a gorge which is tantalisingly difficult to view because of all the trees lining the riverbank. The New River Gorge Bridge spans it just before Thurmond. It’s used for parachute and bungee jumping. (This area is all recreation and national park.) I've read that that this is the highest bridge in the Americas, but apparently, at 876 feet that's not true. It's third highest.

I’m hopping about from one side of the train to the other, trying to catch any view of West Virginia (Mountain Momma) at all. But the atmosphere on board is miserable - I don’t think it’s just the weather. It's dark and untidy, most of the passengers are snoozing in the business class seats and the conductor hasn’t said a word. It’s very different to the Zephyr. I’m tracking the route on Google so I can try and work out what to see, as sure as hell no one is going to tell me.

Still climbing, the river becomes a trickle and we pass the ‘most famous resort in America’ - Greenbrier - at White Sulphur Springs. The Allegheny Range to the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah National Park. (Cue more song, on two counts). Last time I was here I was driving north-south on the Skyline Drive. There’s slightly more habitation around and the clapboard is peeling green. There are little railway museums and artfully restored stations.

Virginia, USA.

Next, Charlottesville in Virginia, which hit the news big time this week, with protests over a white supremacy rally. Before all this kicked off Charlottesville had been given the accolade of best place to live in the USA, based on cost of living, climate and quality of life. Hayden and his father live here and have given me the low down on everything there is to see-and where to take my photos from. It’s very quiet today and hard to imagine the scenes of last week.

Washington DC, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, USA.

Two Kiwis have taken over the opposite room from Hayden and father and they won’t stop talking to me. I’m trying to take pictures of Washington DC and I’m missing the Pentagon and the White House as they keep distracting me while we’re crossing the Potomac. Charlie and Anne- Marie are handing out handfuls of M & Ms. The calorie count is going up, but the microwaved food is so horrible (the offerings that aren’t already sold out) that anything is a bonus. Tonight’s offering was a kind of mangled jambalaya. I'm trying not to think about it or I get nauseous.

New York, USA.

It’s dark and the train is now, finally, hurtling along. Perhaps we will make up some of the time we are behind. Friend, Hugh is waiting for me in Brooklyn. There was slight panic when they threatened to cancel his plane because of bad weather, but he’s made it.

1.30 a.m – finally arrive, at Hugh’s apartment. The view across Manhattan to the new World Trade Centre building and the bay is absolutely stunning. I have to take photographs even though it’s so late.

New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, USA.

Retracing my steps, this time in Hugh’s car to the little town of Luray, adjacent to one of the entrances to the Skyline Drive, which runs along the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The whole trip down to Tennessee, where we intend to view the solar eclipse on Monday, is 750 miles and Google says it will take 12 hours altogether. Today has taken us considerably more than six and we’re about half way. There have been road works and a few traffic bulges. Hugh tells me that these distances are nothing to an American.

Once out of New Jersey the scenery is pretty rolling hills most of the way. We eat lunch in a wonderful local diner in Pennsylvania Dutch country surrounded by round topped barns and corn fields. Dinner is at Uncle Buck’s in Luray which is the Saturday night go-to-place. It’s wooden booths and too loud music, the bass turned right up, southern fried chicken fillets with creamy white sauce and margarita mix.

Virginia, USA.

A drive along the Skyline itself (I've been here before) to admire the hills and valleys from above before we take the Interstate to the Great Smoky Mountains. The road is very long and there’s a lot more traffic. I’m not surprised - there is an eclipse tomorrow - but Hugh is not convinced that the two things are connected. Small town America and many more rolling hills unfurl.

Fast Food Nation

Hugh introduces me to the delights of the Fast Food Nation. Most intersections are lined with outlets and at Roanoke there are several miles of assorted fried or otherwise unhealthy delights. Chick-Fil-A is advocated as tasty, even though they are morally reprehensible, taking an orthodox Christian stance on LGBT issues. But they are closed, as it’s Sunday, so we don’t have to engage in ethical debate over purchasing one. Wendy’s suffices for drinks and later, Dairy Queen for a Royal Ice Cream Blizzard. Hugh has a fried chicken sandwich too. Everything is still calorie listed, but I don’t think anyone takes any notice.

Tennessee, USA.

The traffic jams persist and Google keeps adding more minutes to the expected time of arrival until we are almost going backwards. Hugh is protesting now - ‘It’s been a long day’. It has, but I remind him that he is American and these distances are nothing.

We arrive at our cabin overlooking the eponymous Smoky Mountains, forest spreading below us (and Beware of Bears signs), as dusk sets in. The cabin is huge and very middle America - the ultimate in bad taste (IMHO), with jagged stone sinks, log bedframes and pine everywhere. There are three floors, two king-size en suite bedrooms, a games room with a pool table, a home movie theatre, a Jacuzzi and a hot tub on the decking. It’s called Take My Breath Away and the view, at least, reflects the name in the right sense.

Into Gatlinburg for dinner. This is where ski resort meets tacky seaside entertainment. Flashing neon signs, side shows and tawdry gift shops. At our Mexican restaurant we are asked for ID before we can be served alcohol. Bureaucracy gone mad. Back at the cabin, there are a myriad of forest noises outside. When I have to go to the car I run there and back in, watching out for moving shadows.

21 August The Eclipse

After much angst, studying maps to establish exactly which areas are best to experience full totality (its all far more complicated than I had realised) and getting up ridiculously early to beat the rush, we select a spot by a stream in the Smoky Mountains Park and settle down to wait for four hours until first contact begins. We take the last available parking space in this area. We have hurriedly bought provisions at the local super market and Hugh has accidentally shop-lifted a soft panama hat. He’s already dressed in a khaki shirt, so now folk keep think he’s a ranger. It could come in useful. He’s already told one woman to move her car.

I was hankering for a full-fledged mountain view, but the stream proves to be a bonus, as it’s very hot. The weather has delivered, despite the unpromising long range forecasts and the sky is absolutely clear. The cool water of the creek is blissful and it all adds to the ethereal experience, watching the moon slide over the sun whilst up to the calves in water, tiny fish (and tube riders shooting the small rapids) wiggling past. As the light disappears and there’s an early dusk, a mottled snake uncoils between a pair of rocks in the water. That’s the only reason to keep glancing backwards as the scene unfolds and we are all so busy fixating on the sun, in our eclipse spectacles, that peaks would have been superfluous in any case. A great experience, and oh so lucky with the weather and conditions.

Margarita Mania

Hugh and the dollar pound exchange rate between them are going to bankrupt me. Even the supermarket bills are hefty. They do take my breath away. I buy enough margarita ingredients to last us the whole week, in my opinion. We’ve had steak cooked on the barbecue overlooking the mountains tonight. And all the margarita supplies are exhausted.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Today, an exploration of The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The traffic we didn’t encounter yesterday all seems to appear on our journey to Clingmans Dome. As the name suggests this is a round topped peak in the centre of the park. In the end we abandon the car and scramble up the steep slope, gasping (it’s 2,100 metres high), to the extraordinary 360 degree view at the top of the lookout, misty blue mountains, like a Chinese painting, stretching, in every direction.

Back at the ranch it’s fried chicken and potato salad (well this is the Deep South) and then a dip in the hot tub, watching the stars.

North Carolina, USA.

North Carolina is a very broad state. It takes all day to drive through it to the coast and Duck Island. The traffic is kind, but the scenery is not the best I’ve encountered. We have the mountains at the west end, dramatic in the rain, but they relatively soon peter out. The outer banks (known in American style as OBX) and inlets at journey’s end are also easy on the eye, salt air, sand dunes, weathered clapboard and seafood joints, as we motor along the narrow spits, Currituck Sound on one side, sea on the other. A thunderstorm here adds to the ocean atmosphere. In-between is flatter, monotonous tree lined highways, and well-tended villages enliven these, when we venture off for food or gas. The highlight is the Chick-Fil-A sandwich lunch.

OBX

We hire bikes to cycle the nature trail on the Sound side. The views across the flat grass islands are starkly beautiful, the birds elusive and the butterflies tantalising in their refusal to settle. The biggest challenge is the bike, which turns out not to have brakes. I’ve encountered this problem in the past, with unfortunate results, (it’s illegal in the UK) but now Hugh has taught me how to back pedal and I’m reasonably confident on the hills. Fortunately, it’s a relatively level, if bumpy, off-road trail.

The ocean is wild today, as it’s breezy and the dune backed beach consequently too English east coast for anyone other than the stoics. So, the rest of the day is spent at the pool admiring the orange of the umbrellas against the perfect blue sky.

Duck Island

The sky is azure, the breakers crash on the beach, the sea grass wafts gently, the sanderlings wander happily, pointy beaks alert and the crabs scuttle into their holes, their stalky eyes popping. Lobster wrap for lunch, and on the house, because Hugh’s breakfast never arrived. All is well with the world.

North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, USA.

It’s a long drive on a fairly flat road. There are some pretty views of rushes and glistening water from the many bridges, across the Sound and then Chesapeake Bay. The usual vast array of fast food outlets and southern BBQ. (Pulled pork and fried cornmeal balls, known for some reason as hush puppies.) There’s also a lot of traffic.

Back to the Windy City

A flight from La Guardia back to Chicago, to commence the remainder of my 50 state challenge. There’s a booth outside the terminal where I can check my bag in as soon as I remove it from the car. (My first, very positive Uber experience. Hugh has shown me how to use the app.) I make the mistake of exclaiming very loudly what a good idea this is. ‘You can tip us if you want to…’

I’m now an expert on Uber. I manage to summon a very large and jolly black lady who is waiting just outside the terminal door when I arrive in Chicago. And it's cheaper than the bus. Magic.

Michigan, USA.

I'm going to Kalamazoo. Today is allocated for a side trip to Michigan, a state I've never visited, tucked up under the Great Lakes as it is. It took some time to decide where in Michigan to go. Detroit is too far from Chicago and the train timetable is very limiting. Many towns only have once a day services that don't leave till the evening. That rules out all the recommended pretty lakeshore destinations. Kalamazoo really has to be visited even though I don't have a gal there.

Initial impressions aren't auspicious. The weather is dull and almost cold. The lady next to me says it's the knock on effect of Hurricane Harvey which is currently battering Texas. And the scenery round the tip of Lake Michigan is decidedly industrial, some of the biggest refineries I've ever seen. But that's Indiana.

It's greener round the corner (I’m sure I could fit that to the Kalamazoo music) though lake glimpses are still few and far between as we head for Michigan City, which confusingly, is still in Indiana. I went back an hour when I arrived in Chicago but I have to put the watch forward again as soon as I go over the border to Indiana.

Now we're heading inland, so it seems I'm not going to view the idyllic little tourist towns at all. However, the conductors are very friendly and are encouraging me to disembark at stations to take pictures of what they believe to be notable views and buildings. They've also made me move to another compartment on the grounds that I wouldn't have made it to Kalamazoo if I'd stayed where I was. Fair enough I suppose. There's a whole string of towns on the local maps that gave their names to cars: Pontiac. Cadillac.

American Apparel

The passengers’ appearance overall is very much what I have come to expect from America in the summer. Attire is predominately casual. A large proportion are wearing shorts. Nearly all the younger women seem to wear them, regardless of how much weight they are carrying. The lack of concern about what others think is good, though the preponderance of overweight people is more concerning. At least fifty percent of the men wear baseball caps and many of them keep them on indoors. Even at dinner.

There are a surprising number of beards, though I think they’re possibly back in fashion. A few older males seem to be competing for parts in Lord of the Rings with waist length white whiskers. Long pony tails are ubiquitous. In total contrast I’ve also seen groups of Amish folk riding the trains. White pleated bonnets and long plain frocks for the women and wide hats, bibbed trousers, beards and pudding basin haircuts for the men and boys (not the beards in the latter case).

Kalamazoo

Kalamazoo itself turns out to be a refined and well laid out little town. Nineteenth century brick, Art Deco and mock Art Deco blend seamlessly with modern steel and glass. There is a central mall with quirky shops, some appealing bars and cafes and a proliferation of stately civic buildings and churches. The whole is demarcated by wide boulevards decorated with colourful signs and district banners. It's just a shame that it's Monday and it's overcast and the town is so quiet it's almost dead. Most of the bars and cafes and some of the shops are shut. There are a few folk shuffling around, all of whom seem surprisingly keen to chat to me. I suppose they don't have any other audience today.

I pop into the Valley Museum, which has excellent hands on exhibits for children. One of the best I've seen, though I personally don't feel the need to have my photo taken with a mechanical dinosaur.

Back at the station the sun comes out, but I can't retrace my steps in search of excitement. There's only the one train back to Chicago today and today it's bang on time. The conductors are the same, but much less affable. I have to conclude that they were only being nice because they wanted a tip.

Wisconsin, USA.

An overly exciting start to today’s journey to Seattle, as I arrive once more at the beaux art Union Station to realise I’ve left all my money and passport in the safe at the hotel. Fortunately, I have plenty of time so I commandeer yet another Uber to take me back to the hotel and then once more to the station. The passengers are already in chatty train mode as I queue to board and I’ve  been invited to stay with a lady who works at the University of Wisconsin.

The Empire Builder is suitably huge. They’ve bolted two trains together, and with seven sleeping cars in all it’s much longer than the California Zephyr. Otherwise, it’s another antique, similar in design, but this time I have a very narrow closet that I can’t use, as I don’t have anything to hang up except my jacket and I’m wearing that. It’s still dull and rainy. I’m in car number 1, so it’s very close to the dining car, but I won’t be getting any dramatic shots of the carriages ahead circling the bends.

The Empire Builder - Illinois, USA.

Wisconsin is sunny and therefore the prairies are pretty today, flat farmland, Dutch barns and silos. We’re tootling along in parallel with the western edge of Lake Michigan and the lake edge backdrop to the fields is punctuated with more chimneys belching white smoke, Gandalf style.

Milwaukee next. Jerry Lee Lewis (and then Rod Stewart) asked what made Milwaukee famous. French trappers and German beer I think. It sprawls elegantly along the lakeside and we pass the Miller brewery after the little line of skyscrapers and the intricate bridges across the Menomonee River.

After Milwaukee we head inland. This is called lake country for a different reason. There are countless small lakes peppering the farmland, which is now rolling rather than flat and surprisingly beautiful, with its big skies and flower filled meadows. Past Wisconsin Dells the Wisconsin River carves out canyons and other striated rock formations. There are also a large herds of cattle. Wisconsin is the cheese state. LaCrosse gives its name to the game which was invented by the antic Indians here and from there we cross the Mississippi, which we follow, in its quiet phase, on the Minnesota side, for 140 miles.

Minnesota, USA.

It’s predictably gorgeous with bluffs and mountains of various shapes and sizes, but the sun sets all too quickly and I don’t see as much of Minnesota, or the river, as I would like. We reach Minneapolis-St Paul, the Twin Cities, in the dark. Minneapolis is coined from the Indian word Minnie, meaning water and the Greek word for city. The older city, St Paul, was known as Pig’s Eye after its partially blind founder. The two are served by Midway Station which is equidistant from the two cities and also, supposedly, between the North Pole and the Equator. Minneapolis also boasts the largest shopping mall in the USA. Phew.

The toilet in my compartment is out of service. Someone’s blocked it, so that means long nocturnal wanderings.

North Dakota, USA.

So far, this train is bang on time. Let’s hope there are no freight trains heading through today. I’ve woken in North Dakota and I’m sad to have missed Fargo, of TV fame, which was reached at three in the morning. Breakfast in Minot, known as the Magic City, because it grew so fast when the railway was built. The menu on this train’s exactly the same as on the Zephyr, but the food isn’t as nicely cooked. At least it is less likely I will eat it. I was going to opt for continental breakfast until I saw it was 794 calories. They’ve pumped out the offending W.C. while we’re stopped, but kept the toilet door locked. So now I have nowhere close to pee and the whole compartment smells of sewage. I’ve also noticed that the best views tend to happen when I go to the bathroom.

Low rounded hills, covered in sand coloured grass, a plethora of small lakes (we are carried over the coulees on trestles and banking) and an increasing number of nodding donkeys. This is oil country – there’s oil storage stations, rows of pick-ups and a small refinery or two. And for the first time a proliferation of mammals to be seen. So far, some deer, horses, wild and tame and a wolf or coyote. (I think wolves are quite rare.) There’s a variety of cattle too and tiny ducklings paddle obediently in line behind their parents. At Williston we encounter the longest river in North America, the Missouri. It’s longer than the Mississippi by twenty miles, even though it’s only a tributary.

Montana, USA.

Over the border into Montana and now we’re on Mountain Time (though I haven’t seen anything that qualifies as a mountain yet) and the clocks have gone back an hour. We were still forcibly awoken at 7 a.m., so I’m red-eyed again. The bed is still hard and it’s still cold, though no duct tape necessary in this car.

Montana (‘s calling me) is comparatively remote and has no discernible mobile signal to prove it. It’s more arid than North Dakota, greyer with rocky outcrops and very few lakes (mostly dried out), before flattening out into Big Sky Country. Otherwise, it’s still cattle and a few nodding donkeys. The flatter, scrubby area is the Fort Peck reservation where Sitting Bull and the Sioux were banished after Little Big Horn. It’s easy to imagine the Indians massing on the tops of the ridges, western movie style. We’re running along parallel with the Canadian border.

Malta, (the railway official naming it stuck a pen into a world map) and Wagner, where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid carried out their last train hold up. (Coincidentally, we’re eating Paul Newman ranch dressing on our lunch salad. At 220 calories a sachet it must be more fattening than the whole of the salad.) At Havre there’s The Border Park, statues of Mounties talking to US policemen. It’s scorching hot when we venture outside the air conditioned train. They definitely don’t position their stations in the most scenic parts of town. We lost half an hour for the inevitable freight train, but impressively they’ve made it up again speeding over the flat plains, though there’s been some consequent jolting. The lines here aren’t as good as those in rich oil country.

Cut Bank would be more appropriately known as Cold Cut. It racks up the lowest midwinter temperatures in the country. It’s the gateway to the eastern Rockies and I can just make out what I’m told is the Canadian border, 25 miles away, through the haze. The peaks of Glacier Park are tinged with a pink sunset haze and are beautifully arranged against the darkening sky.

Mountains in Montana

The best mountain scenery yet, as we wind through the elusive pass sought by Lewis and Clark and along the top of an emerald river in a tree lined gorge. Carol, from Wisconsin, has told me at lunch that I have made a big mistake by not arranging to visit the park. She says it’s just like Switzerland. I really wanted to tell her that if that was true then I might as well go to Switzerland, which is more convenient. But I didn’t and I personally think that the Rockies are very different from the Swiss Alps. Maybe I will have to come back. Most of the train’s passengers seem to be leaving here or going on to Seattle for Alaskan cruises.

Idaho, Washington, USA.

We crossed a finger of Idaho last night. I’ve visited before on my first trip to the USA in the 1980s. It seems to be mainly famous for potatoes. It’s frustrating to traverse the stunning mountains in the dark, and annoyingly, the train is now running early, just when I would rather it took more time so I could enjoy  the dramatic scenery.

It’s still black outside when I go to a seemingly very early breakfast. (I’m now on Pacific Time again) so that the crew can get us out of the way and prepare for the outward passengers. I feel discarded before I’ve finished when they do this on trains and ships, though I’m sure the crew have a very busy schedule. So, I put the world to rights with Ed from Michigan, (brilliant twirly white moustache) over yogurt, grapes and strawberries. I still haven’t met anyone who owns up to approving of Donald Trump.

A sun rise over some more superbly pretty peaks clothed in pine and fir in Washington State. Icicle Canyon speaks for itself, and then through the Cascade Mountains, partly in an eight mile long tunnel (the longest rail tunnel in the country) and along the Skycomish River (great name). I’m clearing up ready for arrival and searching for my headphones. Taking my torch under the seat is dispiriting. The dust and detritus of twenty years (and a pair of socks) is accumulated there.

We emerge at Everitt on Puget Sound and follow the coast past fingers of islands down to Seattle. Every time I’ve visited Vancouver, just to the north, it’s rained and today is maintaining the north-west coast tradition. The train goes directly past my hotel, which is right by the waterfront. Unfortunately, it goes a mile and half past.

Seattle

Seattle is my new favourite place for the afternoon. The locals have dubbed it The Emerald City (no sign of the Wizard of Oz), with the views across the water and towards the Cascade Mountains. It’s the home of Starbucks, Boeing and Microsoft, to boot. The city is built staggered up a hill, with criss-crossing roadways and a complex network of elevators. Because of the different levels it’s easy to lose your way. It’s good exercise.

Pike's Place Market

It is, unsurprisingly, reminiscent of Vancouver, with brownstones and old style globe street lights, and I keep thinking I’m in Canada. However, Seattle has more vibrancy, especially at Pike’s Place Market. This is packed with crafts and heaps of tempting farm produce, but is most notably a sea food lovers’ paradise. Stacks of fish and orange crustaceans are packed on ice and there’s a polished sales performance as the stall holders, in their striped aprons, propel the fish across the counters like circus jugglers. It’s heaving with tourists. Unsurprisingly, many of them are Japanese.

Seattle SkyView

The weather has improved again, so I hurry to admire the scenery and scrapers from the Skydeck on top of the Columbia Centre, the tallest building in Seattle, which, like most American cities has plenty of scrapers. There is much internet debate over whether to choose this view, or the much more famous Space Needle. This one is twice the height, half the price and doesn’t have a queue. You can also take photos of the Space Needle from here. It wasn’t a difficult decision. Two ladies in the market have told me that they visited both this morning, but they can’t tell me which is best, as it was cloudy and they couldn’t see anything.

Sleepless in Seattle

The proximity of the train track means more of the rattling and shrill whistling I thought I had left behind for a couple of nights. The hotel wrongly believes it is compensating by providing ear plugs.

Space Needle and Chihuly

Today, the Seattle Center and the Chihuly Garden. I wander along the esplanade past numerous sculptures to get there. One of my favourite artists doesn’t disappoint, though I feel he would do well to adopt the ‘less is more’ perspective at times, there are so many glass sculptures crammed into small flower beds. I’ve got the Earlybird Ticket, but the queue for the adjacent Space Needle is already long and I am happy to abjure it. The remainder of the park is closed today, as the annual Bumbershoot Festival is going on all weekend, so I climb onto the monorail to the downtown shops.

The ride is singularly uninteresting, but it saves me a mile of walking. Here, the big department stores, Nordstrom, Macy’s, Barneys, are arranged along the hill together, more like a quiet Oxford Street than the relentless, more common, indoor malls. It’s a relaxing experience wandering around the streets and back along the waterfront on a gorgeous day. The many piers are lined with seafood restaurants  and I’m having my fourth or fifth bowl of clam chowder, which like margaritas, I feel duty bound to test at every opportunity. There’s not a cloud in the sky, but the sun is tempered by the freshness of early autumn and the salt of a gentle sea breeze.

The Coast Starlight

I’m off down the west coast to Los Angeles on my last Amtrak experience. I’m so familiar with the roomettes on the Amtrak trains now that I have everything in place super fast. This room is almost identical to the last. There’s possibly less fluff under the seat, but the windows are absolutely filthy. Hand wipes remove the worst of it. It’s a very busy train. There’s a  loud party of eight in the same compartment. They’ve moved off to monopolize the observatory car (which is quaintly known as the parlour car on this train). I suppose it’s the better of two evils.

And I’m being stalked by a Californian named Kurt. He marched up and introduced himself to me in the waiting room at Seattle, which I thought a little odd. He’s just gone past my cabin and is saying to the attendant, ‘The babe in room 5 is very pleasant’. Spooky. I hope the call bell works. My room is at least, on the coast side, so I’m hoping for good views.

Through Washington, USA.

We even start twenty minutes late today, first passing Boeing Field, where the planes are tested, and are then treated to ongoing excellent glimpses of towering Mount Rainier (the Americans pronounce it Ran-eer), which has been looming elusively to the south of Seattle. A little later, Mount Saint Helens, half the top blasted off but still snow laden. As always the most significant views are almost entirely obliterated by overhead cables. And when there is a gap then a goods train goes by, or, as has commonly been the case, trees. The wheels in this compartment sound as if they need a good dose of WD40. I’m trying to shut it out or it’s going to drive me crazy.

I ask the attendant where I should watch out for the best mountain views. She replies that she doesn’t know as she is always too busy working to notice. She has spent the entire journey so far in her compartment, gossiping to one of the other (male) stewards.

Same menu, same calories and a real snippy martinet in charge this time. The waiter is making 'talk too much signs' behind her back with his hands and I’m trying not to laugh. A really interesting lunch, with a lady from Vancouver whose brother is the curator for the Guggenheim museums and Josh, a young man embarking on a huge adventure, leaving Washington for the first time ever, to go and live with his cousins at Delano in California.

Oregon, the fiftieth state, USA.

And now- big fanfare-we are entering Oregon, pulling over the river into Portland. So this is my fiftieth state! The Willamette River, south of here is exceptionally pretty and busy with weekend power boat trippers. Now it’s the turn of Mount Hood, the tallest peak in Oregon, to tantalise from behind the freight trains. While I’m balancing on the stair rail, rushing my life trying to take pictures I notice that the curtain is now pulled on the attendant’s car. It’s definitely still occupied and by more than one person.

At dinner the car supervisor is complaining loudly about the waiter from lunchtime. Team spirit on board is obviously excellent. They are still having a good time issuing instructions to the poor browbeaten passengers. ‘Do not come to the dining car until your name is called. Do not sit down. Wait in line. Do not sit down. We will assist you to your seat. Do not go downstairs. Do not step off the train’ .And so on and on…

It’s been another beautiful day but there are forest fires raging throughout the west, and as the train ascends over the Southern Cascades, potentially beautiful river and mountain views are enveloped in a pall of smoke, presided over by a crimson sun. It’s both frustrating and ethereal at the same time.

California or Bust, USA.

I awake to Emeryville, California, where my rail journeys began, and now I’m heading south running alongside The Bay in this huge state, which takes up 900 miles of Pacific coastline. The news warns me that California is in the middle of an unprecedented heatwave. We’re  following the old Spanish mission road, El Camino Real and it’s 37 degrees outside, suitably matching the dried grass of the dark green bobbled hills of Silicon Valley. Salinas is known as the Salad Bowl of the World. and the guide says they grow garlic, mushrooms and artichokes here. All I can see are fields of cabbages. Maybe it’s a second crop.

There are some stupendous mountain views over the Cuesta Ridge as the train descends round hairpin bends and across an 85 foot trestle. As I’m drinking it all in I’m entertained by a lawyer who, on learning I’m from London, informs me, bitterly, that he should be there now, on his bachelor party. His ex-fiancé (of ten years) called off the wedding a few days ago and has gone to London instead, on his tickets, with his best friend. The latter had got him to confide all his secrets and then spilled the lot to the fiancé. The lawyer is on the train with a female companion. I am totally confused as to which gender fiancé and best friend are and whether they have run off together or are just making reprisals, but it sounds like a jolly good plot for a Jennifer Aniston movie to me.

The train finally emerges on the coast for the much lauded hundred miles of coast: surf, surfers, sand dunes and cliffs. It’s another atmospheric viewing. The sky is darkly cloudy; whether it’s smoke or rain I’m unsure, but I suspect it’s a mixture of both. I’ve received an emergency warning text telling me that I am about to be evacuated from the fire’s path and now the train has been halted for over four hours because there are trees down on the line north of Santa Barbara and they are waiting for them to be removed. It’s Sunday and it’s Labor Day weekend. So now I don’t get to see Santa Barbara, which was an anticipated highlight. I am very late into Los Angeles.

LAX to JFK

I’m back at the start of this American Odyssey. My head is scrambled with all the different time zones I’ve crossed. It feels as if the earth is moving. Below me, from the plane window, I can see what appears to be a very large canyon – a huge crack in the earth’s surface… yes it is- the Grand Canyon. An unexpected treat. My wallet is frazzled well beyond my expectation. I have Brexit and tips galore to thank for this. But I have completed the USA - all fifty states!

Last stop Bermuda.

Getting to Hawaii

Hawaii is some 2,000 miles from the U.S. mainland. And American airports don’t get any better. There’s a new international terminal at Los Angeles airport - very Frank Gehry - but the queues are the same and so are the security men on a power trip. O good, machines to check your passport electronically I think, forgetting that I was fooled by these last time. And just like the last visit I queue up for the machine and it checks my info and takes my fingerprints and prints me out a receipt and then I have to go and queue to see an immigration man (who is abusive to me as I have the temerity to go to the counter before he has called me) who does the same thing all over again.

And my connecting flight is delayed once and then again. There seems to be a problem in Honolulu. I hope it’s not the weather. I’ve read there’s a hurricane brewing in the East Pacific. I’m already utterly confused by the time. Honolulu is eleven hours behind the UK so it’s going to be a long day.

At least my transfer representative is waiting. It’s a shame that the car isn’t. It’s a bigger shame that when he does arrive half an hour later he takes me to the wrong hotel twice before I direct him to the right one. A very long day indeed.

Hawaii

Hawaii is the only state outside North America (it's in Oceania), the only state that is an archipelago, and the only state in the tropics. It's known a the aloha state. (It means 'love'). Hawaii comprises nearly the entire Hawaiian archipelago: 137 volcanic islands spanning 1,500 miles. The state's ocean coastline is consequently the fourth longest in the U.S., at about 750 miles. The eight main islands, from northwest to southeast, are Niʻihau, Kauaʻi, Oʻahu, Molokaʻi, Lānaʻi, Kahoʻolawe, Maui, and Hawaii. The state is named after Hawaii Island, (as is the archipelago), but this is now usually referred to as the "Big Island" or "Hawaii Island" to avoid confusion with the other meanings.

History of Hawaii

Hawaii is also one of four U.S. states that were once independent nations ( the others are Vermont, Texas and California.) In 1778, British explorer James Cook was the first known non-Polynesian to arrive at the archipelago. He named this area The Sandwich Islands. Cook was at first treated as a god, but the locals were disabused of this notion by the time of his third visit. Many of them had contracted various STDS from his crew, who were had been discovered to be both arrogant and mortal.

So, Cook was murdered, though the story that he was eaten is untrue. It was tradition in these islands to remove the bones from the slaughtered body and these were duly and bloodily handed over to what remained of his entourage. Nevertheless, his death is still celebrated annually as Happy Death of Captain Cook day!. This early British influence is reflected in the state flag, which bears a Union Jack.

An influx of European and American explorers, traders, and whalers arrived shortly thereafter, introducing more diseases that decimated the once isolated community. Hawaii became a unified, internationally recognized kingdom in 1810, a unique melting pot of North American, East Asian and Hawaiian cultures. Until Western businessmen overthrew the monarchy in 1893. This led to its annexation by the U.S.A. in 1898. Hawaii didn't become a state though until 1959.

Honolulu

Two-thirds of the 1.4 million population of Hawaii lives on Oahu, home to the state's capital and largest city, Honolulu. My hotel is situated right where it’s all happening, in the centre of famous Waikiki Beach and my corner room overlooks the bay. The sand is golden and the clear blue sea is swarming with surfers, paddles and boards. Hawaii, today of course is renowned for tourism and surfing. I don’t know how they manage to manoeuvre the boards at all. Surely you must get taken out as soon as you set off, it’s so crowded out there.

I could sit on my balcony and watch it all going on. as I have a grand stand seat. But I resolve to walk round Honolulu. I might even climb the landmark volcano, Diamond Head, at the head of the bay for the view. It's nine o clock in the morning and already incredibly humid. (The surfers have been out since dawn). The soft sand is hard work. The Chariots of Fire runners were in better shape than me when they took on the beach (and don’t have jet lag) and I notice that no-one else is walking along it. My good resolutions quickly dissipate, even though it’s an interesting and scenic walk; I do at least reach the headland.

The American Dream

A nail bar is much more inviting, though I have forgotten that this is the land of expectation. ‘Shall I add the tip madam?’ the girl says as she brings the tab for me to sign. I’ve already added the mandatory 20% or you get black listed amount to my welcome fry up breakfast. Honolulu is as built up and crowded as I remember but there are more high-end shops now. The avenue is teeming with shoppers diving in and out of the glitzy malls and gallerias. It’s Vegas by the sea. They seem to me to be making all the diverse parts of the USA as similar as possible. Same buildings, same shops: The Cheesecake Factory, Dunkin Doughnuts, Tony Roma’s Ribs and so on. All the tropical hotels, though equipped with every possible comfort seem to have the same depressing décor, dark wood with beige tiles.

Waikiki - Playing Sardines on the Beach

Jet lag is closing in and I’m thinking of a relaxing sunbed on the beach, admiring the view as a cool sea breeze wafts by. Reality is the last space in a sardine can. There’s no shade, although there are casuarina trees blocking the view, and keeping out the wind. The swimming pool and concrete strip in front are crammed. So is the bar directly behind. The beach, though lovely sand (I’m wondering if this bit is imported - it’s softer and more yellow than the lower stretches) is a narrow strip and this is full of umbrellas that you have to pay extra for. They’ve already had my extortionate resort fee. Back to the balcony I think.

With Raye on the Way Back from New Zealand

Last time I was in Hawaii, I was on the last leg of my Round the World Trip with Raye. We flew in from Auckland. Raye's luggage was soaked as the airport handlers had left it out in the rain. Our room was full of drying clothes.

Hanauma Bay

After exploring Honolulu we went snorkelling at popular but crowded Hanauma Bay State Park. This is a reef within a volcanic cone, which looks great from above. The marine life is worth seeing. But Wikipedia describes the area as over touristed - and they're being polite.

Pearl Harbor

A must see is The USS Arizona Memorial, at Pearl Harbor. it marks the resting place of 1,102 of the 1,177 sailors and marines killed when Hawaii was attacked by Japan on December 7, 1941. The attack brought Hawaii global and historical significance, precipitated America's entry into World War II.

The memorial was built in 1962 and is accessible only by boat. It's a free visit run by the National Park Service. The building straddles the sunken hull of the battleship, without touching it. There's a video shown and it's a generally solemn occasion. Though somewhat marred by all the Japanese tourists grinning. They own most of the hotels in Oahu now anyway.

Today, Hawaii still hosts the U.S. Pacific Fleet, the world's largest naval command.

A Tour of Hawaii

I also took a small plane ride  round the other five main islands: Kauai,  Molokai, Lanai, Maui, and the island of Hawaii (Big Island)  Amazing views. There were pineapple plantations (Del Monte), Father Damian's Leper colony on the towering cliffs. Volcano flows on Big Island (still glowing as dusk fell) and the volcano observatory at Hilo. It was great, until we hit end of the day warm current turbulence.

Leaving Honolulu

Last time I went onto San Francisco and home. This time I'm at the start of a journey. Up at four, to catch the plane to the Marshall Islands. At least the bus turns up. Aloha the driver’s sign says. Don’t forget to tip me. The queue at security is long. They open a new channel just as I get to the scanning machines. I’m not sorry to leave Honolulu. Too many people and too much tipping.

A Very Brief History of the USA

  • Movies and media have surely meant that the history of the USA is better known internationally than almost any other country.
  • Its uncertain when and how the first peoples arrived in the Americas, but it's thought that they came across the land bridge from Siberia around 15,000 BC and migrations followed south, in waves. Numerous indigenous cultures formed,
  • The Americas were visited by the Vikings, but European colonization of the Americas began in the late fifteenth century, after the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492. By the 1760s, the thirteen British colonies, along the Atlantic Coast, contained 2.5 million people. The Southern Colonies built an agricultural system on slave labour, importing slaves from Africa for this purpose.
  • However, the British government got too heavy handed, imposing a series of taxes that were deemed punitive. resistance culminated in the Boston Tea Party in 1773, and armed conflict. France and Spain, both smarting from British defeats, supported the revolution, led by George Washington. with Alexander Hamilton as his chief adviser. Purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France, in 1803, doubled the size of the United States.
  • Westward expansion followed, driven by a quest for inexpensive land for yeoman farmers and slave owners. The corresponding expansion of slavery was increasingly controversial. Slavery was abolished in all states north of the Mason–Dixon line (mainly along the Pennsylvania border) by 1804, but states in the south continued slavery, arguing that it was necessary for their large scale agriculture, to support the kinds of large scale agriculture that dominated the southern economy.
  • Abraham Lincoln became president in 1860 and Civil War followed, as the southern states seceded from the Union, to form their own pro-slavery country, the Confederate States of America. It was a bloody war. The defeat of the Confederates in 1865 led to the abolition of slavery, although equality for all races was much slower to follow.
  • The United States gradually expanded its territory and evolved into the world's leading industrial power at the turn of the 20th century, supported by mass immigration and a a national railroad network.

Facts and Factoids

  • There are now 50 states in the USA - Alaska and Hawaii are both separated from the main part of the country
  • The USA is the fourth largest country in the world by land area and the third by population.
  • The USA has the world's largest economy
  • The most populated city in the USA is New York City, followed by Los Angeles and Chicago.
  • The capital of the USA is Washington D.C. (it has its own district so it doesn't belong to any state)
  • English is the most commonly spoken language in the USA, followed by Spanish.
  • The USA consumes more petroleum than any other country in the world.
  • The USA is one of only three countries not to adopt the metric system of measurement. (The other two are Liberia and Myanmar)
  • The American flag is one of the most recognizable in the world. Nicknames for the flag include the Stars and Stripes, Old Glory, and The Star-Spangled Banner. Since its origin, in 1777, the American flag has been revised over two dozen times. The first version had 13 stripes, for the original 13 states and a small square British Union flag. This Grand Union flag, closely resembled the flag of the British East India Company but not all sources agree that this was its inspiration. Tweaks were made, over the years, as the Union Jack was replaced by stars for the states and additional states were added. in varying designs. The current 50-star American flag was designed by 17-year-old Robert Heft as a school project in 1958. He got a B-, but his teacher told him that if it won the national competition for the new flag design, then he would upgrade to an A. And that's what he had to do.
  • Uncle Sam (same initials as United States) is a common symbol for the U.S. government. He appeared in World War I recruiting posters (based on the original British Lord Kitchener poster of three years earlier). He appeared during the War of 1812, but his actual origins are obscure.
  • While the figure of Uncle Sam specifically represents the government, the female figure of Columbia (after Columbus) represents the United States as a nation. An archaic character, Brother Jonathan (from New England), was also used to represent the American populace, but seems to have merged into Uncle Sam

What To Do in the USA

  • The USA is a great, diverse and easy country to travel in: car, plane, train, bike, horse
  • Accommodation is easy to find, if not always cheap
  • Good food is sometimes harder to track down. Outside California and cities like New York and Seattle and San Francisco, where there are good (if expensive) restaurants, it's burgers, burgers and burgers....

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