Monday, December 27, 2010

From USA to CANADA!!!

We have been on the road for almost 3 months and we always moved every 2, 3 days, except for LA where we spent around 2 weeks. Always when you travel it is good to take a break from time to time and the fact that Amanda lives in Ohio made it a good option to stop and have this well deserved vacation from a vacation. After leaving Mankato and Toby and his family, there were two options in order to arrive to Ohio: one, going through Chicago and the second going up north first, to Michigan Lake and then coming down to Cleveland. We chose the second option because we also heard it is so beautiful up there but also because Chicago and Detroit are two big cities hit very badly by the crisis, and we did not have enough energy to enter again in a big American city and spend time in crowded places. So we drove up north through little roads, surrounded by woods of conifers, many lakes, the weather got to be quite chilly sometimes but not very bad.
The more the days were passing the less we were interested in visiting anything and in the end we ended up driving about 1000 km in one day to arrive Cuyahoga Falls, where Amanda lives. She is an old friend of Jan, married to an American guy , living in USA for about 10 years now and working in an agency for women abuse, where she tries to give shelter and legal advise for women that suffer of abuse. More than a 25% of women in America suffer some sort of abuse and this violence does not make social differences. All women are exposed to it, even the rich ones, although the rate of women that report the abuse is lower in the higher classes. Anyway there are many factors that would make the numbers even higher but because police is not doing their jobs properly many times the reports of the women never get to the justice. Even though USA considers itself one of the leading countries of the world, the number of abused women is on such a high level. There are many resources oriented towards solving this problem but as Amanda says there is much more to do. Once arrived by night at the lovely house of Amanda and Mark, we made ourselves comfortable in our own room and decided that for the next two weeks we will do nothing just recover energy because when you feel down you do not really enjoy and to enjoy such a big travel you need from time to time to take brakes. I was almost in a state of trance, waking up in the morning, having breakfast , then watching TV or reading, then having lunch and working on the computer and then dinner. What a beautiful monotony. We did not do just that in these two weeks. We also went out with Mark and Amanda for dinners with their friends, or we played Texas hold’em up Poker or cycling through the close by towns and forest of Cuyahoga Falls. These two weeks have past so quickly but I would mention here on of the best events that we took part in. Amanda had 2 more invitation to an event for the Legal Aid organisation in Ohio. We went to this great event that celebrated the achievement of so many professionals that give free aid to abused women and children, to immigrants and even to local citizens. We even got to see one of the judges of the Supreme Court of USA. I felt so impressed but in the same time so thankful to Amanda that made this possible.

After such good time here in Ohio we prepared the car again and started the road to Canada. Our next important destination was Niagara Falls, that we enjoyed from both American and Canadian sides. To be honest the Canadian side shows a much better perspective of the falls but on the American side there is a much nicer and well organised park, with a few gardens, some other falls and little refreshing shops.
Crossing into Canada was an important step in our journey through North America because it could mean that when we get back to USA after our one month plan, we might not get an extension for our American visa and so our travel through the north would be much shorter and we would loose important places that we wanted to visit. I developed a kind of hatred and angst for borders since in this travel I think I had to cross more than 150 borders, I had to deal so many times with immigration and police that not always is professional, fair, efficient or nice. If you choose to cross from USA to Canada through the Niagara Falls, you will get there very easily by crossing one of the bridges close by, and so we did the same, but once into Canada we realised we weren’t able to talk to an USA immigration official and because we needed some information on visa extension we did the mistake to ask an official on the Canadian side, if we can go back to USA and ask our questions. Of course we did not know what was about to come!
As we told to the Canadian immigration officer that we want to go back to USA he sent us inside the immigration building to check some papers with the officials inside. After waiting for 15-20 min one official attended us, wrote a paper and added a code to our reason of refusing to enter Canada and told us we are ok for returning to USA. Happy that the Canadians seemed so helpful, we drove the van back to the entrance into USA; only this was where our luck was ending. A very rude and poor in sympathy official started asking questions on why we were refused entry into Canada, why we wanted to come back to USA, if we want to work and so on and so forth. We replied very calmly to all his questions only he seemed not to understand that we needed to talk with someone about the possible extension of our visa. He made a phone call and told us to wait in the car and so we did. He then took our passports and the keys of the car, two police officers came and we were escorted by both of them, just like two criminals, inside the immigration building. After waiting 30 min more, we were received by a different officer to whom we had to explain again why we were asking question and we had to detail all our reasons of why we want this information and finally we were clear enough that we plan to go to Canada, spend a while there and then come back to USA and get a visa extension he finally seemed to understand. It seems there is a protocol for all immigration police officers to consider everyone a possible criminal, terrorist, immigrant or who else what, all that before even listening to what people are saying. I think they need more training into listening. Anyway after he realised that we really had the plan to travel so long through USA and that we seemed honest and reliable, he talked with his boss and told us that generally it depends on the border official if they extend a visa or not. With that in mind we got out of there not before getting our passports and keys of the car. It has been a very frustrating experience for me and actually it had ruined my mood for the whole day. The impoliteness of the border officials seems to be a common characteristic around the world.
Soon after getting back to our car, we drove again to the border of Canada, summing in total about 120 min just for one clear and easy question: Can we extend our visa in the border?


As soon as we crossed into Canada, we looked for a cheaper parking place ( on the Canadian side there is no national park and all hotels and restaurants seem to charge a big fee for parking). We found a place about 10min walking distance from the Falls for just 5 dollars (Canadian). As soon as we parked the car we looked for an ATM because w had no Canadian money and as soon as we found one, we realised that on the Canadian dollars there is the face of Queen Victoria of England, due to the fact that Canada is part of the English common wealth and the head of their state is the Queen. After seeing the Niagara Falls from the Canadian side and walking through the touristic city around the falls we took the car and drove away in order to find a place where to park the car and sleep.

Each new country has new rules and you never know if you can camp on the side of the road or not. It took us a long time to find a proper pace where to sleep but finally we ended up in a park on the side of a small road and we had a pretty quiet night. Next day we drove to Toronto, our first stop in Canada and we arrived in the afternoon at the house of Eva and her family.

Both Eva and her husband Christian emigrated in their youth from Europe and they met in Canada. They were both running from communist Poland and probably that was the best decision of their lives. They both got asylum and citizenship here and with many years of hard work they managed to build a family with 3 kids, the have a nice house in the suburbia and live a peaceful life. I like the feeling of being with Eva and her family because they remind me of eastern Europeans and their warmth.

They made us feel welcomed, we had the chance to talk a lot, they even gave us their national parks pass and offered us a great deal of information. We spent one day in Toronto , visiting the main touristic attractions, we listened to international music at a local festival and had a few great dinners with Eva and her family. The first two days it was difficult to see the difference between USA and Canada, but the more we were advancing, the more we were feeling like home in Europe. The Canadians have different ways of doing business, they have their own culture, television is completely different from American TV, the culture and art is different. I felt very comfortable. Even though an ocean separates us I feel much closer to life I Canada than in USA.
Couch surfing works here pretty great and after 4 days in Toronto with Eva we started to drive towards Ottawa where another great host was waiting for us, not until visiting Algonquin Provincial Park. The pass that Eva gave us was for National Parks but Jan forgot too mention to me that and we spent two hole days trekking through the park with no parking permit.

The second day while I was enjoying a nice trek he finally admitted that he lied to e and that we do not have a permit to be in the park.

Immediately I lost all my amusement because I did not want to have the car towed away with all our stuff inside and that’s generally the risk you assume when you park somewhere without a permit. I did enjoy my first 47 hours in the park, walking through beautifully coloured forests.

The autumn here makes the trees change the colour of their leafs but the pallet is so striking with such beautiful reds, gold, browns and greens that you can spend days taking photos. We had to sleep outside the park so both nights we took a small road on the outside of the park, which led to a beautiful lake and a few houses. No one seemed bothered with us camping on their property. It was so relaxing to sleep there and enjoy the lake and the colours.
The third day we drove to Ottawa, the capital of Canada, a city about which we did not know more but we had to visit it and the fact that Dino offered to host us was a plus. Dino is a Canadian of Italian origin that lived most of his life in Montreal but now he has a good job in Ottawa so he rented a nice bachelor apartment in a 4 apartment house.
We parked our car outside and as soon as Dino introduced himself, showed us his place, and offered us the already cooked dinner, he left for the date he already had appointed with a new girlfriend.

Next day we walked through downtown Ottawa, saw the parliament and a few other government buildings that actually impressed us due to the great architectural value and resemblance to any old European structure. Although the rest of the city did not have much else to offer we enjoyed the downtown and the market close buy and also the company of Dino.
After 3 days in Ottawa it was again time for driving even more up north, this time to Montreal.
Driving up north into Quebec, the weather was getting colder and colder and the sun was hiding a lot in the clouds and also we had a few showers, but travelling with Couch surfing means you always have a warm place to keep you bones and little things you carry with you when you do such a long travel. We were lucky to be hosted by a French Canadian young family: Guillaume, Emilie and Sarai( their baby girl).
As soon as we arrived into their home we felt a good connection. They are warm people with amazing hearts, we cooked dinners, went out to eat at a Chinese restaurant with a bunch of their friends but we also had time and space for ourselves and could enjoy also the company of an old friend of the travel that currently lives in Canada.
Second day after arriving in Montreal we contacted Inigo, a basc guy that we met in Xining , China in a hostel in the summer of 2009 and with him and his girlfriend Sarah we ended up spending a few days talking about our travels. It was a good connection and we maintained contact though internet and now we were about to meet them again. We rented two bicycles very easily also due to the fact that Montreal is the first bicycle friendly city in North America. They actually have bicycle lane inside the city! We met Inigo close to downtown and we cycled through the city most of the afternoon talking about our lives and what has changed in the last months. Inigo is already in his 40’s but does not seem to know where his life is going to. He seems to be a guy with the plan to have no plan but sometimes he also gives you the feeling that maybe he is too old for that. In his past he made some bad decisions but his greater passions are travelling and photography although he did not find the right recipe yet that would help him combine the two and sustain a long time travel. He met Sarah, a Canadian girl of Philippine descend, in Australia 2 years ago and they ended up travelling together and sharing the goods and the bads of long time travelling. Sarah is in her 30’s and her family seems to disapprove of their relation due to the fact that Inigo has no proper job and that Sarah seems to be throwing away her future. With all that against them, and with the fact that they come from two different cultures and countries they still are together climbing and descending little mountains in the relationship. I think that they seem to be a good couple and that they should work their way on but it all depends on them. Inigo has no status in Canada so he cannot work and Sarah earns too few money to be able to sustain them both for a long time so probably they find themselves in a crucial moment when they need to take decisions and its never easy.
It was nice meeting them again, seeing how their life is going, having a dinner together and talking about their future. Sometimes when we meet again people of the travel I get the feeling that we are in a never ending Carrousel.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

POW-WOW in South Dakota

We spent one more day in Yellowstone, visiting the Old Faithfull area and then driving towards the east exit. I wanted to see the grizzly bear but we did not manage to spot any. Driving towards east we realised that all the herds of bison’s were gathered in the same region where we could enjoy the spectacular wildelife. Its been great in Yellowstone but it was time to go to east and I was so surprised to feel again heat…a lot of heat and dryness.

We took little roads through Wyoming following the direction towards Rapid City, a place with not much interest except for its closeness to Rushmore Mt. , a well known national symbol. Mount Rushmore National Memorial is a sculpture carved into the granite face of Mount Rushmore near Keystone, South Dakota, Mount Rushmore features 60-foot (18 m) sculptures of the heads of former United States presidents (in order from left to right) George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.
Once close to Rapid city we started to search for Carrie’s house, actually located in a trailer park. It is typical in USA to find almost in any city or small village a trailer park. There are caravans or trailer houses, prefabricated. Some look good and are in super condition and other look creepy and like half ran down. Carrie was living in a trailer park due to the fact that she was a volunteer in Americorps but also because she vowed the poverty vow, admitting that she has no income so the state is helping her with few money in order to have a roof under her head and hers sons head. She was 16 when she got pregnant, gave up to school, and had to take care of her son being a single mother( the father of the kid being in jail). She lived most of her life in North Carolina, where she used to own her own house, but her dream was to travel and change her life. With the help of different programs from Americorps she managed to finish a college degree and now she was waiting to be offered a better housing condition. She just celebrated 36 of age and she now is able to enjoy more her life also due to the fact that her son (mixed with Afro-American) has grown up and needs less attention. She is a devoted mother and she welcomed us into her humble place with open arms. We felt immediately at ease and we spent the evening cooking dinner together with another girl from Seattle and a friend of Carrie, both members in CS. We talked a lot for the hole evening, sharing funny or serious stories about our general experiences in USA. In the night we decided to sleep in the car because it was better for Jan due to his allergies and also because Carrie had 3 big dogs that she had to keep locked because of us. We were supposed to stay in Rapid city and in the area for about 3 days visiting different things, but the same night , Rob, the friend of Carrie informed us that there is Pow – Wow ( native Indian festival) that he will attend and that we should go because it might be a once in a lifetime opportunity. So next day we visited the Monument of Mt. Rushmore
( famous for the faces of the American presidents) but the same evening we started to drive towards the Pow- Wow located in the planes of South Dakota, about 4 hours away from Rapid city. We said goodbye to Carrie in the morning but not before visiting her in Rapid city where she works in an office that helps women with poor situation to get milk and diapers. She also informed us that there are many many single mothers in america that do not receive any help from family or society, also that there are many teenage moms and victims of rapes. It is sad but true that in USA there is a big rate of rape victims many of these cases not being reported due to fear and shame. Many of these women are being drugged or they get drunk and the man does not understand when they say no and they take advantage of the situation. I heard of these cases but never been close to a victim of rape.
It must be a shocking and terrible experience, it must be though to be able to admit that you have been a victim and the saddest part is that many women do not report rapes because the authorities do not take things serious when a victim comes and reports the rape. The following morning we had to drive maybe 200 km more. We did not know where exactly will be the Pow Wow but we were supposed to meet Rob over there and sleep at a friends place in a religious mission inside the Indian reserve. Even right now, natives live in special reserves on the territory of USA. These reserves are autonomous and are control by the federal state and not by the local state which means that FBI is the one investigating all the crimes. They also have their own local police and administration but in general the reserves are some of the poorest regions in USA.
This one was not making the exception. Driving through the dry land we crossed the national park od Badlands
which we visited briefly and then continued through small roads in the middle of nowhere. It is surprising how uninhabited some of the regions of US can be. Sometimes we do not see a house or a person for 20Km or more. South Dakota, the state where this Indian reserve is , seems to be one of the poorest states in USA with a very low income per capita, huge unemployment rates and really once you get here you realize that not now and not in the close future there will be improvement here. You might be able to be a farmer but its pretty tough. Once arrived to the town where the Pow Wow was supposed to be we started to look for signs. It is normal that in many reservations the number of white people living there is reduced…very reduced. We spotted a valley with many many people and so once arrived there we parked our car. It was crowded, dusty and curious because it felt like we were in a different country, a totally different culture and totally different features. It was like the feeling I got when I was visiting an african country still very very interesting.

For the first hours we were watching different ceremonies and dances, the different Indians dressed with colorful and vibrant traditional costumes. Pow Wow is a competition also of dancing and of honoring the Indian heritage. It is a competition for all ages and the indians come from different tribes and reservation, this time mostly from The Sioux Fall region. Later in the evening we met Robbie who took us to the house of his friends in the city close to the Pow- Wow. The girl was not there but the property of the Lutheran Church loocked beautiful and peaceful in the middle of fields of green grass. It was also getting dark and while driving towards the house next to the church I actually mentioned with Jan some of our bad experiences with protestant churches in Africa, thinking loud that it will be a big change if they will show us hospitality and let us park for the night in their land. Funny enough, the girl that was supposed to host our friend did not answer the door and we began waiting on a bench in the garden but a women that seems to be from the church came to us and started to ask us questions….like why we are there and who we were. We answered that we are waiting for our friend and that we were going to sleep in the cars on the parking lot ( where there was no other cars). The women showed herself very nervous and told us that the girl should come and talk to her. As soon as the girl appeared the women told her that we are not allowed to stay there (It was already dark outside and it is dangerous to sleep in a reserve) and that we have to leave immediately and that she will have to leave the property next day although she was paying rent and working for an NGO that was doing projects in the reserve. Again it was confirmed to us that people of churches are mean, and that what they preach is not the same with what they do in practice. These kinds of people are the worst, being hypocrites and liars. I wonder if they are conscious of their behavior. So without thinking twice we decided its better to start looking for a place where to park safely for the night and also be close to the Pow Wow, to be able to return the next morning. We started to drive but it was so dark that we could not see anything outside the road in the end deciding it is better to park the vehicles on the side of the road and sleep like that. We found a spot but soon after parking a police car came and told us it is very unsafe to park there, also because it is close to a jail and that we should look for a different place. We ended up sleeping in the parking lot of a supermarket where we had breakfast the next morning. We spent the whole day at the Pow- Wow, resting in the shadow with a lot of cold drinks and enjoying the ceremony. It has been a very interesting experience and we could be close to the natives. One indian guy came to us and asked me if I was the Senator lady they were waiting for. It was funny….because they thought that Jan was taking notes for me and that Robbie was our bodyguard.
Around 7 pm we left the celebrations and started to drive our of the reserve ending up sleeping in the middle of the fields close to a closed church. This time there was no one to kick us out!

Next day we were expected in the house of a Prosecutor of USA , also member in CS. In South Dakota there are no big cities and we were lucky to find people to host us generously. Pamela proved to be a great host and a great women. She welcomed us in the afternoon at her nice home in the fields, we prepared dinner and shared stories and her story proved to be pretty interesting. She was fostering children that came from families with problems, especially kids of indian origin. She had a girl for 3 years but recently the girl had to go back to the indian reserve for a reintegration program. The indians do not accept for their children to be adopted in non indian families so Pamela could not decide for her foster daughter. She also commented that many of the kids come from abusive environments and they are exposed from very early aged to drugs, alcohol, sexual aggression. Many of the young indian girl are pregnant before 16. She was feeling hopeless for the girl she had for 3 years because she feared she is not strong enough to say to drugs and abuse and that she will lose her path in this environment. Pamela was now a prosecutor for US but its been just few years since she earned this status because she finished the school in her late 40s. She also came from an abusive family ( her father was drinking) and actually she was adopted by this catholic family but her birth mother which she looked for many years was from ireland. It sound complicated story and it is actually because before 20 years of age she had 2 children and 2 divorces. Her adoptive parents never really helped her and she ended up driving a truck for about 17 years. When her daughters grew up she managed to get back to school and put some order in her life. She is an open and warm lady and she offered us great hospitality. The next day we even went to court and saw what she was dealing with everyday, mostly small crimes by natives. After 3 days at her house, we left towards Toby’s house, close to Minneapolis in Minnesota, a state with not much interest. We were trying to avoid the big cities of US and we were also looking for people from whom we could learn new things about this big country.
Toby welcomed us in his small home, along with his 2 daughters that were staying with him for the week-end due to the fact that he is in shared custody with his ex-wife. Many American ex-couples seem to be doing the same thing. In Europe it is not that popular. Generally one parent gets full custody and the other has some time in a year to spend with the kid. I do not really know how the Americans cope with this shared custody thing. Even for the kids it seems a bit confusing because while we were there Toby explained us that he is trying to feed healthy food to the girls but his ex takes them all the time to Mc Donalds, also mentioning that may parents in US do the same for commodity.

Toby offered us a room and cooked amazing pizzas in the over that he built outside of his house in the garden. We spent 3 relaxing days with him and his daughters and girlfriend. We spent an entire afternoon through the thrift stores and had fun playing Wi at home.
This travel is not always about seeing new places but also about experiencing the life of the people we meet.