SA to USA - the start of the Great American Road Trip

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March 11th 2016
Published: April 9th 2016
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We left Santiago on an American Airlines flight to Miami, USA. Unfortunately, the cabin crew were Chile-based and, with only one exception, they were the most grumpy bunch of people I've come across in the customer-service sector. So, it was a pretty miserable eight hour, 4140 mile flight, with a tepid meal and a tiny back-seat screen to play games on or watch a very limited selection of movies. We landed in Miami about 3 am, local time, (I'd given up on time shifts!) and it seemed as though we had somehow gone round in a circle because the primary language being spoken was Spanish! Pardon, what, where? Total confusion. Miami was a transit point for us but we clutched our ESTA documentation to indicate we were approved visitors and happily went through their automated fingerprint and retina-scanning procedure only to find it didn't work (for everyone, it seemed, not just us) so it all had to be repeated again in front of a real person who was just as miserable as the cabin crew. At 3 am. After an eight hour flight. The poor toddler who had to be lifted up and held still in a bear hug for his retina scan had to go through the process again and I almost screamed along with him at the unnecessariness of it. We had to collect our luggage and trundle it through the enormous airport ourselves, without any clear signage or idea of which terminal or departure gate we were aiming for! In the end a randomly passing pilot showed us where to deposit our luggage and then which door to go through (it looked like the entrance to some backroom storage facility rather than a travel destination door). Finally, we caught a shuttle to a completely different terminal for our onward flight to Tampa, but not before having our hand luggage reinspected and two bottles of water given to us on the first flight confiscated. Seriously? We hadn't stepped foot out of the airport, but rules is rules I suppose. We spent several hours killing time before another AA flight lasting all of 37 minutes plonked us down in Tampa Airport. As well as being a considerably shorter flight it was staffed by cabin crew who were pleasant and smiled. It made a difference!

Now, you might be wondering why we completely bypassed Miami in favour of Tampa when Miami might seem to have more going for it in terms of tourist attractions. In fact, we completely rejigged our first draft of our itinerary to include Florida at this time of year because it was supposed to coincide with the migration of the Monarch butterflies. You know, those butterflies we stumbled across in New Zealand instead. Well, it was a good job we did because we never did see them in America! Hmmm, Nature n'all. BUT, another creature featured on my wish list and they could be found in Tampa, so Tampa it was for us.

We'd arranged a hire car for our Great American Road Trip. We'd already got the message that the make and model of the cars we get in the UK don't always translate to the same make and model elsewhere. The Corolla in NZ for example only bore a passing resemblance to the Corolla available to us at home. Anyway, Steve decided to go local and requested a 'Dodge, or similar'. Sadly, it seemed that Dollar Rental Cars did most makes and models except Dodge. It was either a Prius or a Corolla and, given that we'd already had a Corolla, we chose the Prius for a change. THAT was a mistake! It had a tiny boot (or trunk as the Americans say), was quite small overall and had no parcel shelf (which I never got to the bottom of what the Americans call) to hide away the contents (our luggage!) of the boot. So, we returned to the office and asked for the Corolla instead. Unfortunately, that had already been allocated in the interim so we were offered a red Hyundai Accent which was bigger than we needed but hey, we were getting desperate. It shows you how much we don't 'do' cars, because apparently the Prius has a bit of a reputation which had completely passed us by ..... We hadn't needed a Satnav in any of our previous locations because there weren't that many roads and towns were small enough to figure out, but we decided it was essential for our American roadtrip so we hired one of those too, which was a good decision. 'Britney' as Steve called the satnav, was incredibly helpful and essential for getting us from a to b but was very tardy in telling us which direction and which lane we needed to be in so we still had to do some last minute, dangerous-at-times, manoeuvres! Nevertheless, we couldn't have managed without.

I'd been twitchy about travelling to America on a number of issues; one of those was about the driving. We had considered various other options (Greyhound bus, train, flying, etc) but in the end driving was by far the best, most convenient, most economical and most suited to the sights we wanted to see and places we wanted to go. So, having earlier expressed my reservations about driving on the 'other' side of the road to Steve on numerous occasions, I felt completely justified in hopping into the passenger seat for our first foray into driving in America. After all, he had spent most of his working life as a professional driver ... And, in fact, after a false start going round the airport perimeter a couple of times, he took to it like a duck to water. We eventually joined the Interstate-75 and then took the 674 to Ruskin where we found our motel, the Ruskin Inn. We were waaaaay too early to check in so called into the McD's on the opposite side of the road and decided on lunch there. As we waited, a familiar accent drifted across to us; a guy from Luton worked for Amazon which just happened to have a huge facility in the area and he was visiting for a staff training (junket) event. Imagine - people from Luton and Yorkshire in the same place at the same time in Ruskin (where?!), Florida! It was good that we met him because we were still struggling to make ourselves understood to the guy in McD's and, later, to the manager of our motel. What was going on? Do we not all speak and understand English? I nearly reverted to my miserably poor Spanish to see if that improved matters. I think it was something to do with the speed of delivery, which was incredibly fast.

The Ruskin Inn was to be our first motel in America and we had no idea how they would compare to the Australian and New Zealand versions. They were quite an act to follow but they did ok in the end, though the coffee facilities didn't measure up. The Americans provided a one-cup coffee maker, if we were lucky, that had to cool down between brews. Coffee is really important for us on a morning and we wanted a KETTLE, with INSTANT granules, none of this fancy, useless coffee-bag-percolator-wait-for-ages palaver. We got a bit grumpy if one of us was having to wait for the coffee maker on a morning and resorted to heating the water in the microwave more times than I would have liked over the course of our travels. Anyhoo, as well as coffee making facilities in the room the Ruskin provided 24 hour, on-tap, ready to go coffee in the foyer. Splendid. It was also a pet-friendly motel so I was happy enough. The other thing that had concerned me was that American motels might be a by-word for a place of prostitution, drug-dealing or biker gang hang-outs. I think I've watched too much bad TV because they were none of those things, being safe, clean and populated by 'normal' people of all ages.

Anyway, back to those wish list 'things' that I wanted to see. I once saw a Stephen Fry programme where he came across manatees. They struck a chord with me as gentle aquatic elephants, but unformed, almost amoeba-like in appearance and on a smaller scale. They looked so pre-historic and gentle I just had to see them in the flesh. The TECO (Tampa Electric Company) facility in Tampa is a bit of a blot on the landscape, with its huge plant pumping out electric for the surrounding areas but at the cost of the landscape. I think their PR person deserves a medal as they have made an attraction of the warm water pumped out by the power plant and turned into a FREE facility to view the wildlife, including the manatees, which are attracted by the consistently warm temperatures. So, all we had to do was get in the car and drive there. No sailing out to sea in turbulent waters, no wasted nights spent staring at the skies, no padding around gardens at dawn in your night-attire, no all we had to do was get in the car and drive a couple of miles down the road. Aaaaaand .... there they were, just waiting for us. Easy!!! These wonderful creatures just float there, wallowing in the water, and we saw about 20 of them, male, female and youngsters (I don't know what a young manatee is called - maybe a babatee?!) just bumbling about in the warm water. I bought a postcard which shows literally hundreds of them in the bay, presumably in winter when waters elsewhere are colder. It was wonderful, and so easy. We walked along the boardwalks and looked out onto the bay at the sharks, wild birds, fish and crabs etc that populate this mini-nature reserve but saw none of the Monarchs that were supposed to be there too. No matter.

Our accent attracted attention. Another of the things that I had been twitchy about was my reaction to the loud, obtuse, gross Americans I expected to meet. I know, stereotyping or what? In fact, the people who chose to interact with us at Tampa (I wasn't going to seek them out, was I, we couldn't understand each other!!!!) were lovely; genuinely interested in us, happy to share travel trips (don't break the speed limit in Texas or dreadful things will happen!!) and to tell us they had relatives in the UK, especially in Liessesster. We had a lovely time at the TECO facility, the weather was hot (80°, just great for us), the people were friendly and I made a plastic grey manatee as a memento - I called it Man-fred - and felt particularly sisterly with another visitor who was trying to persuade her husband that it would be $2 well spent as it would make her happy. As we both pointed out to her husband, that seemed pretty cheap and money well spent for a happy wife!

We had a drive around Ruskin, after we had got over the heart-attack situation of doing 25 mph in a 15 mph zone and only then spotting the police car casually parked right on the speed change zone. Would a ticket eventually catch up with us or was he just making a point and/or eating his doughnuts? We drove to nearby Apollo Beach which seemed to be mainly a retired gated-community place but did have a lovely beach. We couldn't find a supermarket anywhere - what do these people eat?! We parked at our motel and went back to the small shopping precinct across the road from our motel. That would be the six-lane highway road with no pavements or crossing lights for pedestrians. It was like crossing a motorway! Our fast-food server clearly could not understand us as we ended up with something that didn't remotely resemble what we'd ordered and the 'to eat in' seemed to translate into 'to go' so we had to recross that road clutching a meal and two soft drinks. We only did it once and were grateful to make it safely to the other side. America seemed very car-centric!! We ate our meal in front of the TV in our room, watching pre-election campaigns which seemed to focus on negatively dissing your opponent rather than positively selling your own party, and watching the progress of a hurricane which was travelling over the areas we were heading towards, dumping inches of rain on the way.

All in all, however, our first foray into America had been really positive. How could it be anything else when I had another tick against my wish list?

PS As you can see from the date of this blog I am still almost a month behind. Sorry to have bombarded you with an almost daily blog in my efforts to catch up with myself! Today, we're on our way home. Unbelievable ... However, though the journey is ending the story is not. I'll complete the saga from home but expect a slight hiatus.


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