Travel To The USA

When I travel I write a letter at the end of the journey for three reasons. First it helps we think about what I have done; second it is a diary; thirdly I want to write and this is a way of getting practice. You may enjoy it, I believe it is a sort of “blog”.

This is the bank holiday weekend in the UK. I have just returned after two weeks in the USA. I went over on Sunday 19th April to Washington. The queue in the US immigration was the longest, but not the slowest, I have ever been in. It took nearly 90 minutes to get through. Once one entered the end there was no way out if you needed to visit the toilet, faint or generally change your mind. I suppose though, in fairness it, was an orderly, regimented queue (the Americans are surprisingly conformist for a nation that boasts of freedom, getting on the train from New York to Washington involves entering a ‘holding pen’ and then queuing with ID on display). Also it beats the scrums of airports like Kiev where the fittest beat their way to the front.

On the Monday I went to a seminar at the World Bank and then gave a presentation at the Centre for Global Development. The Tuesday and Wednesday were spent at the World Bank for the Economic Reference Group meeting (HEARD is the secretariat). I then flew to New York, this was a mistake as it involves getting to and from airports and all the time checking in and going through security procedures. The following week I had a night in DC, but went up and back by train. One of my Ugandan colleagues was in the meeting in DC with me and was then returning to New York to go to the same meeting as me. He flew and as a result had to go to the airport in Washington at 3pm. Due to over booking and delays he did not get to the hotel until 1.30 am. I, by contrast, on the train, left at 5.15 and was at the hotel by 9.30 pm.
The Thursday and Friday were spent with UNDP and other members of the UN family talking about our work and giving them some thoughts on directions. This included a public lecture at UNICEF. It seems the audiences for these meetings have become smaller, a sign of the diminishing interest in HIV/AIDS. An alternative explanation is that it is me! I then had the week end in New York. On the Tuesday I gave a lunch time lecture at the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) and took the train to Washington for an AIDS2031 financing meeting, returning on the Wednesday night for the IAVI Policy Advisory Committee meeting and then flying out on Friday evening.

So some New York vignettes. – My room was on the 50th floor of the Millennium Hilton Hotel right opposite where the World Trade Centre buildings stood. This area is a building site, with almost round the clock, construction. I started in a room on the 34th floor facing the centre, due to the noise moved up and to the other side of the building. The view was spectacular, Brooklyn Bridge with its tracery of girders, perhaps a mile away, the traffic dominated by the flashes of yellow New York cabs. The Hudson river with bustling boats taking tourists up and down. In the distance Central Park a green oasis in the high rises. And despite being on the 50th floor it was still noisy: sirens, jack hammers, trucks and a throb of people.

At Penn Station I went to buy a book I have wanted to read. There in the bookshop was a stand of Oxford University Press Very Short Introductions. Yes, the VSI on HIV/AIDS was among them, and I had to tell the storekeeper that it was mine. What a nice moment!! When I see it on the stand at Schipol Airport I will know it has made it.

I went out with friends most evenings. On the Saturday we had a pizza and then went to a piano bar called Marie’s Crisis Centre in the East Village. The idea (I learnt) is that the piano player beats out music and people stand round and sing. It was great. The music tended towards Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady and old musicals. I had not realised it was a mainly gay crowd until I noticed that there were very few women and many of the men had their arms round each other.
The cab driver who took me back to the hotel one evening was Irish New York. He travels back to Ireland every two years with an organisation called ‘Sons of Cork’. His father was the last official New York cobblestone layer! He was a fireman and was one of the people called down on 9/11. This brought home to me how traumatic the event was for many people, and of course so many firemen lost their lives.

Walking back to the hotel I asked directions to the World Trade Centre because I can’t bring myself to call it ‘Ground Zero’. The hawker looked at me with disgust a pity and said. “It is not there any more”. So there!
The sunshine was amazing and it is perhaps the New York of streets in shadow that is the most evocative. The hotel was in the financial district. One evening I walked past the stock exchange, but in the side streets though were small shops and union offices. A city of contrast!

And my reading: Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, Penguin 312 pages, 2008 . These professors at the University of Chicago argue that totally free markets can lead to disasters because human individuals are not actually very good decision-makers. They are pushing what they call `libertarian paternalism’. It was an interesting book and gave me food for thought. It is too long and too much is from US examples. Worth reading? Yes and 7.5 out of 10 for content; 8 of 10 for ideas and 6.5 for writing styles.

Deer Hunting with Jesus: Guns, Votes, Debt and Delusion in Redneck America by Joe Bageant, Potobello books, 288 pages August 2008. I really enjoyed this book which was recommended by Lori Tarbett in Carleton. Bageant writes about class in the US and the poverty and inequality. Most striking is the lack of hope. Worth reading? Yes and 9 out of 10 for content; 8 for ideas and 8 for writing style, it does get a bit polemical at times.

The Other Side of the Bridge, Mary Lawson. This is fiction and was nominated for the Booker Prize. Published by Chatto & Windus it is 275pp, 2006. She has written one other book ‘Crow Lake’. This is fiction set in Canada at its best. It begins in the mid 1930s and ends in 1990 and is the story of love and sibling rivalry in a small town in Northern Canada. Worth reading? Absolutely! 9 out of 10 for content; 8 for perception and 9 for writing style.
Let me end there and send this off.