Gori Girl commented on my first post after arriving in the US, please don’t generalise the LA experience to all of California. When travelling it is easy to generalise to a whole country on the basis of what you find n one place, especially when you don’t get to see many other places, so I try not to do it – but in any case I would sincerely hope presume the rest of the US is not like LA. I tend to think of LA as a beacon of insanity in what is otherwise probably a fairly normal country. Yes, there are good things about it, but ….
So when I got to St Louis, I breathed a deep sigh of relief, for here at last, after the dust, the glare, the highways and the profligate consumerism and waste, was some normality. I liked St Louis. It has old buildings, interesting architecture, whole forests of green, and a feeling that there is life beyond congested freeways, strip malls and Starbucks.
On our first day we had a cafe brunch in a real, independent cafe with excellent ‘Aztec’ Hot Chocolate. Mmmm. Opposite was a lush green park where elementary school children appeared to be having a sports carnival, with first Bollywood & later a kind of waltz music booming in the background. Can Americans do nothing without a soundtrack? I loved their colourful team shirts: aqua, purple, maroon; no boring primaries there.
We visited the Science Museum for a couple of hours (about half of which was spent in the museum shop; ActionMan is always more interested in looking at objects when retail is involved), then spent a pleasant couple more hours in Barnes & Noble while Ting had a meeting. AM spent most of that day and the next, reading the books I’d bought him to take to Ghana.
He was back in B&N on Saturday, having refused point blank to do anything touristy. I let him get away with it on the grounds that with so much going on, he needs some down-time. I think it’s his way of coping with whatever feelings are bound to be surfacing about being so far from home & familiarity & most importantly, friends. I had a great time without him. I went with Ting and her two flatmates to visit The Arch and dip my fingers in the Mississippi River.
I had been so flat out before I left Sydney that I did absolutely no research about St Louis. I figured Ting would take me to all the places worth seeing, and I was right, but I did arrive in St Louis appallingly, embarrassingly ignorant about the city and its history. What I learned at The Arch made me realise that if I could have chosen a US destination regardless of visiting friends, St Louis would probably be high on the list. It has a very interesting history.
The Arch is a soaring metal – well, arch, that commemorates and symbolises that St Louis was the gateway to westward expansion of Europeans in America in the 19th Century. It was the place where people who travelled west in covered wagons stocked up on flour, bacon, tea, guns and other essentials before venturing into the ‘wilderness’ beyond (i.e. the lands of assorted Native American tribes).
The museum under The Arch records this exploration and expansion, including negotiations with Native American leaders. Successful peace negotiations were recognised with the presentation of a ‘peace medal’ a kind of super-sized coin bearing the portrait of the current President.
There were also displays and a presentation on Native American culture. We listened to a talk / performance by one of the rangers, who played tunes on a love flute that corresponded to different stages of a typical day, and of a typical life. Love flutes were made by young men to serenade the women they were in love with. If the woman felt the same way, she’d compliment him on his music; if not, she’d say she hadn’t heard anything, & he’d know to look elsewhere for love.
I could have wandered through the museum, absorbed, for hours, but we had a ticket for the 4.15 ride to the viewing platform at the top of The Arch – more challenging of comfort zones, and not just for me this time. You travel to the top, after waiting in a themed queue, in a specially designed lift that’s touted as part train, part elevator, and part amusement park ride. I would add, part torture chamber for the claustrophobic, but then we were, as I mentioned, challenging our comfort zones.
Both Ting and I felt nauseous once we got to the top, but as I don’t think we were high enough to be suffering altitude sickness, it must have been just naked terror. But it was worth it for the spectacular views (from a height of 192 metres), even on an overcast day. We spotted the white blob of a wedding dress in the gardens far below – I imagine it’s a popular site for wedding pix – plus the courthouse, the new stadium, the St Louis CBD and skyline, the patchwork farmlands of Illinois across the river and of course, the Mississippi itself.
I mentioned how ignorant I was, didn’t I? I hadn’t even realised that St Louis was on the Mississippi river (wouldn’t it be on the Missouri?), and then even when I found out, I forgot, so it was a surprise when I realised, just moments before we arrived, that I was actually going to see the great river. I was pretty excited. And it didn’t disappoint, even though I only saw the small stretch of waterfront before the Arch. A paddle steamer called the Tom Sawyer rattled past, and a very large, flat barge went by as well, pushed by another boat. In spite of the touristy flourishes, like buggy rides and a paddle wheel on the side of the casino, it was clearly a working river. I was thrilled.
It reminded me that in 1992 I stood at the head of the Nile in Uganda. Two great rivers that I learned about in primary school, but never, ever imagined I’d get to see. And on this trip I will also get to see the Rhine, and probably the Volta. And I think to myself … what a wonderful world …