Thomas Rajula: My epic journey through America

As I listen to a student doing her rendition of the “The Star Spangled Banner”— the American national anthem — I’m experiencing the best of patriotism during a friend’s graduation at the Hartford Healthcare Amphitheatre in the state of Connecticut.

In 2019, I made my first trip to the United States for yet another graduation in the Bay Area, but I don’t remember them playing the national anthem. However, at Hartford, the patriotic atmosphere during the singing of the national anthem and after that was heart-warming, even for a foreigner like me.

I had been in the US for just over eight days by this time. My primary reason was to attend my cousin’s PhD graduation at West Virginia University, but I had received invitations from other friends across the country earlier when I told them about my planned visit. I knew it would be expensive to travel across the country but I told myself I couldn’t put a price on experience. So, I made the plans and a budget to have roughly a month’s stay with multiple state-and-city visits.

When I got my visa back in 2019, it was valid for five years so I had that part done.

Then, I had to have my Covid-vaccination status updated. I wasn’t really keen on the vaccination from the start, but you cannot travel to the US without having at least the first two jabs 14 days before arriving at its borders now. So, I got my first jab in March and rounded it off in late April.

The life-size statue of NBA legend and man-on-the-logo Jerry West stands outside the West Virginia University Colloseum. Jerry West played WVU Mountaineers before getting drafted into the NBA./Thomas Rajula | Nation Media Group

Bookings get more expensive when you near your departure date. Also, American airlines are much cheaper compared to Kenya Airways and some from Europe and the Middle East. Also, there are websites such as Superboxtravel, Expedia and Cheapoair that will save you tons of money on airfare. Depending on how much prior planning you do, and whether your return flight is from the same airport, your connection — among other variables — a return ticket can cost less than $1,000 (Sh118,000) to any destination in the US.

On the night of May 9, I was on a British Airways plane at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport heading out to Pittsburgh International Airport, via Heathrow Airport in London, where we switched to American Airlines. My seatmate on the flight from the UK was an Irish tech man who advised me to drink lots of coffee in order to avoid sleeping on the flight. Being a frequent business traveller, he said this has helped fight jet lag and get into the normal routine of his destination across the Atlantic in order to conduct business the day after arriving.

Our point of entry into America was Charlotte Douglas International Airport in the state of North Carolina. The Charlotte airport is currently the second largest hub for American Airlines and, on the East Coast, it is the second largest airport, serving more than 161 non-stop destinations worldwide and more than 700 departures or landings daily. After going through border control, I went to check-in again at the American Airlines desk for my connecting flight to Pittsburgh. The attendant at the desk was an African American. Since I had a check-in bag, he obviously enquired about where I was travelling from and my final destination. When I told him I am from Kenya, he was excited.

“You’re from Africa? Man, my family was in Ghana two years ago for the Year of the Return (a campaign that targeted black foreigners from the diaspora to visit Ghana), but I couldn’t go. I am yet to touch down in the motherland but I hope to someday soon. You’d have had to do an electronic verification on your ticket at those spots just before the line to the Transportation Security Administration pre-check, but let me just give you another ticket and do that for you,” he said.

I must say African American staff at the airports have always been kind to me. In 2019, I was late for two flights and the women at the desks ensured I had the next possible flight at no extra charge. The same year, two Transportation Security Administration officials in Pittsburgh tried to give me a scare when I told them the white substance I had in a clear bag was desiccated coconut. “You said coc… what?” they asked, before breaking into laughter after seeing how scared I was.

A view of Lake Union and the surrounding area from the top of the Space Needle in Seattle, Washington. /Thomas Rajula | Nation Media Group

Then there was a bus driver who let me get a free ride after seeing me frantically search for the bus pass one night, saying, “It’s OK, brother, it’s on me”.

On my latest visit, after arriving at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, we drove with my cousin for an hour to Morgantown, West Virginia. Morgantown’s economy highly depends on the West Virginia University distinct schools that have a population of more than 28,000 students. National Basketball Association legend and man-on-the-logo Jerry West went to the university and there is a statue of him erected outside the Colosseum; home to the West Virginia University Mountaineers basketball team.

Life around the town is usually quiet when the campuses close. It’s also a great time to visit its marinas on Cheat Lake, pubs and restaurants along Monongahela River or go hike at Coopers Rock State Forest just east of the town.

The relatively small town has only one shopping mall and is remarkably hilly and wooded. It is not uncommon to come across huge deer carcasses and raccoons as road kill. The population is predominantly White and the restaurant menus are very American. But there are restaurants like Fusion Japanese Steakhouse and El Pollon if you want to try Peruvian cuisine.

After my cousin’s graduation, we made a 336-kilometre road trip to Washington DC. However, we spent the night in Maryland, a little outside of Andrews Air Force Base, in order to start the tour of DC early in the morning. DC is both important as an administrative hub and an information centre. Being a Monday, we assumed that it would be easy to get around — but between the buses transporting school children on educational trips, families who’ve driven down and the parked food trucks, navigation was not the easiest. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC) are important in their own rights to showcasing a people’s rise from adversity.

A section of the music and exhibition Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington DC./Thomas Rajula | Nation Media Group

The museum’s building is an architectural marvel. The top, I learnt, is inspired by the three-tiered crowns used in Yoruban art from West Africa. You can only get into the museum using a ticket pre-booked on their website. You’re reminded why you just can’t pull up to the exhibition by the long lines of people queuing to get in. With the tag ‘A People’s Journey, A Nation’s Story’, NMAAHC’s three levels of exhibitions detail a lot of the African Americans’ contribution and influence to life in the US from the time they were first introduced as slaves in an era of untold brutality to the present day where the struggle continues against all sorts of discrimination and systemic racism. The focus is on inventions, music and dance, culture, sports, economics, literature and science. There are probably not too many other places in the US where you would feel so empowered and have a feeling of camaraderie with people you don’t know, as a black person, as you would here.

Then there are places with a solemn atmosphere just as you walk in. The Rhimes Foundation Gallery: Visual Art and the American Experience was hosting an exhibition titled ‘Reckoning: Protest. Defiance. Resilience’ that looks into the African American’s interaction with law enforcement.

Connecticut was the next state I visited. Neighbouring New York State, its city of Norwalk has an easygoing coastal setting where seafood is plenty— including the crawfish, crabs and salmon that I enjoyed eating. There is a large Latino population in this area. I was lucky to be invited to a party at a couple’s house in Stamford where I learnt a lot about Peruvian and Ecuadorian heritage.

This was my first full interaction with these cultures. But if you are a critic of “African time” then let me tell you about Latino time — at least in this instance. The party was supposed to start at 1pm, but we were the first to arrive at 3pm. Most of the guests were coming in with children in tow and drinks as their preferred gifts as we were leaving, at around 10pm. Music is a big aspect of such events and there is a designated music curator who comes with a massive, portable, Bluetooth speaker and a playlist. I was given lessons on a few dancing styles but my favourite had to be dancing “Zapateando Juyayay” by Jayac (the song has more than 57 million views on YouTube), an Ecuadorian step-and-spin song. I had ceviche (made by marinating raw fish in lime juice and mixing it with onions, tomatoes, peppers and coriander) and Arroz Chaufa (basically made like pilau) with shrimp and oysters.

New York City takes an hour and 47 minutes worth of driving from Norwalk, and we found ourselves heading there on a Saturday. My inner child was activated when we passed by the World Wrestling Entertainment’s production studio on the I-95 highway in South Norwalk. Seeing the flag with the logo flying high brought back many memories of wrestling greats I grew up watching on television in Kenya.

Time Square in Midtown Manhattan, New York is a place you’ll find all types of characters of people. /Thomas Rajula | Nation Media Group

We made it to 5th Avenue and 109th Street in Bronx for a celebration of African music, food and art at The African Chop House, based on the ground floor of The Africa Centre. This was part of the events to mark Africa Day. People from all over New York and neighbouring states come here to sample West African food and drinks. The place was filled with a lot of young people and being a hot day the African outfits for the women obeyed the weather, while most men were in fancy shirts and shorts.

We walked 62 blocks, equivalent to 5.6 kilometres to get to the iconic Times Square at 5th Ave and 47th Street. Being evening, we walked along the wall of the famous Central Park, which ironically had sections with strong smell of urine hanging in the air (they should probably have some usually ignored ‘usikojoe hapa’ signs — ‘do not urinate here’ — like in Nairobi). As I crossed over a smoke pluming vent at 5th Ave and 81st Street to get to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the thick sulphuric odour made me wonder why some celebrities would want to make it seem like a cool thing to do?

After walking past some of the famous fashion and cosmetics stores on 5th Ave and the iconic St Patrick’s Cathedral, we finally took a turn towards the lights of Times Square. I have never seen such a swarm of people in one open space like there were here. Like moths to a flame, the heat generated by so many bodies, and I guess the lights too, made it seem like this was a place far-removed from the nearby streets.

What stood out for me was the number of people that were simultaneously creating content for their social media pages or simply watching in awe. The prices charged by photographers to take your picture seemed prohibitive to me, more expensive than some long-distance train tickets I had bought.

With my activities in New York concluded, I headed out to the West Coast to catch up with other friends who had invited me. A flight from the La Guardia Airport in New York that is currently undergoing a lot of reconstruction saw me in Dulles Airport DC trying to catch a connecting flight to Sacramento International Airport. I was trying to document everything, including the humongous shuttles that I got to ride connecting the terminals.

I must also mention an unlikely tense situation I found myself in. An old White man made it his business to “protect his country” by following me around and taking a photo of me at point-blank range. I ignored his pestering mainly because I did not wish to get into a confrontation. At least he stopped following me after I got to my gate and sat there. He too had a plane to catch.

It was an uneventful flight but when I landed, I was met by really hot and dry air. The temperatures during my stay in this state would range between highs of 37 degrees centigrade during the day and lows of 17 degrees centigrade at night). Sacramento’s hot weather makes it best to enjoy waterfront areas next to the rivers, lakes and pools, or sit in an air-conditioned pub or restaurant enjoying some cold drinks with good old American pizzas, steaks and fries or a spicy hot Mexican meal.

The sunset view over the hilly neighbourhoods of Mission District./Thomas Rajula | Nation Media Group

Old Scaramento is a riverfront historic district that you shouldn’t miss visiting if in this area. With Gold Rush-era buildings, cobblestone streets, and horse-drawn carriages, it is home to numerous museums, including the Sacramento History Museum and the state Railroad Museum, which offers excursion train rides. Delta King Hotel is actually a 4-deck paddle wheel riverboat whose history dates back to 1927. It will set you back about Sh23,000 a night.

The city isn’t expensive to live in. People from other cities in California have actually been moving to Sacramento, especially in this remote working era because of what it offers. Randomly, a Kenyan couple walked up to me and my hosts saying they had spotted us from afar and concluded “hawa ni watu wetu” (these are our people). I booked a Greyhound to get to my next stop: San Francisco. Our penultimate stop was at Oakland. My heart literally broke here. The number of homeless people’s tents, couches or boxes and just litter lining the wall of the Greyhound offices were a depressing site. It was such indignity, with a majority of them Black people, and I couldn’t bring myself to take pictures of the situation. The only photo I have is graffiti of a black panther with the writings “We want decent housing fit for shelter of human beings.” I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t feel safe. I had just come face-to-face with the ugly side of America.

 In contrast, San Francisco looks like a carefree city where I found myself staring at young people moving around on Onewheel self-balancing electric skateboards. The city was rather chilly when I visited. Walking through the North Beach’s Chinatown and Italian District, then riding the electric scooters across the financial streets down to Sue Bierman Park across from the San Francisco Ferry Building made me grasp the history behind the making of this Bay Area city. I got to sleep at the home of a wonderful family at the top of those steep climbs I remember watching in Eddie Murphy’s Metro film.

Of course marijuana is legal in California — with strict regulations for medicinal and recreational use — so it’s not shocking to see shops that sell THC (a crystalline compound that is the main active ingredient of cannabis) products, including gummies (chewy sweets).

However, spending the afternoon of May 29 at Mission Dolores Park, I saw even psilocybin mushrooms or “shrooms” being hawked publicly. Similar to a smokie or beverages vendor at Nairobi’s Uhuru Park, the sellers had their carts with the wares on top.

More weird is that a children’s playground is just a few metres away. Used in large enough doses, these mushrooms have effects similar to using drugs. An interesting thing is that the people I was with believed that there’s a cartel that probably controls the trade in the area or the place would have been overrun by people hawking weed products and other hallucinogens.

I was told of a “church” that actually “sold” mushroom microdoses called 3rd Eye by using a loophole in the right to freedom of worship by stating that this was their “sacrament” and that the money people give to them is just offertory.

Later that night, I was on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight train heading north to Tacoma, Washington State. It was the first time being on a double-decker train, in business class where I could stretch my legs easily for the 21-hour journey, and with a viewing deck that also served as a dining area. Oregon is a huge state that sits between California and Seattle. Riding alongside Upper Klamath Lake, seeing the solar fields of the Woodline Solar Project, the 11 tunnels you have to go through between Chemult and Eugene, the snowy hills along Summit Lake, and the numerous water bodies that you will come across before Portland.

I didn’t have a US mobile phone number and the Starlight doesn’t have Wi-Fi (only at the station in Portland did I get a whiff of it) but I had made acquaintances with an Irish lady who was kind enough to let me use her phone to call my host. Being Memorial Day, there was plenty of food in the house when I finally settled. Corn bread washed down with sour milk would be my kryptonite for the next few days.

 I was seeing a friend for the first time in more than a decade and we went to visit the Space Needle in Seattle. The view from this wonder tower over the city and Elliott Bay and Lake Union is nothing short of breathtaking. The Sonic Bloom by Dan Corson outside the Boeing Imax Theatre are huge flower sculptures, which bloom in different lights.

I returned to Norwalk waiting to start my return journey to Kenya. But not before having another Mexican special, tacos with tripe in them.

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