From Sea To Shining Sea - "Buckeye Statements" (Columbus, USA)

  • Dates of travel: 2 May 2013 to 7 May 2013
  • Location of travel: Columbus and Lima (United States of America)
  • Original publication date: 28 July 2013

Over the course of April and May 2013, I took a month-long meander across the USA. The main reason was to attend and report on the Coachella Music Festival in Indio, California. The road to and from there was just as memorable. This is Part 3 in a series of 5 articles.


Further North Or South (I'll Meet You There)

During the first half of my trip to the USA, I had hustled my way between the northern and southern ends of the sunny West Coast, and received some typical 'Southern hospitality' by way of Nashville, Tennessee. As I reached the halfway mark, there was uncertainty once again about the next leg of my cross-country journey, right up until the final day or so. But at least I knew who I'd be spending it with.

There were two choices leaving Nashville, and both involved another South African friend of mine who was based with his family in the 'Buckeye' state of Ohio: a place so far north that he was only a two-hour drive from the Canadian border. But the way things could've gone, I might have ended up further south in Texas.

Home comforts in Lima, Ohio

Home comforts in Lima, Ohio

In the weeks prior to my arrival, my friend and I had debated meeting up with his older sister in Houston, Texas and road-tripping to Austin & other nearby cities for the few days I had with him. Settling on the more-economical option of Ohio suited me fine; I had yet to visit either state (or see my friend for almost two years).

Although he was based in the state capital of Columbus, my friend's family lived in the small town of Lima, about an hour's drive away. The hustle-and-bustle of city life felt far removed from the farmlands and tranquil open fields, and it was a welcome rest for this weary traveler.

For the five or six days I was there, things slowed down a notch and I got to enjoy the everyday activities of a South African-American family. I did arrive just before the weekend of Cinco De Mayo though - Mexico's independence day. Despite it being their neighbour's special day, it has become an unofficial American holiday; an excuse to drink tequila & margaritas, eat tacos, and salsa dance (maybe not all the same time, kids). So it wasn't all R&R in the countryside - we lined up a weekend in the city, staying at a friend's apartment near to the sights and sounds of the Short North district.

Can't Get More American Than This

However, before the weekend of Cinco, the South Africans gave me quite an authentic American experience (make of that term what you will). For example, on the Friday, I:

  1. Fired a .22 rifle and shotgun on a farm
  2. Drove a left-hand-drive car for the first time
  3. Filled up a car's tank at a gas station by myself (in my country, we have attendants to do that for you)
  4. Shopped at Walmart
  5. Fired up some steaks for an outdoor barbeque.

The two highlights from All-America Day began after completing some errands around town. We had to pass by my friend's sister's house, located nearby on a small farm. We had barely left the main thoroughfare before this pastoral scene appeared ahead of us: a lone farm-house, surrounded by acres of grassy land. After dropping off the requested potted plants, my friend turned to me and asked a perfectly-sane question: "Do you wanna shoot a gun?". Uh, I guess so?

We walked back into his brother-in-law's garage, and found the gun-safe in a secluded corner. I peered curiously at the arsenal of rifles, shotguns and ammunition, meticulously collected over the years by the family and stored here. My friend had grown up learning how to use them responsibly, and was trained and had permission to use them when visiting. But my conscience still considered all the consequences as we stepped out back with the rifle and shotgun in tow.

Gun-Slingin'.JPG

The last time I'd fired a real gun was on a camping trip back in 7th Grade. So this wasn't my first rodeo. I was aware of the inevitable kick, which wasn't a concern for the .22 rifle. As expected, my aim was a little shaky though. I took a few shots to hit the collection of empty beer bottles in the distance. But the 12-gauge took me completely by surprise, despite my previous dealings with one as a kid.

Rookie error though; I wasn't wearing earplugs. One lone blast at the bottles and that was it for me. Dropping the gun in a panic, I staggered away like a guy who'd just seen a ghost; discombobulated and with ears ringing. Later I found out that it was a playful prank - only one bullet in the chamber and me as the butt of the joke.

So what do you do next after receiving the shock of your life? Get behind the wheel of a car! (hopefully not on open road). Once recovered from my gun-totin' experience, I found myself in the driver's seat of my friend's SUV for a flat stretch of land on the farm. Slowly trundling along with automatic transmission, I kept two shaky hands on the steering wheel, with a newfound bravery. It takes courage to laugh at your own misfortunes, and move ahead.

College Life In Columbus

Ohio has traditionally represented a sort-of 'middle ground' of the American experience. The Buckeye State - a term coined by the markings on a locally-grown nut, and a fierce 1840 electoral campaign - hovers somewhere between the East Coast and the large interior Midwest; a place often labeled a swing state in election years as politicians try to test of the pulse of the entire nation within its populace.

The capital Columbus also amalgamates this Americana into a city which feels much like a college town: entertainment avenues are nearby to each other, and there's a healthy range of young people around for a dynamic, fun vibe. Having just graduated from college myself, I was intrigued to compare notes.

We cruised into Columbus on the Saturday to meet up with our host for the weekend. She stays in an off-campus, university-owned apartment complex near to Ohio State University. On our way over, I was introduced to the Short North district: a collection of streets lined with affordable restaurants, bars, clubs, and art galleries. With my alma mater in South Africa (University of Cape Town) located in a leafy suburban area, it felt strangely normal to see such a vibrant, student-focused commercial zone. 

The Short North district in Columbus, Ohio on the evening of a Gallery Hop

The Short North district in Columbus, Ohio on the evening of a Gallery Hop

Not only was it the weekend of Cinco De Mayo, but also a local 'Gallery Hop'. On the first Saturday of every month, this art-themed event sees over 40 galleries and non-traditional art venues (such as restaurants, boutiques, and salons) showcase art collections and new exhibits, opening their doors until late at night.

Out on the streets, you can see saxophonists, singers, improvisational dance troupes, and an assortment of performers entertaining the crowds. With dinner devoured at a Greek restaurant, we walked the main street before nightfall to see the district at its most lively and creative.

Only once we got to the apartment did we that see our sassy host was nursing a knee injury, recently received from a charity half-marathon earlier in the day. With long walks rendered unsuitable, our group got some rest and relaxation at Sahara Cafe - an authentic Egyptian lounge with beautiful blends of hookah and tea on the menu. The walls were adorned with a dazzling array of Middle Eastern patterns, all dimly lit by fairy lights and the glow of the hookah's coals. Puff, puff, pass indeed.

Around The Zoo-World

Coming from Africa - where interaction with wild animals is not uncommon (but not necessarily a daily occurence!) - the thought of going to a zoo didn't immediately pique my interest. But not every zoo has such an esteemed national and international reputation as The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, thanks to the efforts of director 'Jungle Jack' Hanna. It had a world's worth of fascinating creatures to get up close and personal with, which we did.

The zoo is a massive maze of paths, and our Columbus host preferred a seat to view it from in her knee-be-braced state. We managed to hire a wheelchair for her to whiz around most of the eight world regions which the zoo is divided into.

Photographing animals in captivity is far easier than trying to track a rock star onstage. Whilst some do flutter about (mostly birds, and Mick Jagger), it is a calmer, more therapeutic experience behind the camera. We set out on our animal adventure from the 'Asia Quest', which yielded stunning close-ups with an Asian elephant, tigers, lions, and a reticulated python. Next was a quick detour through 'Shores' - an indoor aquarium region - which had adorable yet hideously-ugly manatees splashing about and swimming up to the glass.

Lorikeet at Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.JPG

Most zoos I've been to offer little in the way of 'natural' interaction with the animals: either they're behind a cage or you're watching them from the stands in an arena.

'Voyage to Australia and The Islands' was surprisingly open and free, letting guests walk through the enclosures with no barrier between you and the animals. Kangaroos lounged on the grass right by your feet, wombats dozed in the branches above your head, and only a few zookeepers kept watch of the movements of all species present. That implicit trust resulted in a very natural setting for a zoo exhibition.

This lack of constraint was taken to tactile extremes in the lorikeet aviary. Here the resplendent birds flew about their habitat, climbing onto your hands and arms; completely at ease with human interaction. For 50 cents, you could feed the cocky little things nectar, and they weren't shy to squawk and demand more!

Monkey Business

My childhood gardens often had to withstand roving troops of small vervet monkeys. These gangs used to reign terror over our kitchen fruit bowl, and were a constant source of worry for my mother ("Close the front door, there's monkeys!", as if a storm had started blowing). They were more than just a nuisance though; they were a very real threat - especially for bites and rabies infections.

The varieties of apes we saw in rest of the 'Islands' and 'African Forest' regions of the zoo were far more placid than what I was used to back home (even if they originated from there). I enjoyed these close-enough encounters; studying the apes' movements, and appreciating the similarities we as humans share with them. There were long-limbed gibbons, odd-looking black & white colobusses, and charming chimpanzees (unfortunately one of the zoo's main attractions, the gorilla enclosure, was closed for the day). To see how human-like these animals are was a little unnerving at first, but I felt an unconscious connection to the hungry chimp, sitting there on the grass with his bowl haircut. I know your pain, brother.

On our way out of the African Forest, we caught a lazy leopard relaxing on a log, almost against the other side of the glass screen between us. Chances like that barely come around on an African safari; leopards are notoriously camera-shy. This one was just aloof.

May The Fifth

Cinco De Mayo fell on a Sunday ('5th of May'), which deflated the city-wide carnival atmosphere you'd expect from such an event. But there were still a few places flying the flag, hosting Mexican-themed parties and specials. Our Columbus Crew rolled out to the Short North, in search of cheap margaritas and salsa music.

We found sanctuary at Cazuelas Grill on North High Street, whose outside balcony was a hive of activity. Margaritas were served by the jugful, Corona beers were on ice, and the DJ allowed the music to wander to a more commercial region when revellers needed some variety. But the night was young, and we moved onto a few more establishments. Dancing was traded for hookah bars, Coronas for craft beers, and the Short North still delivered a festive ending to a weekend in the city.

The USA is a large country, and as a tourist, it's unlikely that you'll ever get to visit all 50 of its states - or even want to. Ohio had been one that I wasn't expecting to visit anytime soon - no offence meant, Buckeyes - and only during my Coachella trip did it become a real possibility. But it is friends, family, a conference, or sometimes a one-off event or sightseeing opportunity that will nudge you somewhere unexpected.

My path diverted north instead of south. I took a Greyhound bus all through Kentucky, instead of Arkansas. I crossed the Ohio and Scioto Rivers, instead of the mighty Mississippi. I made & left behind some great new friends, and caught up with an old one. I chose to say hi to Ohio. That is my Buckeye statement.