Letter from America – In Search Of Silver Linings Amid Inflation, Recession Fears

Every year in August I travel to the US to visit my family and this year was no exception. But this time I decided to see more of America than I usually would, jumping on the “revenge travel” bandwagon. In a span of four weeks I visited nine states and 12 cities. Sightseeing aside, I wanted to get a good grasp of consumer spending sentiment and the health of the US economy as recession fears mount.

Los Angeles, California

My month-long journey started from sunny Los Angeles in the West Coast. On arrival there were about 300 people waiting to go through immigration at the airport, but thankfully that was handled quite efficiently.

My first stop was the Getty Villa, which is a reconstruction of the Villa dei Papiri – the vacation home of Julius Caesar's father-in-law – on the Bay of Naples that was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.

The late oil tycoon J. Paul Getty built the Getty Villa in Malibu in the early 1970s, while the Getty Center was an extension to the Villa that opened in 1997. Perched on top of a hill in the Brentwood neigborhood, the Getty Center houses a museum and a research center. While there, we were treated to a lecture on the translation work being done on the Florentine Codex in Nahuatl and Spanish into English.

A trip to LA would not be complete without stopping by the Hollywood Walk of Fame, where tourists are once again flocking to the star-studded sidewalks. I also visited Grauman’s Chinese Theater, where my handprint fit some of the movie stars in the sidewalk!

My last stop in LA was Venice, the home of bodybuilding and where Gold’s Gym started its fitness empire. I managed to get a quick workout in and also made an adorable furry friend!

Las Vegas, Nevada

The next day we headed for Las Vegas. Even though I’m no gambler, “Sin City“ was still a lot of fun with its spectacular shows and the kaleidoscopic Fremont Street in downtown.  

Beside the quintessential day trip to the Grand Canyon, we also visited Hoover Dam, which has been producing electric power for the region since 1936 at an annual rate of 4.2 billion KWH worth US$63 million a year.

Rapid City, South Dakota

Moving further inland, we came to Rapid City, South Dakota to see the awe-inspiring Mount Rushmore National Memorial. A tribute to four former US Presidents, it features the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt carved into a granite mountain, with each face measuring 60 feet tall.

As luck would have it, at the time of our visit the 82nd Sturgis Motorcycle Rally was being held nearby. The world’s largest biker party really revved up the usually tranquil area with over 500,000 riders roaming the mountains on their chromed Harley Davidsons.

To top it off we visited the Crazy Horse Memorial created on another mountain by the late Polish American sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, who had also worked on Mt. Rushmore. After his death, his wife and 10 children have taken on the project dedicated to Chief Crazy Horse, a Sioux warrior who protected the Native American sacred territory by battling and defeating General George Custer at Little Big Horn. The monument has been 71 years in the making but when finished it will dwarf the Mt. Rushmore carvings.

Charlottesville, Virginia

After leaving Rapid City, we arrived in Charlottesville, Virginia to see the iconic home Monticello of Thomas Jefferson, the third US president who had enslaved more than 600 people in his lifetime. On display were details and contemporary cartoons about Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman with whom Jefferson had children.

Williamsburg, Virginia

We then drove to Williamsburg, which took about two hours. We visited the coastal town of Yorktown, where the last major battle of the American War of Independence took place.

Colonial Williamsburg was next on our list. It's a reconstruction of the original colonial town that existed in the early 1700s. Its sprawling 301-acre complex houses several hundred restored or re-created buildings where we were able to witness traditional colonial trades such as wig making, cooking and carpentry, by people dressed in 18th century colonial costumes.

Buffalo, New York

We flew from Long Island to Buffalo on a revolutionary Cirrus Vision Jet from Varijet with a carbon fiber body and a very quiet jet engine. In true fighter jet style, it was equipped with an emergency parachute so if the pilot was out of commission, passengers could pull a lever for a fuselage parachute which would bring the plane to a safe landing. The manufacturer, Minnesota-based Cirrus Aircraft, recently sold the company to China Aviation Industry General Aircraft Company, based in Guangdong Province.

Touring Buffalo where some of my relatives live I could see by the beautiful mansions that it was once one of America’s richest cities. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, the strategic location at the eastern end of Lake Erie and electric power from Niagara Falls all contributed to its wealthy status.

Buffalo’s wealth is further illustrated by the number of houses designed by the famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. We toured his revolutionary prairie style Martin House built in the 1920s for Darwin D. Martin. Martin was head of the Larkin Company, a giant mail order company that eventually bit the dust but whose huge warehouse and office buildings still stand and are being rescued. The Martin House was beautiful on the outside but unfortunately not very impressive on the inside.

Then we found the place where Buffalo Wings originated.

As expected, Niagara Falls was impressive and we all got wet when we went close by boat. One of the boats was named in honor of Nicola Tesla who promoted AC for transport of electric power from the Niagara power plant. After viewing the power plants, we visited the Underground Railroad Heritage Center. Buffalo was a terminus of the Underground Railroad, which was a network of safe houses for African-Americans escaping slavery in the mid-19th century.

The Buffalo visit could not be complete without visiting the family farm with its own wind power source and friendly animals.

New Orleans, Louisiana

Our flight from New York to New Orleans was delayed for six hours and the lounges were packed, a clear indication of travel recovery in the US.

On arrival we headed for the French Quarter in search of Jambalaya, Crawfish Pie and Billy Gumbo. (Remember the song?)

In French Quarter there were lots of bars and people on drugs but in the midst of it there was a great museum. The Historic New Orleans Collection had exhibits about the city as a Spanish and then French colony. There was also a handbook issued by Louis XIV regulating behaviour in the colony and a false street map showing many non-existent houses to help promote immigration from France and John Law’s ill-fated Mississippi Company.

We also stumbled across a large shop on Royal Street that looked like a museum but turned out to be an antiques shop owned by merchant M. S. Rau with an incredible collection including an automatic violin player made in the 1800s by Ludwig Hupfeld.

We then boarded a cruise ship and started going up the Mississippi River.

Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Moving up the Mississippi we came to the place where the French explorer Sieur d’Iberville in 1699 came across a red pole (Baton Rouge in French) used by Indians to designate the division of hunting areas, hence the city’s name. Oil refining is a major industry – there are 14 oil refineries in Louisiana, accounting for nearly one-fifth of the US’s refining capacity, while tourism is also important for the state. Casinos are not allowed on land but I noticed a few large floating casinos on the river connected to the shore by large walkways.

First stop on shore was the Capitol Park Museum. The museum was filled with interesting displays about Louisiana’s history and particularly the musical contributions in Jazz by such greats as Louis Armstrong, as well as the Mardi Gras and even food such as the Cajun (Acadian) and Creole dishes. There was a death mask of Napoleon who sold the Louisiana Territory to the U.S. and pictures of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin whom Lincoln greeted with “So you are the one who created this great war”.

Natchez, Mississipi

Natchez had the most millionaires in the US before the Civil War. The city is the highest point above the Mississippi River between New Orleans and St. Louis so the mansions here would escape the frequent river flooding. But across the river was a flat land rich with silt left by the river floods ideal for the “white gold” cotton that created the wealth for people like those who lived high up in the Rosalie Mansion.

During the Civil War, the Union forces captured the town and took possession of Rosalie Mansion and used it as the Union Army headquarters. At the time, all able bodied men had left to fight for the Confederate army so only women, children and old men remained. In order to save the town, the women decided to apply southern hospitality and charmed the Union general who promised to preserve all precious house furnishings and protect the women and children.

Vicksburg, Mississippi

Vicksburg named after missionary Newitt Vicks is where the Confederate Army was defeated in 1863 giving the Union control of the critical lifeline, the Mississippi River. With Conferderate defeat at Gettysburg about the same time, the South surrendered. We visited the battlefield site with monuments places by all the states participating in the war.

Memphis, Tennessee

Last stop on the Mississippi cruise was Memphis, the largest city on the River. After the Civil War and the end of slavery, the city grew rapidly and became one of the world's largest markets for cotton and lumber. The busy river traffic is a reflection of that.

Memphis is hailed as the birthplace of the blues and rock n' roll with Elvis Presley. B. B. King and Johnny Cash all having recorded at the legendary Sun Studio which we visited. I was surprised by how small it was.

Most tourists would not miss Graceland, Elvis Presley's home and the place where Martin Luther King was shot, but I had seen those on a previous trip so instead we visited the Memphis Pyramid building, aptly named since the city was named after the Egypt city on the Nile. Originally it was built to house a basketball stadium, but the local team refused to use it and it eventually was turned into a sporting goods store, along with a hotel and restaurants. It boasts the tallest free standing elevator going to the top of the pyramid where we enjoyed great views of the city.

Browsing through the store we came to realize from the signs on sale the patriotic and conservative stance of many in Memphis. In addition to all the fishing and camping gear there were also shotguns on sale and magazines featuring handguns that can be hidden!

New York, New York

My last stop on this trip was the Big Apple. The rip-roaring Broadway musical "Music Man" starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster was phenomenal. The entire cast was incredible particularly the young children whose stellar performances could easily upstage their adult co-stars.

In Manhattan I also came across an intriguing experimental museum called "Spyscape". Themed around different aspects of espionage, such as spying and hacking, it aims to help people discover their own superpowers. After a short video "ride" I went through a series of tests linked to my wrist tag, testing the various skills needed for a good spy – perception; memory; puzzle solving; and even creeping through a laser light room.

US already in recession

As I went from coast to coast, I saw that tourism in the US was once again booming. Consumer prices were high, but people were still spending.

Lately I’m often asked whether I believe a US recession is around the corner. The fact is, according to the definition of two successive quarters of GDP decline, the US is already in recession.

The impact of a recession has not been fully felt since consumers have a great deal of cash and therefore are not in despair. As interest rates continue to rise, however, the impact will be more fully felt.  

Although many in the U.S. are fearful of higher interest rates and how it would impact the economy, it’s important to note that the U.S. is not alone. For example we  could say that Europe is more vulnerable right now in view of the dire energy situation as a result of the Ukraine war.

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