Arriving at Reno-Tahoe international airport in Reno, I was welcomed by casinos. Nevada is one of two states in the U.S. (the other being Louisiana) where casino-style gambling is legal statewide. It was a surprise that even the airport had gambling machines.
Our 15-minute drive to our hotel from the airport exposed us to many more casinos and when we arrived at the hotel, there were even more gambling machines.
During a brief tour of the casinos, I observed young and old people glued to the gambling machines. I was one of 18 journalists from different African countries on an exchange programme for media professionals, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.
And, while driving to one of our lectures, we saw a young lady walking bare feet in the cold weather, drunk in the early hours of the morning.
Reno, with a population of 425,000, reminded me of Windhoek, the mountainous scenery but also its general quietness. The casinos reminded me of Katutura on a typical end of the month day, where it’s easy to spot all sorts of people intoxicated and care-free.
Dubbed ‘The biggest little city in the world’, Reno exposed me to a different America from the one portrayed in the media where everything seems perfect.
There I met people with similar struggles to those we face here. People who were not afraid to talk about their gambling addictions, and homeless people sleeping in parks and begging for money to survive.
“We (Reno, Nevada) had the lowest number of people with a low college education,” admitted Carina Black, the Executive Director of the Northern Nevada International Center.
She explained that Nevada at one point had the highest teenage pregnancy in the country, and the lack of housing spurred the effort to develop Reno and ultimately turn it into an attractive tourist destination.
That is when the reality hit me that beyond Chicago’s bold architecture, museums, and Washington D.C.’s Federal Government’s three branches, namely the Capitol, White House and Supreme Court and its monuments, life beyond the big cities is not as portrayed in the media.
I also discovered Americans are generally friendly people and they would assist you depending on the approach you use.
“If you approach them like a beggar, they will just ignore you,” one of our liaisons explained.
This brings to mind an experience I had in North Carolina state. After walking for over 30 minutes, looking for the nearest Bank of America financial center in Chapel Hill, I finally walked into one, at about 13h40 –exactly twenty minutes before my next meeting.
In a state of panic, for fear that the funds on my Bank of America credit card may have been depleted, I asked a female teller to explain why my funds could not be processed each time I tried to withdraw or pay for an item using the card, even though I only used it twice prior to this problem.
She could not give me answers but advised that I call the number on the card. “I tried that before I came here and I didn’t succeed, that’s why I came to the bank,” I explained. She then referred me to another colleague who decided to call on my behalf but to no avail. Even more in a state of panic, I walked out of the bank, exactly five minutes before my next meeting, knowing that Americans are time-conscious and find it rude if you are late.
With no public transport in sight, I knew I would not make it in time for my next meeting or I would miss it totally, because it would take me at least thirty minutes to get to Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, where the meeting was to take place.
After several failed hitch-hike attempts, I boldly walked to a man who had just walked out of a restaurant not far from the bank.
“Excuse me, sir. My name is Alvine. Could you please give me a lift to Franklin Street, I have a meeting at exactly 14h00,” I said.
Perplexed, the man looked at me and for a few seconds did not utter a word.
And then, he replied, “No, I’m going in the opposite direction. I’m sorry, I cannot help you.” I insisted: “I’m not familiar with this place and my meeting is in less than five minutes.”
Hesitantly he responded: “Okay, wait let me clear the seat for you.” And so, I jumped in the car and he immediately introduced himself as Thomas.
Thomas’ car was not the tidiest of cars, with books and trash all over. Just before we drove, I saw a lizard on the bonnet. I giggled and he asked where I am from and what I was doing in the U.S.
“My father’s caretaker is from Zimbabwe and you remind me of him,” he said. Before I knew it our conversation changed from life expectancy in the U.S. to the general state of living. In the middle of our conversation, I saw my fellow journalists and our liaisons walking towards the venue of our meeting, a few blocks from Franklin Street.
They burst into laughter the moment they saw me getting out of Thomas’ car, because nobody knew where I was and they had proceeded to the venue hoping I would make it without getting lost.
“They say never judge a book by its cover. How did you manage to get yourself an American boyfriend that fast?” remarked Nigel, a participant from Zimbabwe. I laughed it off and just responded, “His father’s caretaker is from Zimbabwe.”