Bruce’s big overseas experience

I travelled to the United States to attend a conference in early March 2020 for two weeks. It was like a rerun of my last overseas trip for pleasure, way back in October 1987. It’s almost surreal, because every time I leave New Zealand, the world goes into chaos! I clearly should never travel internationally if world peace and stability is to have a chance.

It was, however, worth it to watch the American politicians and public’s reaction to Covid-19 in real time and as preparation for what we were in for, back at home in New Zealand.

Our first reaction was “This can’t be real, all of this for a bloody flu virus!?!” Of course, we decided that they were going nuts, the pollies that is. “Let’s create a crisis as a cover for the recession that was coming anyway, so it’s not our fault and then we’ll be able to say, look no one died, I’m a hero – re-elect me because I saved you all from… the flu!” In short first instinct – political manipulation. Never let a good crisis go unexploited or better yet, lets create a crisis so we can then exploit it.

So, this is what happened. We arrived and the next morning, our conference was cancelled.

The first three days in San Francisco were sort of normal, apart from the homeless asking us “You got the bug?” There was hand sanitizer everywhere. I am surprised any American has any skin left on their hands.

They also had craft and farmers markets everywhere, even in the middle of town. Food prices including vegetables are sold by the pound. You don’t buy a lettuce for a price; you pay for it by the pound. For some reason they have more varieties of mushroom than I have ever seen before. Imagine a large produce stall that just sells mushrooms of every conceivable shape size and colour. Food mushrooms I presume, rather than the magic variety, although this is the home of the hippies so who knows! A woman bought four modestly sized mushrooms and seemed happy to pay US$6 for them. She must have been on drugs!

Tess (our receptionist soon to be a nurse) recommended the bread bun chowder at Pier 39. I guess you meant the Foggy Harbour restaurant, where the cod, calamari and shrimp were exceptional!

Interestingly, fact and fantasy merge in the US of A, movies turn real in California, where Bubba Gump shrimp outlets are everywhere. Shrimp, by the way, are prawns.

We then went to San Jose, so we could attend the conference venue and get a photo of the only two morons who turned up to an event that normally has 5,000 at it. The streets of a city of 1.2m people were deserted, it was like a ghost town. We went to the Google campus, but the sign read ‘we are not accepting social calls’. So, after one night in town we picked up a rental car and did a bit of a look around. Imagine driving though Auckland Central with no traffic congestion.

But, six weeks on, you don’t have to imagine it, it’s real… everywhere… and that is what makes this so… unreal.

Fry’s Electronics Store

Kevin McFall, one of my business partners in a group that owns five SaaS businesses, and his wife were our traveling companions. He decided that he needed to buy some electronics in the US, they are cheaper there apparently. We visited a place called Fry’s Electronics – large electronics store combined with whiteware and computers, an enormous shop that was fitted out with a Flintstones look about it. Stone age theme for Silicon Valley electronics… whoever said geeks didn’t have a sense of humour? Imagine a store the size of three Harvey Norman s put together, empty. The guy who was employed to sit out the front checking bags in case we stole anything was doing a cross word. He looked up as if surprised, and waved us through, I asked him how many customers he had had through today, (around midday) he said less than 20 and less than 10% of the usual volume on a quiet day. Also, the shelves were empty, not because they had sold out of everything, but simply because their supply chain was disrupted combined with them moving to a consignment model. This is Silicone valley and they didn’t have a stock system that could identify consignment stock from owned stock. They had to sell out their own inventory before they could restock with consignment stock. This was at the heart of tech innovation! Kevin didn’t get his new mother board.

We got out of town just before the first outbreaks, which then temporarily closed their airport, and we arrived on the coast at Santa Cruz. Shops some open, some closed. Supermarkets and gun shops busy as hell. Beach lovely but as we left, they closed the board walk (a seaside amusement park.)

Then, Monterey. Lovely town, it too was quiet. We visited Cannery Row, a major historical place and attraction, very few people around and the aquarium we visited, as we left, they shut it down for the duration. Some shops were open many were closed, some simply were not opening before 11am. We stayed there for three days. The beaches were amazing, but cold. Apparently, they don’t swim in the summer, but do in the winter when the water is warmer.

Watching American news, it’s 24/7 Corona Virus, it is hysterical hysteria. The accumulating madness made us decide to leave a few days early. We called American Airlines, the waiting time was six hours with no call back option (digital speak for f**k off I guess). In short, the electronic systems were overwhelmed. So we winged it to LAX and got on a flight at no charge in less than five minutes. LAX was empty, we got through customs and border security in less than 20 minutes, and the plane had 60 people on it. All were told they would have to self-isolate on arrival, around 20 got off the flight at the last minute, which delayed the flight.

Arrived at Auckland intentional airport… it was empty at 8.40am, got through security in no time at all, faster than getting to the arrival lounge off a domestic flight. No congestion at the airport either. And I’m now in my 31st day of self-isolation! I do so love having a head start.

Now some titbits of news out to the US, remember, this is the beginning of March until the middle of March.

Like us, the citizens are stockpiling toilet paper, water, canned foods, etc. They think they are in for Armageddon. At Costco, a woman in a restaurant told us the queue to get in formed at 5am for a 10am opening. The store had security guards protecting the toilet paper to enforce the one bag per customer rule, presumably armed. Most store security is armed in the US.

They finished their sporting season early and deferred opening of the summer sports, for the duration. Can you imagine the USA surviving without the distraction of baseball, grid iron, ice hockey and basketball? The void on TV is now filled with Corona Virus gymnastics and fretting. None of the uplifting stuff we get like teddy bears, singing, at home stay fit tips, lock down cooking lessons – that is not the USA way.

So while the pollies are fretting and consuming every broadcasting minute, the street is divided between those who think it is worse than they are telling us, and those who think we are being manipulated. One guy we shared a beer with at the Clint Eastward Ranch said the restaurants are empty. He went out with his wife and a retired judge for dinner, they were the only people in the restaurant. The retired judge takes this threat seriously, so she sanitized her hands and face several times during dinner and insisted they do so too. His observation was that women are taking this more seriously than the men, but hey, he was a mechanical engineer who had taught Palestinians on the West Bank in a previous life, so this to his mind, was just an overreaction.

Another interesting fact, 1.2m new concealed gun licenses have been issued in the US in the last two months. So the Americans are stockpiling food and arming themselves, it is what they do.

Then the schools closed but remained open to feed out school lunches and breakfasts (for the moment). What a land of contrasts, armed to the teeth but feed the kids. Let’s isolate but let’s feed the kids. So stupidly ineffective.  

Then the airlines started cancelling flights and Trump closed his borders with Europe.

The US are also setting up Internment centres for non-nationals, so I guess that is why this song came to mind:

We gotta get out of this place, If it’s the last thing we ever do
We gotta get out of this place, ’cause girl, there’s a better life for me and you.

Keep smiling.

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