Storm damage (left) and what we think caused it (right)
During our six-month tour, our main method of travel is a white Ford Transit – think the Popemobile without the glassed-in standing box. Affectionately known as the ‘S.O.U.L. Train’ (a name which never fails to spur giggling fits from anyone born between 1955 and 1991), it would in fact be more comfortable if we were able to travel in it a la His Holiness, standing up and waving to the over-70s in their RVs with Quebec license plates as we pass them, instead of the conventional sitting down position undertaken by most travellers. As it stands (pardon the pun), getting in and out of the van, and in fact even moving about once in, involves a Cirque du Soleil-esque contortionist sequence, dodging pillows, laptops, and gigantic Red Bull cans. Making the experience all the more difficult is the absolute silence and poignance required to ensure anyone who can push through the pain and stiffness enough to actually sleep is not disturbed, and the single-minded concentration that is needed to ensure the gas you’ve been holding in for the past two and a half hours doesn’t escape prematurely. You may scoff at this, but with all the processed, fattening American food we are eating, flatulence is a real issue, and the last thing we need is to turn our five cubic metre space into a Dutch Oven.
It may seem from my opening remarks that we really despise the S.O.U.L. Train, but this actually couldn’t be further from the truth. We love the thing. When you’re staying in a different place on average every three nights, with your suitcase, laptop, and fellow singers the only other constants in your life, it becomes something of a refuge, a place where you can actually feel some sort of familiarity. Plus, there’s no better team building exercise than sitting squashed in a van for five hours or more, a Canadian sprawled all over you, with a Colombian fro managing to touch every sensitive part of your face with just five strands of hair. It is also the focal point of some of the most exciting experiences we’ve had for the past couple of months: the weather. Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I am certain that our innocuous-looking Ford Transit is in fact a magnet for torrential rain, thunderstorms, and tornadoes. It all started on the last weekend in February, when we decided to drive from New Orleans to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to visit friends we had made a few weeks earlier. It was somewhat overcast as we began to head out of the city, but as soon as we drew away from the city, the heavens opened like you could never imagine. While we were on a bridge. With roadworks. Over what seemed like an ocean-sized lake. Kayla, the pocket-sized Canadian, was at the helm, and despite her protestations that she kept calm, her hands had to be wrenched off the wheel at the end of the trip, and for most of the two hour journey, she didn’t blink or speak, save for muttering expletives under her breath (or at full volume every time a truck passed). However, we made it safely to Hattiesburg, and were happy that we had weathered what would, of course, be the worst storm we would experience for the remainder of the trip. How wrong we were.
Although we weren’t to have another onset of bad weather for about a month after our New Orleans/Hattiesburg experience, when it returned, it came back with a vengeance. And it still hasn’t left. It all started during our week in Clermont, Florida, just near Disney World. One morning, we emerged from our houses to dark skies. No real worry. Then, at about lunchtime, the tornado ‘watch’ was announced – meaning there would be wind and rain, and that a tornado could develop, but it wasn’t likely. The watch, however, was quickly upgraded to a ‘warning’, the legal definition of which is ‘Storm’s a’comin’, Uncle Henry’. Hatches were battened down, windows were moved away from, and an initially sedate performance for a group of third graders became a sea of kids screaming, crying, and burrowing under desks as though the Second Cold War had just begun. The storm ultimately passed without event, however it was the first tornado warning the area had had in more than a decade. Our hosts joked that we had brought the weather with us. We laughed politely, secretly telling them to learn some better jokes. The next day the storms were back, this time whist we were enjoying the Epcot Centre at Disney World. We noticed the sky darkening and the wind picking up, but this to us just meant no queues of fair-weather Floridians, and thus more rides and attractions. What we didn’t realise was that whilst we were marveling at the Sound, Sight, and Smell Science Railway, a twister passed through the park, rendering it more or less empty. We had a blast in the eerily quiet park, and for a few days, tornadoes were our friend. Amazing how quickly a friend can become an enemy though, as after two more tornado warnings in less than a week, one of which part of a system containing tennis-ball sized hail which resulted in our dear van’s windscreen shattering, not to mention a dint-riddled bonnet (the ‘hood’ to any Americans reading this). Now it was at the point where we were fairly paranoid that we (or at least the van) were the cause of the poor weather, although given none of us had ever seen anything bigger than the willy-willys that float around country Victoria now and again, there was some slight excitement that we might see a real life tornado.
The height of our stormy chapter came at the end of April, in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. Set in rolling, forested hills in the ‘Upland South’, these leafy, picturesque, and surprisingly cosmopolitan cities are some of the USA’s best-kept secrets. They had also, up until our arrival, not had serious tornadoes since the late 1970s. Enter S.O.U.L. 2011 and their trusty weather magnet. Within 24 hours of our arrival, 29 tornadoes of varying strength and destruction had ripped through the region, causing the deaths of an estimated 24 people, including the tragic deaths of three young brothers trapped in a caravan. Closer to home, the damage was mercifully only material, with one of our host homes having two trees crash through its roof whist its occupants were out. Driving through the area later that evening, it was eerie to see so many traffic lights out, trees felled, and power lines strewn across the road – vibrant Raleigh had become a war zone in the space of hours. It really is indescribable. Still, it didn’t stop the locals from hitting the spots that hadn’t been damaged, and given that Sergio was without power, we thought we might join them for a few hours. Arriving at a sushi restaurant/bar as a starting point, Sergio’s unmissable hair immediately became an asset – as he was walking out of the loo, he was approached by a gentleman who had quite obviously been indulging for quite a while. As the conversation became more animated, we thought we had best saunter over to inspect the hubbub. Saunter we did, and what we found was that our inebriated friend had taken a shine to the fro, and wished for us to join his entourage – he would pay all our expenses at every place we went to. Calculating the risks versus reward, we came to the conclusion that our trusty van was about twenty steps away, and we had an Iraq veteran as a manager – why not test it out. We could always cut and run. It turned out to be the best decision of the night – it turned out the bloke had be ‘recruiting’ all night, and had eight previous strangers with him – all of us laughing and sharing stories within ten minutes. He did indeed pick up the tab – although for two underagers, the most entertainment we could derive from that was to watch the others slamming down beer, followed by mixers and jager bombs whist politely sipping Coke. Still, it was a wonderful night, and having been treated by celebrities by people who weren’t still at elementary school, we went home feeling smugly happy. At least our stormy experiences ultimately reaped some entertaining and unexpected results.
I thought I would finish off by mentioning the Royal Wedding – the other topic of choice of the media before the bin Laden firestorm (and I’m not touching that one with a 10 metre cattle-prodder). The coverage of the two actually got to such a saturation point that on CNN last weekend, the Saturday anchor switched from one to the other with this segue:
‘Speaking of tornadoes, a whirlwind of romance erupted in London earlier this morning…’
You get the picture – insensitive and unimaginative. Mass media at its most typical. Irrespective of the terrible linkage of the two events, the American obsession over the nuptials of Wills and Kate still amazes me. For a country so fiercely proud of their independence, these guys sure love a royal party, even if it is just to gawk at the get-ups of the bride, groom, and guests. One woman with whom I dicussed the wedding was extremely eloquent in her descriptions of the many images we were bombarded with here: Kate’s dress (and the bride herself): ‘How pretty! In an English sort of way’. On the hats worn by most women in attendance (save for that naughty Samantha Cameron): ‘Oh! How British!’ On the ceremony itself: ‘So Anglican!’ And on it went – I got the feeling she was the kind of woman who gives a white room a beige feature wall so she can have some contrast. Whilst I was not personally swept up in wedding fever, it did give me some great fodder for our presentations: I was able to rib audiences about their excitement over a wedding of two people who are, in reality, insignificant to Americans. To counter this, I usually suggest, why doesn’t the USA reconsider becoming a Commonwealth Realm? Big mistake. I am generally met with scowls, frantic head-shaking, and the occasional boo. As a result of these adverse reactions, I have come up with a far better solution. Why doesn’t William run for US President? I have no doubt a British Royal running for US President would go down extremely well – just ask Donald Trump.