During the first half of my trip to the USA, I had seen the northern and southern ends of the sunny West Coast, and received some typical Southern hospitality. The next stop on my journey would see me travel to the north of the country, and to the state of Ohio, 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.

I had another South African friend based with his family in Ohio, and in the weeks prior to my arrival in his state, we had debated meeting up with his older sister in Houston, Texas and road-tripping to Austin & other nearby cities. Closer to the time, we settled on the more-economical Ohio, which suited me fine as I had yet to visit either state. Columbus is Ohio’s state capital, and my friend’s family lived in the small town of Lima, about an hour’s drive from the city. The area is known for farming and agriculture, and the hustle-and-bustle of city life gave way to tranquil, open fields very quickly.

The last time I’d seen my friend was almost two years prior, when he and his girlfriend had visited me in Cape Town, and we could still barely believe that I’d returned the favour. For the five or six days I was there, I slowed things down a notch and enjoyed the everyday activities of a South African-American family. I arrived just before the weekend of Cinco De Mayo, which is Mexico’s independence day. It’s become an unofficial American holiday though, and an excuse to drink tequila & margaritas, eat tacos, and salsa-dance; all of which I thoroughly approved. Thus, he had planned for us to spend the weekend at a university friend of his’ apartment in Columbus itself, where we could do some sightseeing and partying.


Before the weekend of Cinco, the South Africans gave me quite an American experience. For example, on the Friday, I:

a) fired a .22 rifle and shotgun on a farm

b) drove a left-hand-drive car for the first time

c) filled up a car’s tank by myself at a gas station

d) shopped at Walmart

e) enjoyed an all-American barbeque


The first two events were rather interesting and unexpected. Whilst doing some errands around town, we had to pass by my friend’s sister’s house, which is on a small farm. We had barely left the main roads before this pastoral scene appeared before 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 “Do you wanna shoot a gun?”. We went into his brother-in-law’s garage, and peered into the arsenal of rifles, shotguns and ammunition, meticulously collected over the years. My friend had grown up learning how to use them responsibly, which I kept in mind as we stepped out back with the rifle and shotgun in tow.


Firing a .22 rifle on a farm in Lima, Ohio

Firing a .22 rifle on a farm in Lima, Ohio


The last time I’d fired a real gun was on a camping trip back in Grade 7, so I was aware of the inevitable kick, etc, which wasn’t a concern for the .22 rifle. My aim was a little shaky, and I took a few shots to hit the line of empty beer bottles propped up in the distance. The 12-gauge, however, gave me a huge fright when I fired my lone shot. Since we weren’t wearing earplugs, the gun blast discombobulated me in a hilarious fashion (apparently), as I dropped the gun and nervously staggered away like a person who’d seen a ghost. Back in the car, and back to my normal self, I took the opportunity to put myself behind the wheel of the SUV for a very quiet 3-mile stretch of road around the farmlands. Thankfully, almost all cars in the States are automatic transmission, so driving was a breeze and there were no ‘spooky’ moments.

We headed into Columbus on the Saturday to meet up with our host. She stays in an off-campus university-owned apartment complex near to Ohio State University, and for the first time whilst in the USA, I was able to see what a ‘college town’ looks like. Before meeting up with her, my friend and his girlfriend took me the Short North district, which is lined with restaurants, bars, clubs, art galleries, and any store that caters to a predominately student population. Since my alma mater in South Africa (University of Cape Town) is located in a suburban area, I was not used to seeing such a vibrant, student-focused commerical area, and even ‘college towns’ in SA such as Stellenbosch or Grahamstown could learn a thing or two from the Short North. After dinner at a Greek restaurant, we walked the main street on the day of a ‘Gallery Hop’, which occurs on the first Saturday of each month. Over 40 galleries and non-traditional art venues (such as restaurants, boutiques, and salons) showcase art collections and new exhibits, opening their doors till late at night. Out on the streets, you can see saxophonists, singers, improvisational dance troupes and an assortment of performers entertaining the crowds, so I was fortunate to be in town not only for Cinco De Mayo, but also to see the Short North at its most lively and creative.


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


Our sassy host had just run a charity half-marathon, and was nursing a knee injury from the race earlier in the day. Needing some rest and relaxation, we visited an authentic Egyptian hookah lounge called Sahara Cafe to share a hookah and drink some chai tea. The place was dimly lit with fairy lights, and the walls were beautifully adorned with a dazzling array of Middle Eastern patterns. I’m definitely no expert on hookah (or ‘hubbly-bubbly’ as we call it in South Africa, much to the amusement of the Americans in attendance), but I was guaranteed that the blends available were particularly good. Soon it was back to her apartment in University Village, where a few glasses of wine were shared in the kitchen – a perfectly relatable introduction to an overseas student experience.

The next day, our group paid a visit to The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, and without really planning to, I managed to tick off quite a number of animals from my personal ‘must-see’ bucket list. The zoo is massive, and has an esteemed national and international reputation thanks to the efforts of director ‘Jungle Jack’ Hanna. Our host wasn’t up for long walks just yet, so she received the royal treatment as I pushed her in a hired wheelchair (!) around most of the eight world regions which the zoo is divided into. First, we went on the Asia Quest, which included stunning close-up views of an Asian elephant, tigers, lions, and a reticulated python. Photographing animals in captivity is far easier than trying to track a rock star onstage, and I relished the opportunity to patiently capture these creatures on camera. Next was a quick detour through Shores, an indoor aquarium region (FYI: manatees are adorable but ugly) before we came to Voyage to Australia and The Islands, which ended up being one of the more interactive regions. The kangaroo and wombat section was mostly uncaged, with a only a few zookeepers keeping watch, and that implicit trust resulted in a very natural setting for a zoo exhibition. This was taken even further for the lorikeet aviary, where the resplendent birds flew about their habitat, climbing onto your hands and arms, completely comfortable with human interaction. For 50 cents, you could feed the cocky little things nectar, and they weren’t shy to squawk & demand more!



The rest of the Islands and African Forest regions saw some close encounters with a variety of apes, including chimpanzees, gibbons and black & white colobusses. Even though I come from Africa, the only apes I have personally witnessed are vervet monkeys in my childhood gardens growing up, and the occasional baboon. To see how human-like these animals are was a little unnerving at first, but soon gave way to a unconscious connection that is shared by the high-percentage similarity to each other’s DNA. Expectation was building for the gorilla enclosure, but unfortunately, it was too late in the day, and we had to settle for a pose or two with a life-size statue. On our way out of the African Forest, we caught a lazy leopard relaxing on a log, right on the other side of the grass screen. Chances like that barely come around on an African safari, and it was another reason why our afternoon spent traversing the world’s wildlife was a special one.



Even though Cinco De Mayo fell on a Sunday (‘5th of May’), there were still a number of places 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. The night was young, and we moved onto a few more establishments, trading dancing for hookah bars, and generally tried to make the most of a holiday that awkwardly fell on a night not known for big partying. The Short North district delivered, and closed off a fun weekend in the city.

Out of the USA’s 50 states, Ohio had been one that I wasn’t expecting to visit anytime soon, and only during my Coachella trip did it become a real possibility. The USA is such a large country, and you can find eye-opening sightseeing opportunities and warm hospitality wherever you go. But sometimes you get that personal nudge in the right direction, and I’m glad that my route diverted north towards the Buckeye State. Within those borders, I made &  left behind some great new friends, and caught up with two old ones. So when you’re next passing through the north, try stop on your way to say hi to Ohio.



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