Saturday, August 18, 2012

"Good Mornin' America, How Are You?"

I had an enlightening experience in June. I was in the Baltimore/Washington, D. C. area, getting ready to head home to Yucatán with a three-day stopover in Florida on the way south, when I was told that for medical reasons I should not fly. My head was so congested and ears so plugged up that I could barely hear. The abrupt changes in pressure during plane travel would cause pain and possible damage to my hearing. I would be able to fly soon, but not in time to catch my return flight to Florida. I needed to give my medication time to clear things up.

Penn Station, Baltimore
After checking into options, I decided to take Amtrak's Silver Meteor train back to Florida, which would give my ears a few extra days to recuperate before my scheduled onward flight to Mexico.

Unexpectedly, I really enjoyed the trip.

The interesting part is that I haven't enjoyed traveling in the U.S. much in years, but generally have a good time doing so in Mexico. Sitting on the train for about 22 hours gave me plenty of time to reflect on this.

In the early afternoon I left Baltimore's old Penn Station on a local train for Washington, where I spent a few pleasant hours with my cousin Kim, who lives there. At 7:30PM the Meteor pulled out of Union Station headed for Miami, with perhaps fifteen stops along the way.

The train originates in New York. I boarded in the District of Columbia with backpack- and camera-toting tourists, families, dignified old ladies in big hats -- a diverse and cosmopolitan mix of people.

I was prepared for an endurance contest and at first my worst fears were confirmed: as a last-minute passenger I'd been reserved an aisle seat, and that was my only choice. The train was full. So much for slouching against the window and getting a few hours of decent sleep.

And my seat-mate did not make things easier. He was a young guy who, I realized after a few minutes, has some health and possibly developmental challenges. He spilled drinks on himself three times in the first couple of hours, and each event involved me getting up and standing while he pulled his huge bag out of the overhead bin, propped it up on the (my) aisle seat, and looked carefully and at length through what seemed to be all his worldly possessions for a change of clothes.

And that was just the start. The details aren't important here but I'll report that my dreams of a good sleep were not fulfilled. And through it all the guy was so very likable, apologetic and polite that it was impossible to get annoyed with him. So I patiently smiled a lot, and realized that most of the other nearby passengers, witnesses to our little dramas, were doing the same.

That's pretty much the way it went. I enjoyed the trip for a couple of reasons.

My fellow travelers and the Amtrak employees I met were nice people. It was a mellow, helpful and friendly bunch. On the train you can get up and move around, go to the cafe car, take a walk. From the windows you see small towns and peer into back yards. You can view forests, lakes and fields of the countryside. You witness happy welcomes and occasional sad goodbyes of passengers at stations along the way.

Train travel is sedate and human-scale. I liked my trip on the Silver Meteor because it shares many of these attributes with bus travel in Mexico, which I happen to enjoy and do frequently. Human contact and a sense of the country is something we miss when we travel by plane and along sterile, homogeneous interstate highway corridors in the United States.

On the train, I learned something about the country. I grew up thinking that reasoned problem-solving, respectful disagreement, civil discourse and willingness to compromise are needed for a society and a democracy like ours to function. I haven't a great deal of recent experience with life in the lower-48 United States, having spent just about all of the past thirty-eight years in Alaska and Mexico. The screaming, hate, name-calling, disinterest in facts, rudeness and raging emotionality I see on current U.S. television, talk shows and web site comments often makes me wonder if I know my country at all at this point in my life.

The people I met and the things I saw on the Silver Meteor weren't like that. I realized that despite extreme challenges and severe problems, The United States of America could be in slightly better shape than I'd thought. And it's greener and more beautiful than I've noticed in a long, long time.

28 comments:

  1. VERY interesting, Marc! I'll have to reflect upon it a bit, before I comment more fully--but great info. (And hope you're feeling better.)

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    1. Thanks, Alinde. The ear problem was short-lived, and my onward flight trouble-free. It was a nice trip all around.

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  2. Lovely. Wish the news programs showed more of the "real USA" and not so much of the fringe.

    Your train trip brings back so many memories of me as a teen getting on a train in Kilgore when I was 14 with my little brother who was 9 and going all the way to Chicago. All the conductors, people in the dining car and ticket takers were always so nice an protective. So were all the people.
    In addition, we saw so much of the heartland of America that way.
    Glad you had an enjoyable train ride!

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    1. Babs, one of the things that impressed me on the trip was that this was a VERY multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-generational, international, diverse group, and everyone was so nice to everyone else, and seemed to really respect and enjoy their fellow passengers. Not the America you expect after getting most of your info on the country from the media. It was a very heartwarming and enjoyable experience.

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  3. Wow, that's just lovely. That last paragraph makes me happy. I do love train travel. We have no passenger trains in Oklahoma now and I miss them. One of the fondest memories of childhood is the event of my father's business trips by train. We'd all dress up (of course) and head to the train station to wave Daddy off. The giant, sleek thing would rumble into the station, hissing and screeching. Then the handsomely uniformed conductor would step down, clank the big metal step on the brick platform, and folks would exit. I don't remember seeing anything like the harried, hair-pulling, frantic, stressed out denizens of modern day airports step off those trains. It is a leisurely and fine way to travel. As usual, you've taken me back. Gracias. And this: "dignified old ladies in big hats" ... that will be me, though probably lacking a full complement of dignity. ;-)

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    1. I love trains, and although I've traveled a lot this way in other parts of the world, I had never taken a longer trip on a train before in the States. And the interesting, friendly folks traveling with me made it much more enjoyable. I am planning future train trips in the US.

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  4. There are lots of Americans who fit the category you describe. Unfortunately, the are not the people who get a good deal of the daily spotlight.

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    1. All the more reason to get out and find ways to meet real people. It happens to me all the time in Mexico, because I use public transportation and walk a lot...which I don't do so much NOB. It's amazing the difference it makes.

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  5. Wonderful tale. I had almost forgotten about how we used to travel by train whenever we could because of its charms. Then fares became expensive (in Canada at least) and life became more rushed. You prompted me to check again and I see there are actually some good deals for places we'd like to go. Thanks!

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    1. This trip did cost more money than the equivalent air fare, but I consider it an experience, not just a getting from place to place. I won't do it all the time, but I will consider the train more often in the future when I have the time...when it's the journey, not the getting there, that's important. For me, it WAS a breath of fresh air in travel. I used to love to travel, but now mostly loathe it. This was different.

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  6. My grandfather, father and many of my cousins worked or work on either the Boston and Maine or the Delaware and Hudson Railroads... so I grew up in a railroading family. One of the perks for my father was a railroad pass for his family. Being a blue collar worker with 6 children this pass was a true luxury that allowed me to go from upstate NY to cousins in Iowa most summers when i was a teenager. I have so many memories of that! When my son went to boarding school in upstate NY I would get him there or bring him home via Amtrak and he loved it! I have traveled all over Europe via train and truly it is a wonderful way to see the countries and meet the people! Thanks for sharing, what a wonderful piece!

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    1. I also have traveled quiet a bit by trains, in Alaska, Europe, Russia and Central America, but this was my first longer trip in the US. It was new for me, and I certainly hope not my last trip of this sort. Thanks for commenting.

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  7. You will find the beauty anywhere you go.
    As long as your heart is open and willingness to experience.

    Glad, You had that experience.

    Well come home!

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    1. How very true. And the best way to find that beauty is to get out in the world and see it for yourself.

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    2. Home is where your heart belong.
      As long as you don't sway by all these chatter.

      It can be found in anywhere you go.

      I really enjoy reading your Blog.

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  8. Mary & I actually prefer the train over flying when we go to NYC. Yes, it takes longer; but it is so much more civilized.

    So-called 'homeland security' has ruined air travel, and done nothing to remove insecurity over our questionable practices around the globe which invite attack. If we truly were champions of democracy everywhere the world would love us. Instead, we prop up dictators to secure our own strategic self-interests, at the peril of our (imagined) liberty and traveler discomfort. If we ever have a Madrid event, metal detectors will lock down our rail travel, too. Wackamole is a loser's game. Loving our neighbors is the only viable approach.

    ~eric.

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    1. I couldn't agree more, Eric. I look forward to talking face-to-face with you soon here in Merida.

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  9. My ski club uses the train to go from Chicago to Winter Park, CO. I've never made the train part of that trip but it is on the bucket list.

    And: Eric's Wackamole comment is as true as it gets...

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    1. Norm, I am sure that the train trip will be worth your while. When you do it, let me know how it goes. Thanks again for being a regular reader and commenter.

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  10. Being a "wish I'd been a Social Psychologist", I find this post especially stimulating. I cannot believe, UNfortunately, that the USA has become more polite since the days I worked for SF MUNI Railway.

    I wonder: Maybe the lovely rhythmic sounds of the train wheels are pacifying? Or maybe people who use trains are more patient, because they're not in such a hurry? Or is train nostalgia relevant?

    Regardless, I'm so glad to hear of such a pleasant trip.

    AND, I learned a new word--"Whackamole"! Being out of the gaming loop handicaps me some, but Google explained it to me. I so agree with Norm and Eric! And maybe it's still not too late to listen to Joan Baez?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3HX1XYY5X7g&list=FLVmCFA9gGUHe6P4YxmCDBQg&index=39&feature=plpp_video

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    1. Well, Alinde, I don't think that people are becoming more polite. I do think that I found a travel method that agrees with me, and is a lot more relaxed and pleasant than air and interstate highways.

      You may have something there -- maybe the people who choose the train are a bit different. Because they are not in such a hurry, perhaps, and like the more sedate pace. They don't do it to save money, that's for sure. The train cost me more. However, I have been looking into Amtrak rail passes, and it would be possible to make a longer, multi-stop trip on Amtrak for a good bit less than the cost of airfares. All one needs is the time, and patience. Those I've got...

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    2. Marc,

      What I found during my experience Dealing with people or the public,
      in and out of working world or traveling in foreign countries,
      My positive outlook on the situation bring me the best in people that I encounter.And I work as public safety person.

      When you know who you are, it reflex, and the bring the positive
      reaction.

      The Key is, how are you looking at the issues that facing you!
      You can always find positive from any kind situation.

      Is your heart pure without the malice?
      Do you like people in general, without the judgement?

      There is many factor...
      What do you see, is it beauty, ugliness?
      It's all up to you.

      Regard.






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  11. A gentle reminder to be open to what we think 'familiar' wasn't it? Delicious paradox.

    I take your advice as I go back to Minnesota in four days to visit relations who, like me, share ancestors I've been learning of these past three years. I go to visit and remember the very people who gave me life, family and a home land. But their resting places speak to an uneasy place in me, a place not really 'home' but transplanted...

    It is this America of transition, of being and new-ness, the thing that held out an immigrant's promise of hope, healing and opportunity -- a chimera I find dimmed as a second- and third-generation American who has now left its shores for Europe.

    I find discordant remains of my German and Swedish heritage speak to my condition more so than my birth country's shaping of language and culture to become its model American. I am slowly, so slowly, forgetting the strains of the "star-spangled banner." -- yet, I remain American by nationality here in Britain.

    I suspect, that not unlike your train trip, I will be surprised in leaving home to find parts of it I cherish on its roads.

    And that is what makes it all worthwhile, isn't it? Thank you, Marc Son of Ole.

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    1. I don't know about you, but being from Alaska meant that I never felt completely at home in the lower 48 states. "Outside" always seemed a little strange to me, so perhaps a transition to another country and culture was easier.

      I do miss some aspects of Alaska a great deal, although I realize that much of what I miss is the Alaska of my childhood, pre-Pipeline Alaska, which no longer exists for the most part. The wildness and wilderness is still there, although you have to go a little farther to find it, and I try to get big doses of that when I visit.

      I think that's the basis of one of the reasons I like the Yucatan. Is some ways it's like a time machine with its quiet villages and wild places. I have more freedom here, and feel extremely comfortable.

      I've got to say, though, that I look forward to my visits north. I am already planning another Amtrak trip.

      I'll be seeing you one of these days in London.

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  12. I have always enjoyed train travel and actually prefer it to flying. Too bad there aren't any more trains servicing Merida. Many years ago, the train station, now the school for performing arts or some such thing, actually had train service to various parts of Mexico. I frequently took the train from Merida to Valladolid for the afternoon! It was designed primarily for tourists with live music as you boarded and arrived, and included a tour via horse-drawn buggy in Valladolid. Price was right and it was a most pleasant trip and I do miss it.

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  13. Ooooppps! That train didn't go to Vallodolid! It went to Izamal. It's been so long, I actually forgot. This getting old is for the birds - the vultures! :-)

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    1. Well, a Yucatecan friend of mine tells stories of going on the train to visit his grandmother in Valladolid when he was a boy. I guess the point is that you used to be able to get around on the train here, just as you used to lots of places where the trains no longer run.

      It's a pity because trains are both pleasurable and can be better for the environment.

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  14. There is still hope, however. I hear the trains running the old tracks, usually early in the morning. There are plans, I believe to revive the trains in Merida, and that's probably why the test trains keep going along. (One also has to drive carefully as well--for occasionally there have been tests being run later in the day, and we can't assume that a train track will be unused.) I wish I knew more about this, but I don't.

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