USA to Mexico

Photos available here

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When we set out to travel overland from New York to Rio, I definitely worried about some things – drug cartels in Mexico, right-wing extremists in Colombia, Dengue and Malaria in the Amazon…

Maybe all that will still happen, but what I realize now that that list was incomplete without two simple words: Amtrak and Greyhound.

The United States public transportation system sucks.  It really sucks.  It really really sucks.  I also think it’s probably racist and elitist, but that’s a whole other rant, and it’s possible I’m still too bitter about the experience over the past month to be unbiased.

Example:  Our train was 4 hours late arriving in DC from New York – a city 4 hours away!

One of our Greyhound drivers backed into a 20-story building (It jumped right in front of me, officer!).

I could go on and on…  This country has a lot to learn in terms of mass transit – not a good sign if we think of all that peak oil and climate change have coming down the pipeline for us.  Six dollar a gallon gas is going to be rough in a country that can’t keep to a simple bus timetable.  And yet how can we give up our cars if the only long-distance alternative is a type of medieval torture?

Which is not to belabor the point, but it’s just strange from a country which regularly calls itself the “richest nation in the world.”  If we’re so rich, then why are we incapable of selling bus tickets that correspond to actual seats so that boarding isn’t a mad rush like the Running of the Bulls?  Tanzania can manage that, why can’t we?

But I digress.

We left DC on Amtrak, destination New Orleans.  Once we finally got going it was actually a nice enough trip, very quiet and relaxed and comfortable.  If you have the time, I highly recommend it.  If you have the time.

Along the way, we passed through areas of Alabama that had just been hit by a tornado.  It was dusk, and the train was full, and must have tilted over to one side for a stretch because everyone was leaning and gawking out the left windows – for about five minutes we passed a town that simply didn’t exist anymore.  As far as the eye could see, there was just rubble and flattened houses and crumpled stores and toppled trees.

A fitting entrance to New Orleans.

Any book about climate change will include a bit about New Orleans, and so setting out to learn about people trying to fight climate change, and having read our fair share of books about climate change lately, we were curious to see what the city had in store.  Six years ago a lot of it looked like that town in Alabama – but today?

It’s hard to say as a tourist.  We didn’t have the sense of traveling in a war zone, but there were still a surprising number of shuttered and blown-out buildings, even right in the heart of downtown – but maybe that’s more a sign of the mortgage crisis than anything else?

We arrived at just about the same time as the Mississippi flood that had so damaged Memphis, and our last night in town we met up with some friends along its swollen banks where a line of police tape kept the crowds back.  The Army Corps of Engineers had let out most of the water by then to protect the city they didn’t protect six years ago, and if our friends hadn’t told us this was the big flood, we might not even have noticed.

But still, that’s the thing about New Orleans now, it puts hurricanes in your mind, you can’t help but think about Katrina when you’re there.  We did realize quite soon that the French Quarter wasn’t for us (picture Bruges, but run by Larry Flynt), which freed us up for the real highlight: the coffee shops.  They have some great coffee shops in that town, at least one of which even claims to have fresh H&H bagels.  Who knows, maybe so?

Still, it was all very familiar in the end for me.  Even if New Orleans is like no other place in the US, it’s still a place in the US, and after sixteen months in Africa I just didn’t really feel like we were traveling anymore, it was all like being home. Everyone speaks my language, everyone has the same cultural references.  Which is not to say that we didn’t make our usual share of faux pas – including Anna eliciting peals of laughter from a crowd of Texans when she asked if we could “walk to the grocery store” from where we were.

“Honey, this is Texas, I drive to get my mail,” was one response.  Amen!

Though actually, if anything, on the environmental front, it was a mixed month.  On the up-side, we met some amazing organizations that are doing some really great things, even in the heart of oil country.  There were the folks at Transition Houston, who were unbelievably kind and welcoming as we learned how to film and interview for the first time.  They are working to make Houston, the capital of the global oil industry, where people drive to get their mail, a resilient, sustainable, oil-free community.  Yikes!

Then there was Lester from Food, Shelter, Water, who took time off work to drive us out to his land and show us around his self-sufficient homestead in the heart of Austin.  He has spent $100,000 of his own money in legal fees just to have the right to live off the grid where he does.

And finally, the whole gang at Houston Access to Urban Sustainability (HAUS), who were an avalanche of kindness, and to whom we owe a huge debt.  They are running the first green housing co-op in all of Houston (the 4th largest city in the US), and are doing it with such energy and joy that you know they will be successful.  And hey, who cares if you drive to get your mail when your car runs on vegetable oil recovered from the Chinese take-out place down the block?

We’ll have more on all of those organizations in the coming weeks as we put together and post our first videos.

And really, we could go on and on listing all the people we have met over the past month who became good friends – Anna even declared Texas, “America’s best kept secret.”

I hesitate though.  I was in the middle of listing the up-sides on the environmental front, and some of those wonderful people have nothing to do with the environment, a fair number of them work for oil companies actually, and plenty of others just aren’t interested in things like climate change.

In the end though, it’s the fact that all those people who wouldn’t call themselves environmentalists were so wonderful that made us feel good about things.  We realized at some point, no doubt while laughing, that once this movement gets some momentum behind it, and once people decide that it’s really time to change, and that we’re all environmentalists, it will be an avalanche.  An avalanche of wonderful people – who can stop that?

And so now I hesitate again.  My little outline would have me list the downsides on the environmental front here, the droughts and the forest fires and the rainy season gone missing, and…

But I’m not going to.  Not this time.  Maybe next time.  Y’all know all that, you don’t need me to tell you.

Oh, and just one last thing.

We’re in Mexico now, where the bus system is fantastic!

More on that in a month.  In the meantime, enjoy the new video, don’t hesitate to pass it around, and check back in two weeks for our first full-on video update: Transition Houston.

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