Notes from a Bus Ride to Birmingham

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Gadsden, Alabama Greyhound Bus Station

Because I had time, but no personal car, during my trip home, I rode Greyhound to visit my cousin and his wife in Birmingham, Alabama one weekend. Below are notes and questions about this area of the South new to me, typed looking out a big bus window. These are drive-by notes, immediate and not reflective. 

On the Greyhound bus to Birmingham this Friday afternoon. We left Chattanooga around 4 p.m. and have since passed through Trenton, Georgia and Fort Payne, Alabama.

The bus is empty. Just me, a driver inside a plexiglass booth, a woman behind the door, and two other men, one in front of me leaning into the aisle and the other in the farthest seat in the back.

Because the promised WIFI does not exist, I am enjoying looking into cars and trucks as they drive beneath me. A large, round woman passenger holding a small blond dog. A passenger seat filled with rumpled towels. A man in a Bama-red convertible mustang. Lots of single, elderly drivers in shiny, clean American-made cars.

I guess 59 is a small highway through Alabama, just two lanes in each direction cutting between low hills, the tops of pines and maples like green cauliflower.

I just realized that this part of Alabama, and Birmingham, is one hour behind Chattanooga, so the three and a half hour drive is actually four and half hours.

Right now we are mid-way to Birmingham.

We are now driving through Gadsen Alabama, seeing lots of single-story houses, brick buildings, a low jail stretching wide behind a barb wire fence.

There is a Mi Pueblo supermarket, a huge Latino grocery store, now empty in a strip mall next to the also vacant Big Lots store.

The Gadsden Greyhound office is in a small brick building with its metal sign, above the door, turned upside down, as if a gust of wind had come down the highway and flipped the square sign around.  The Greyhound silver dog is on its back in rigor mortis.

We are crossing Coosa River, two men are standing in an unmoving motor boat flipping their fishing poles behind them and casting their lures.

Driving by Shoney’s Restaurant and the Coosa Town Center, this must be the new area of town. Yes, it is. There’s a Panera Bread next to a Dental Office.

Red Bank (Tennessee) use to have a Shoney’s with a huge salad buffet and a prize-like hot fudge sundae made of two dark brownies sandwiching a square of vanilla ice cream with whipped cream and a cherry on top. ¬†It eventually closed down.

If a city can support a Shoney’s for four decades, what does that mean?

We are driving past the Goodyear Plant that looks like a penitentiary.

Driving by the Center of Hope Thrift Store adjacent to Dollar General. Church-related resale shops are everywhere. Do churches open thrift stores instead of publishing cookbooks now?

Driving by a factory.

We entered Glencoe, and passing its elementary school, library, First Baptist Church, Senior Center, all in the span of a few blocks.

Now on the highway.

Passing estates with large fields, many fenced in, one named the South Wind Plantation, seems odd, out of place since they are the kind of houses you would expect more isolated, not with their driveways leading to a four-lane highway.

We apparently entered Alexandria by the signage on all of the buildings.

An Alternative Route

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Tao of Travel, Paul Theroux

Author Paul Theroux identified ten items in his list, The Essential Tao of Travel, beginning with 1. Leave home and ending with 10. Make a friend.

I am following number eight because this trip needs an alternative route, a string to a balloon or a cloud or a seagull that lifts me, even if only my feet drag.
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Where the Rain is Born

Theroux suggested to “8. Read a novel that has no relation to the place you’re in,” and so, as I start a month-long visit to Chattanooga, I start reading¬†Where the Rain is Born, a collection of essays, fiction, poetry and images about Kerala, a region in southern India.
I bought the book in Kerala while staying a few nights in Varkala, a town above the Arabian Sea, and seven years later, I am reading it during my first visit to my hometown in three years.
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Varkala, cliff walk above Arabian Sea

A narrow mud path cliffside links the images of Varkala, Kerala that I remember: Waves crashing below the horizon, the sound one of many languages. Shiny vines over roads. Tasting the coarsely-ground spices in fish curry. Mosques, temples and shrines.  Large families standing and sitting along the shore at sunset. Sleeping in a small room in a white building between the jungle and sea. Women in turquoise saris slicing through feisty and crowded bushes, kids at a pep rally. Brown. Blue. Green.
I am reading to learn more about a place I want to revisit.
I am reading to be inspired by good travel writing.
I am also reading to be reminded of memories other than the ones everywhere now.
Driving to the grocery inevitably involves a resurrection of a high school night or a cousin or a conversation that had been tightly folded and packed away.
I am reading to bring back and ward off spirits of a place.

Travel Memory: Palolem Beach 2010

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Palolem, South Goa, India

When I learned yesterday was Independence Day in India, I thought it’s time to go back.

Near the end of Joseph’s and my trip to India in 2010, we stayed two days at Palolem Beach in South Goa, and we often saw this cow walking through crowds, lying on the beach, standing at a corner.

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Palolem, South Goa, India

Coming from the beach, you entered this street through designated gaps between seafood and curry restaurants where the sand and jungle blended, giving everyone at every place on ocean view.

On this street, there were scooter and cycle repair shops, yoga huts, woven stalls selling paperback books and rainbow fabrics and boxed groceries, barber shops and a juice bar (I think we checked our email there.)

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Palolem, South Goa, India

We stayed at a guesthouse whose owner gave us a downloaded bootleg copy of the Jim Carrey/Ewan McGregor film, I Love You Phillips Morris, when he learned that we were a couple. In the mornings, we ate omelets with other Western tourists at a long table on a balcony, and one morning, a truck with its bed packed with soda bottle crates parked underneath us.

 

Trip to the Mailbox

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After leaving our apartment on Oak Street at 8:00 a.m. and now,¬† ten minutes before noon, when I am sitting in cafe crowded with bikes and laptops in the West End, after driving from Vancouver across the Canadian-United States border to our rented mailbox in Blaine to collect a check from a writing client in Boulder, while my husband is in his office on Slack with teams in Delhi and San Francisco, I am both craving Indian for lunch following a recent conversation with our building’s property manager, a woman from Afghanistan, in which she asked my Mexican-native/Canadian citizen husband for help in finding a flight to Delhi where her nephew from Turkey will visit the Brazilian Embassy to apply for a tourist visa to travel to Brazil, and thinking about the political correctness of a feature on “tribal tourism” in this weekend’s Sydney Morning Herald I found minutes ago stacked near the cafe counter by people, like me, waiting for their names to be called and their espressos to be pulled.

I have been awake for less than six hours and my mind has landed on four continents, my husband’s car searched, my photo ID compared to my present face. I am now next to a woman who speaks English to me and in French on her iphone.¬†I am part of the wave of shoppers lining up Saturday mornings at border crossings, gig workers in Dallas accounting for Hindi holidays and travelers who take terrible coffee over good WiFi any day.

It’s no longer good enough to have a valid passport from at least two countries. You need Nexus. You need to know the conversion rate. You need TSA pre-clearance. You need a bank account with U.S. dollars. Three mailing addresses are not excessive. Next Saturday, let’s cross the border, but be back in time for dinner with Monica and Steph.

I live in an amazing time when travel, around the block or across the globe, inspires, educates and humbles. On the wall behind my home desk, I have pinned a world map, letting me look at Mozambique while Gmail loads. The red lines create countries, the blue lines show rivers, the black text gives names, and it looks easy to push Africa between North and South America and then flip Australia under India.

It’s also easy to become geographically disoriented by picking up your mail. I am not confident in my ability to handle and appreciate, on a daily basis, bucket-list itineraries and globe-trotting conversations and ambiguous social norms without becoming lost, confused about when I am a citizen and when I am a permanent resident and when I am a visitor and when I am home. That I am not confident in, but I am certain that my IDs are ready and visible at the right moment.

 

My Aunt Is A Kiwi

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My aunt Linda arrives in New Zealand today for a two-week trip with a high-school friend.

Linda has always been a role model. She received a Ph.D. in political science from a major research and had a successful 38-year career as a professor at another university. During her tenure, my aunt established the university’s women’s study program; served as department chairman and associate provost; and educated more than 5,000 students.

Linda’s willingness to travel is one of the many things I admire about her. Growing up, I loved hearing about the foods ate and towns visited while in Germany, England, and France. She and her son/my cousin spent a summer vacation driving around Nova Scotia. She was present at the end of East Germany and the reunification of Germany. Linda has gone on an African safari, cruised the Egyptian Nile, and ate paella in Spain.

The photo below is of a mural in the town square of San Jose del Cabo in Mexico where  she and I spent a week together last year.

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According to Linda, she has visited 24 countries and yet never seems to take them for granted. The numerous trips have given her a respectful perspective towards the places visited, applying  her academic research skills to understand the cultures, peoples, and politics of the new places.

I think I understand that. Growing up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, though decades apart, we were motivated to cross borders to experience something new.

When international travel was impossible for me, I was happy to see the United States, feeling more secure in my cross-country adventures knowing Linda had just spent a month across the Atlantic. In college, I chose internships in Atlanta, Washington, DC, Chicago, and New York City. I endured two years in chilly Boston and then drove across the top of this country to the freshness of Seattle where I lived for 16 years. My career there with a regional nonprofit kept my travel tank full by traveling throughout the Northwest.  Now I am living just three hours north in Vancouver, BC, with plans to use this as the base for international travel with my husband.

Linda travels the world and brings the invaluable gift of inspiration back.  We chat on the phone (or all too infrequently in person) about her trips. Her journeys travel through my eyes and ears, up to my brain, down to my heart, and makes my feet move forward. I can’t wait to hear about this trip.