Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The People Along the Way

This trip would be nowhere near as exciting if I didn’t have a host of travel companions to spice things up. To say they re a motley bunch would be cliched, so I’ll just be cliched. They are a motley bunch. There. I don’t do it that often, so you’ll just have to forgive me.

I say this for the first time, and I’ll say it again a few posts from now. Greyhound has got a bad name. While it is true that the fares are low and the service sometimes less than prompt, in no way is Greyhound the bottom of the barrel transport-wise. For one, the newer buses have free WIFI, electrical outlets for every seat and plush, comfortable seating. For two, they have, friendly, courteous, professional drivers who won’t hesitate to throw miscreants off the bus. Therefore, no miscreants on these buses.

But it goes further than riding with possible miscreants. There is a solidarity to Greyhound passengers that doesn’t seem to exist while riding any other mode of transport. These riders are willing to share their food, drink, smokes, life stories and experiences. Especially the latter they do freely. The rest you have to ask for. Not that anyone has asked me for food in particular, but one young man in Dallas, whose name I failed to record did say he was hungry and that he hadn’t eaten in three days. He stood 6’7” and skinny as a rail, had been kicked out of his religion and lost his chance at a job, all in the same day. Because of the religion issue, his entire family had turned their back on him. Now he is in Dallas, with a destination somewhere in Wisconsin, but no place to go once he gets there. Sad story. I shared some of my food with him.

It was Lacey that first gave me the idea to start recording names for future blog entries. She had a very dramatic life story that included being shot and losing custody of her little boy to her mother. As you recall our bus had broken down in Idaho Falls (see previous entry) and we were stuck for nearly 3 hours. That gave us all plenty of time to mill about and socialize. There was that young man that played banjo at lightning speed, the two young men who regaled us with their comedy routine, some more sedate passengers who just stuck to their books and didn’t say much at all, and one ‘family unit’ – a mom and her two well groomed kids who were only riding as far as Aspen. Mom shepherded her kids protectively, as a mother duck would her ducklings on their first swim.

And then there was Lacey, a long-haired uber-blonde with overdone eyes, a nice figure encased in a pink tube dress that showed off her tattoo collection, and flip-flops to display her pedicure to maximum advantage. Should I profile? Maybe. But it was she that gave me the idea to…

Talk to people! Get their story! No, seriously: bill myself as a writer (no stretch there) and invite them to tell me their story. After all: what else do we have to do over the miles and miles of miles and miles? Of course, if I was going to bill myself as a writer I should probably have some business cards to hand out. And I should create an email address, different from the ones I use for personal correspondence so that my ‘subjects’ and I can stay in touch, right? I should also have a notebook to take notes in, right? I already have some pretty nice pens, one of which I’ve since lost. Such a pity!

I didn’t have any of that ready when we were broken down in Idaho Falls, but I did conceive the idea there, thanks to Lacey who wanted me to write her story. And with the help of my conspirators (who did most of the work), we did come up with a nice business card design that I can simply load onto a thumb drive and take to Kinko’s for a reprint whenever I run out. But when we were stuck between Denver and Aspen, I had no such things, so I ended up jotting my regular email address and my blog address on a piece of paper.

I haven’t heard from Lacey yet. I wonder if she took me seriously, or if, overcome with joy at reuniting with her little boy, she forgot all about telling me her life story. I have not let go of my resolve to write about the people I met along the way though, so without further ado, let me introduce you to some of them.

Terrance shared a table with me at the Denver station. With his braids and his saggy jeans, most people would look at someone like Terrance and profile him as a gangsta. I found him to be anything but possessed of the ‘gangsta mentality’. Informed of current events and quite eloquent in his speech, he opened conversation by asking me what I thought about the Casey Anthony trial that had just ended. From there we talked about travels – his to Japan and mine to China, and our search for knowledge. He watched my bags while I went to the restroom; afterward I accompanied him outside. That is how I nearly missed the bus out of Denver.

Maaike: Pretty and blonde but not in an overdone way. She has a freshness about her only seen in people whose life is about to begin. She sold me the purple-covered composition notebook to record impressions from my trip in. Her brother’s best friend is currently in China, and she thought it was so cool that I was following my dream of travels far and wide. She has dreams of the world shining from her eyes, all while clerking at the local Safeway. Go, Pretty Maaike! Follow your dream and find your happiness!

Rehab Man: he was also on the bus coming back from Denver. A fairly attractive man, but careworn. He did not hesitate to confess that he was freshly out of rehab, after having sung the Ballad of the Booze for over 25 years. Was it part of his therapy to divulge that information to random people or just something he was so proud of that he felt he had to confess it to a total stranger? He never did volunteer his name or where he was headed to from Denver, but wherever he is, I wish him well. Overcoming such a battle is a remarkable feat and I hope he stays clean and sober for the rest of his days.

‘Junkie Shuffle’: This was the only person that truly scared me. Tall, rangy, tanned and handsome even though clad in only a black tank top and kahki shorts. Nevertheless this man could well have been someone’s worst nightmare. I am not outright accusing him of doing drugs even though I did surreptitiously check his arms for track marks. I dubbed him ‘Junkie Shuffle’ because, the whole time he sat next to me, he could not stop squirming.

Mind you, the only means I know anything about the junkie shuffle is from books. Apparently, when a junkie craves his next fix, he scratches his arms, can’t sit still, mutters, lolls his head about, gnaws at his fingers, tugs at his clothing and other such non-socially acceptable behavior. As junkies can also be female, please ascribe feminine pronouns wherever you see ‘he’. This particular affliction is not reserved solely for men.

Back to our ‘shuffler’, though. Immediately after sitting down next to me, he engaged in a few moments of lucid conversation with me while storing his shopping bag, which I found out later contained good, nutritious food like fresh fruit and granola bars. He had been traveling since Florida, he said. He was headed to Aspen for work, he said. Grew up in these parts and knew all about the woods because his Dad was a logger. He was a roofer by trade, he confided. And then, he drifted to sleep and that is when he started twitching and squirming. Now to the left and then to the right with his hips, and then his head would land on my shoulder. At one point he muttered “Pay me back, it has been a year.” And then, he hummed a little tune. Bleary eyed he would rouse himself and remind me to wake him if he got too close. I was already considering the idea of him sharing a seat with me as being too close, but divulging that would not be proper bus etiquette. This sort of thing comes with the territory when riding such conveyances.

‘Junkie Shuffle’ did not stop his squirming until a few miles outside of his destination. Only then did he rouse himself completely. He ate a pear and a granola bar, while telling me the area we were traveling through was rich in mining and logging history. He then got his cell phone out and called someone named Sara to tell her he was nearly home. I was relieved when he took his Jake Gyllenhaal good looks off the bus.

And we’ll take a break too. There are many more people to meet along the way but this entry is long enough, so, as I go on, I’ll introduce you to more of them, OK?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Every place, the same

Ah, there's Ashley Furniture, and there's Kohl's. Look, there's Wendy's and McDonald's, and over here is Ikea. Moving on I see a Best Buy and a Sam's Club, right next to WalMart. Across the street is Conn's. Here's Chili's and there's Starbucks, and over here a Sonic and a Home Depot. Lowe's is further down the street, of course. Walgreen's, Rite Aid, some variation of Krogers' and Tom Thumb - on the West Coast they are Ralph's and Von's respectively. On the East Coast they are Publix and Giant. And let's not forget Denny's and IHOP and the requisite hotels that line the interstate: Motels 6 and 8, Holiday Inn Express and Regular, Microtel, pay by the week motels and La Quinta and Extended Stay America and on and on.

This must mean I'm in... Denver? Dallas? Detroit? St. Petersburg or San Diego? Maybe San Antonio or San Marcos? No, wait! It is Pecos! Or is it Paris?

I've noticed, through all of this traveling, that all of the towns, cities, metropoleis, well... they all have the same stores, facilities and establishments. For the most part they are all arranged in the same groupings and offer the same wares and the same fare. That makes it very safe and comforting to venture far away from home, doesn't it? If your home is, say, in Odessa Texas, you might find relief and familiarity if your entire family has to relocate to Junction City, Kansas.

Believe it or not, I've been experiencing the same thing, in reverse. In China there is Pizza Hut and McDonald's, Dairy Queen and Papa John's, KFC and Starbucks and WalMart. Maybe not so much with WalMart or McDonald's, but with Pizza Hut especially, which did provide me a lot of comfort while living in Wuhan, I do feel a tug of familiarity to my home in China. Even though Pizza Hut is an American eatery, I associate it with my life overseas. Maybe it is because I did not frequent that establishment while living in the States, but I've made it a part of my life and routine in China.

Yes, I do confess: in China I go to Pizza Hut about once every two weeks and enjoy a salad with thousand island dressing and a personal pan pizza, all for 44Yuan. As I understand it, here Pizza Hut does not offer a full menu including entrees and desserts. I don’t know for sure about that; I've not been to Pizza Hut at all since I've been back and the few times I went while I lived here I don't recall having such an extensive menu to select from.

Back to the whole 'every town looks the same' idea. Because that is what I'm saying here. Every town does look the same from a bus window. Oh, sure each city strives to have a distinctive skyline. From a distance Dallas looks nothing like Dover and San Diego looks nothing like San Angelo. Those are differences I can appreciate, and they make this voyage on Greyhound especially interesting, if only for the fact that usually, the Greyhound stations tend to be in the heart of downtown, no matter what size the town.

What makes distinguishing one town from another difficult is sound barrier walls. I understand the use and the sense of sound barrier walls. People who live in the residential areas behind those walls do not want to hear highway noise. I can't blame them. But for a traveler like me, architecture, not establishments make all the difference. For example, you are not likely to see an adobe house in a place where rains falls steadily, but they are abundant in arid areas like Arizona or New Mexico. However, if I can't see the houses behind those retaining walls I have trouble distinguishing which town I might be in. In fact, save for architecture, the towns are starting to look the same.

Am I just travel weary? Or am I on to something?

Leaving Denver on my second extensive bus ride, I ponder this thought. With my newly reconstructed family tearfully left behind I stare out the bus window. My heart is still with them but my eyes rove the cityscape. Denver is a beautiful city, what I can see of it through breaks in the sound barrier walls. Such a pity I can't seem to get a fix on this city for those walls! I can see the Sportsplex and the skyline but when it comes to seeing residential areas and distinctive architecture, that is blocked out.

It seems people want the convenience of the freeway through town, just not in their backyard. Can you blame them?

Alan, our bus driver, makes it easy to distinguish one city from the next. He is the one that piloted the coach I was on into Denver, and now he chauffeurs me back out. It is a good thing, too. He was still in the terminal and recognized me from the week prior. He asked to see my ticket and remarked how lucky I am that we ran into each other, otherwise I would have missed my bus! For some reason I thought I was supposed to prepare to board the bus at 12:15, when in fact it was due to leave at that time. Alan stowed my luggage personally and found me a seat on his bus, even though he had already turned in his passenger counts and was ready to roll. See how serendipity guides my moves?

On Alan’s bus you always know which city you’re rolling into, whether there are walls or not. He is prompt on the mike (each bus has a P.A. system for the driver to make announcements over) and always offers up little anecdotes and tidbits that make each city remarkable and unique. He also does not mind reporting on the status of bus, especially in this case, because the bus was overheating. Negotiating the ups and downs of the Colorado Rockies was proving too much for that coach’s engine. Thanks goes to Alan for how I came to know that we broke down in Idaho Falls, a city known for its mining history.

Usually bus breakdowns are not charitable events. Nor are vehicle breakdowns of any kind, for that matter. Doesn’t it always seem that your tire goes flat at the most inconvenient times and places? And what about your radiator spewing steam or the engine just dying? Our bus decided to be kind and break down in a populated area, where Alan could pull into a shopping center parking lot, right across from the post office and a Museum of Mining History.

And that is where I’ll leave us for now. Alan is fuming because Maintenance is being non-responsive – other than telling him he should park the bus until they can dispatch a truck or another bus. We’ll end up stranded for about 3 hours. It is OK, though: you and I have people to meet… but that will be the next entry.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Excess! Excess, Everywhere!

Ah! With a few moments to myself, I sit and write to you, my dear friends and readers. Believe it or not, amidst all of this visiting, I've missed you! I've missed writing to you.

It has been a lot of fun, languishing with family and friends again. There is nothing like the smile and warm greeting of a loved one, and there is nothing that compares to the feeling of taking someone you hold dear in your arms, whether it is after a long absence or not. Sometimes, like in Dallas, I did not plan for enough time to spend with everyone. More's the pity. Needless to say that, along this journey of mine across our United States, I have wept for the sheer beauty of our Land, as well as from joyous reunions, sad departures, missed opportunities (or slim chances) and from exhaustion.

It is exhausting, all of this traveling. Seemingly interminable bus rides, sharing a seat with some truly strange people, or, conversely, truly interesting people. It is also exhausting, seeing loved ones again and regaling them with tales of my life in China, and hearing of their doings and... just being around people 24/7. Believe me: I wouldn't miss it for the world but, for this painfully introverted girl, this venture has proven to be a grueling marathon. One that I wouldn't have missed for... well, for all the tea in China.

Back to visiting with loved ones, though. That is the best part of this summer's adventures.

After a mere 24 hours in the company of my dear Darrell, I rode the grey dog for the first time this summer, on my way to Denver to visit with my little known brother and sister. We grew up in different households and only met maybe 4 times in our life. High time for a meeting, don't you think?

However, I think I'd like for my personal ventures with family and friends to remain personal. Suffice to say that visiting Anita's beautiful home and meeting her family for the first time, and visiting with Woody and Liz in the home that they are refurbishing together went very well and was very productive. Every family has skeletons in the closet and ghosts and hurt feelings and misunderstandings that must be discussed and overcome. That part went very well, and from there we moved on to enjoy each other's company and doing a little sightseeing. In fact, visiting with everyone has just been great, thrilling, joyous... insert whatever positive descriptive you'd like. That's what it has been like, visiting with everyone.

It was at Anita's lovely home that I was reminded of excess as a lifestyle. Please do not think that my sister's home is replete with useless gadgets, and I'm certainly not crowning her the Queen of Detritus. She has a beautiful home, well worth photographing and a pleasure to stay at. Just keep in mind where I've spent the last 10 months: in China, where one only buys enough food for a day's meals, or maybe two days. Where one only has enough dishes for maybe 4 or 6 people to eat from at a time. Where there is only space enough for each person to have a little room, not for each person in the household to have an entire suite of rooms for themselves, including their own bathroom.

While at Anita's, I couldn't help but open each kitchen cabinet in succession and marvel at how full they are. An entire cabinet dedicated to glasses and another to dishes! And then there was a cabinet that contained nothing but spices and a drawer full of eating implements! Over here there was another drawer exclusively for wrapping products: baggies of various sizes, foils, cling film. And the refrigerator! It seemed like an entire grocer's cold food section AND produce section was ensconced in one cold-storage cabinet for one household! Why, there was even an entire closet - the pantry, given to the storage of food! It had been so long since I had seen such a wealth of gadgets, tools, food and implements in one place, I could have believed I was in a store instead of a private home.

Again, please be advised: I am not criticizing Anita or anyone else who has full kitchen cabinets and a well stocked larder. It is just that, after going to the farmer's market every few days for my produce, to the baker's for my daily bread, to the supermarket for my weekly needs and making do with 4 bowls, 4 'plates', 6 glasses and 6 tea cups, one wok and one pot, finding such a wealth of goods in one place, for one family, astounded me.

Once you see something, you cannot unsee it. I had been reacquainted with excess while in Anita's lovely home, and now, back on the bus, I saw it everywhere. Large vehicles transporting only one person, huge houses - McMansions - where, presumably, only one family lived - and not large families of 20 or more members, either. Wide streets that semis could easily navigate. Wide open spaces and large properties, either already owned or up for sale.

I recalled my own kitchen, from when I lived in the States. The daily china and the fancy china, two sets of silverware - one for everyday use and one for special occasions, enough glassware to serve a small army, and entire cabinets containing nothing but food. The large stove with 4 burners and an oven capacious enough to roast a 20-pound turkey, twin sinks where I could wash everything my kitchen contained at once if needed, and the gadgets: a dishwashing machine, a garbage disposal, a bread maker and a food processor and a countertop toaster oven and a microwave oven and a coffee maker and a butcher block full of knives, one for every cutting need and... the list goes on and on.

No wonder the people in China, when they see America in the movies, believe that everyone has untold riches and each home is a palace!

Compared to the meager kitchen I labor in nowadays, and the minimalist lifestyle I live now, beholding such excess was veritably shocking to me. And, it seems, the bare minimum I live with now seems shocking to everyone here. Face it: my entire linen collection occupies a small shelf in the bathroom. It consists of two towels and ten washrags. The one set of bed linens I have is already on the bed. I do have two extra blankets and a quilt. They are in the closet awaiting winter.

These last few weeks I have witnessed people using a whole paper towel to wipe down a countertop and then simply throw it away. Or they use it as a napkin and then dispose of it, barely soiled. The first time I witnessed that, I nearly gasped out loud! I grant you that, whether in China or America, a kitchen with no paper towels seems hardly a kitchen at all and, since I've been here I find myself using entire paper towels only once and then throwing them away, whereas in China I will use only a bit of the paper towel and save it for future use. Does this mean I could get used to excess again, if I lived here?

I think not. I keep running around my daughter's house, turning off lights. She goes behind me,throwing away my 'saved' paper towels. Even though I have replenished my wardrobe for my next year overseas, I still only alternate between the three outfits I brought for my trip. I'd sooner walk to the store and carry my purchases back than load up the truck, drive across the street to Walmart and then drive home. It just seems horribly wasteful to do so. I am already calculating what I can travel without the next major trip I plan, in order to travel even lighter than I am now. HINT: I can live without the laptop, but not without reading material. In spite of having rested in several homes that come equipped with streaming entertainment systems, I am still intimidated by just the remote controls. What do all of those buttons do?

I'm afraid I might accidentally push the button that will eject me from the household as a relic, an antique, someone who doesn't understand the American way of life. Who knows? I've been gone for so long and have gotten used to so little. There might be a gadget for that... you know... to get rid of guests unfamiliar with this way of life and all?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Now Vagabonding in Earnest!

Well, my dear Readers, as you've probably guessed or have been apprised of, I am now vagabonding in earnest. Going from state to state on a greyhound bus, visiting loved one after loved one, collecting all manner of impressions and all sorts of neat things to write about...

The only downside to vagabonding in earnest is that I can either experience vagabonding, or write about it. I would definitely not be so curmudgeonly as to visit with a loved one and tell them "I've got to take a break from the limited time I have to spend with you so I can write about it. Oh, and by the way: may I borrow your computer, please?"

So here's the way things are going now: I am writing my impressions, topics I want to share with you in a notebook as the bus races down the highway to my next destination. When I get a little bit of downtime - like now, I will post a note to let you know I'm thinking about you and haven't forgotten about you.

How could I? For the most part, it is you I'm visiting with. Except for the parting of ways at the end of the visit and the tears that inevitably fall , everything is going very well and we are all having a great time.

And now, the adventure continues... Stay tuned!

Monday, August 1, 2011

24 hours in Oceanside

After sweeping my dear Darrell off his feet, twirling him around and holding on to him as though I would never let go, I finally persuaded my arms to release him, and then had to wait until he was ready to let me go. A year is a long time to not see someone you love, you know? After that, we stumbled over each other to talk: we both had so much catching up to do!

I couldn't believe I was only going to be in Oceanside, and in my son's company for one day! The original plan called for one week here before pushing on to Denver but he could not arrange his schedule to take any time off so I decided to head out to Denver and then come back to California, when Darrell would have more time for a good visit.

Unfortunately the elongated ritual of clearing customs meant that I missed the 6PM Denver-bound bus. Fortunately that meant that I got to spend my first 24 hours in America with Darrell and I couldn't imagine a better candidate to dedicate my first 24 hours stateside to.

Bear in mind that, in spite of the comfortable flight and the minimal sleep I did get aboard the plane I was still jet-lagged and flagging fast. Stopping for some food on the way to Oceanside helped somewhat and, of course the conversation and the excitement of actually being within touching distance of my son went a long way toward making me forget my personal discomfort. Nevertheless, exhaustion did overcome me and within an hour of reaching Oceanside, located approximately 2 hours south of L. A., I was sound asleep on the couch.

I didn't even hear Darrell, and later Samantha, his lovely girlfriend putter around in preparation for their day at work the next morning. I woke up totally refreshed at 9AM and was immediately besieged by my furry granddaughter, Zeva as she bestowed kiss after wet puppy kiss on me.

Much as I would have liked to play with Zeva all day while waiting for Darrell to come home I had things to do. First order of business: shower the travel dirt off and then walk down Vista Way to the nearest shopping center for some essential things, like hair dye and yogurt.

Yes, I considered hair dye an essential. After being Uber Blond for 10 months I considered it of utmost importance to color my hair properly at the first opportunity. And this was the first opportunity. To tell the truth, I wasn't about to parade around the United States with that hair a minute longer than I had to.

Walking is not a big deal to me; I walk everywhere in Wuhan. Apparently it is a big deal to Californians. I had the sidewalk to myself as I first left the attractive apartment complex my son lives in and then down the main road. Matter of fact, it didn't register the day before but, now that I think about it I saw very few pedestrians either in L.A. or in Oceanside. I'll write more about that later. Right now someone is honking their horn. I turn to see who it is and...

Behold Darrell! Done with work for the day, he was headed home at the fastest clip possible to see his beloved Mama, only to find her walking along Vista Way. He pulled up in the parking lot whose entrance I was currently traversing and, with a huge grin threw open the passenger door for me and drove me to the shopping center.

But not before we had a good laugh.

As it turns out the parking lot whose entrance I was crossing when he pulled up was Hooter's. And, just as I jumped into the car, a police cruiser went by, slowing to a crawl as the officer watched me get into the car. Darrell playfully exclaimed "But Officer, she's my mother! NOT a Hooter's Girl! I'm honestly NOT soliciting!" The idea that I could get busted for prostitution just by accepting a ride from my son, and that he could get arrested for solicitation, all within 24 hours of my touching down on American soil... we both convulsed with laughter.

The rest of the afternoon went by much too fast. Twenty minutes for the hair dye, during which I also cooked some oriental style noodles for Darrell. A bit of visiting and a bit of playing with Zeva and that is all we had time for before I had to head back to L.A. to catch the bus for Denver.

While in L.A. I still had to hit up the bank for my travel cash and arrange for phone service. Metro PCS served up a brand new phone and a month's service for a grand total of $53. The ATM outside HSBC filled the need for cash and then it was off to the bus depot. On the way there we discovered the Fashion District and decided to spend a day there when I got back. It promised to be an interesting stroll.

Stroll? Still not much in the way of pedestrians, even in L.A. I was used to people everywhere and found this lack of people on the sidewalks disturbing. It was almost as though L.A. were a ghost town.

Fortunately it WAS populated. It is just that all the people were indoors, like those at Farmer Boys Sandwiches. I had to eat something on my 24 hour bus ride to Denver so I thought it would be a good idea to stock up on sandwiches and chips instead of buying not-so-healthy, expensive food along the way. Farmer Boys, located throughout SoCal and southern Nevada, makes one of the best sandwiches I've ever had, bar none. And they have gracious, friendly staff who are well trained in customer service. It would have been great to actually eat a sandwich in their home style themed restaurant but time was pressing and we had to get back to the bus station.

I packed my sandwiches into my trusty black bag and, much as I didn't want to leave my Darrell so soon after rediscovering him, I left him at the Greyhound counter and passed through the 'passenger only' barricade to board the bus.

Funny how I overlooked that! In my mind this trip would be full of joyful reunions. Somehow I overlooked that I would also again have to say goodbye to everyone, rending my feelings all over again. At least this time I had the comfort of knowing I would see my dear son again in one week. So, no goodbye this time, only a See You Soon.

That helped stoke my sense of adventure.