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The overnight train from North Carolina to Florida

We did an Amtrak trip from central NC to Orlando. Let me first say – the train (trains) weren’t all that late! Wow, Amtrak! I know that’s a rare thing for you, so I thought I’d give credit where credit was due.

First, we took the Piedmont train out from central North Carolina. This is really quite a lovely train, and they have a little cafe car where you get can bottles of water and coffee and tea for free. They used to also provide free snacks, but that hospitality was suspended about 8 years ago or so. Back in the 2000s, this train only ran twice a day; and then, around 2010, they increased it to thrice a day; and now it goes 4 times a day! It leaves Charlotte, NC, around 7 am, 10 am, 3 pm, and 7 pm (check the exact times on Amtrak that will suit your station: you’ve got Charlotte, Kannapolis, Salisbury, Highpoint, Greensboro, Burlington, Durham, Cary, Raleigh.) All of the cars are named after things important to North Carolina: The Honeybee, the Cardinal, the Boxing Turtle, the Gray Squirrel. Plus, the whole train just in general nice and clean.

Oh! And when you ride it, make sure to snag the complimentary bus tickets. They will get you one free bus ride and transfer at whatever city you’re disembarking at. So helpful, so thoughtful, when you’re already a little stressed about traveling by train that you don’t have to go dig in your purse for loose change to cover the bus fare. You have to ask them for the bus tickets, though; there are signs on the backs of the seat pockets to remind you.

We took the 3 o’clock train and got to Raleigh around 7 pm, because this train was 1 whole hour late. It was the latest of all our four trains, and considering Amtrak commonly manages to be 2 or 4 hours late, we’ll count this as a win. I was actually glad the train was late, because the Raleigh train station I remembered to be a small, dingy, ugly affair with plastic pea-green seats and stuffy air and glaring lights, in a part of town where there was nothing except empty roads. I soon changed my mind, however, because as we stepped out of the train onto the platform, a nice train station worker ushered us over the elevators. This was the first sign that something was changed! We took the elevator down from the platform to the terminal, then walked up a long, sloping, softly-lighted concourse with soothing white walls, large windows, and long slabs textured in milky-chocolate swirls and whirls pinned up in a long row. What a welcome.

I still didn’t quite realize what was going on, cause it wasn’t until we got to the top of the concourse and stepped out into the train station that I realized the whole thing has been rebuilt, and it is beautiful! Windows everywhere, a hushed feel, gentle lights way up on the high ceiling that goes up three stories; smart little cubbies wherein desks and seats are arranged; cushioned benches that you can nap on! I never saw such a train station! Modern and comfortable all at once.

When we saw all that, we immediately regretted that our train had been delayed after all; but we anyways rested and used the gleaming bathrooms and poked a bit around the station.

Right on time, we got ready to board our Florida-bound train at 8:45 pm. The sun was gone and the sky was dark as we returned to the platform. Peeking in through the train windows, it looked full of passengers who had clambered on in New York City (where this train starts) and D.C. and throughout Virginia. BUT, by some very lucky fluke, we and a handful of other passengers were ushered onto a completely empty car. So it was about 9 of us with 100 seats or so between us. And even though the train made stops all night long – in Southern Pines, in South Carolina’s state capital, in Savannah, Georgia about an hour before dawn – none of the incoming passengers were sent to our car, either. So we all were able to stretch out as best as we could on two seats and sleep. It’s not the most comfortable arrangement, because your legs will be compressed, but the key is to bring a blanket, and a coat, and something soft for your head. To be sure, I did wake up every 1 or 2 hours, but then I fell right back asleep. At 10 pm, they closed all the lights in the train except for a few emergency beacons, so nothing glared in our faces. And although during the daytime the conductors will march down the aisles and loudly proclaim what the upcoming stations are, they don’t do that at all during the night. So there’s no disturbances. If someone is snoring, the sound will probably get lost in the hum of the train.

Also, the cost of a ticket from Raleigh, NC, to Orlando, Fl, was only $79, and I only booked like 5 days ahead of time. The travel time is all at night, so you’re really not losing any time, and we got to see the new beautiful train station in Raleigh, and we got to travel overland and see how the landscape was changing – when we were awake – and it’s just a way more natural way of traveling. AND we got to enjoy our vacation in Orlando without worrying about all the carbon emissions we had carelessly caused for the sake of our fun.

One more thing: we were two people traveling, and so the combined amount was $158. A sleeper compartment cost less than $100 more, at $243. I didn’t think of it at the time but for two people, getting a sleeper could be very well worth the extra comfort. I was traveling with someone older and she was much less comfortable than me, so I kind of wish now we had gotten the sleeper. But for me alone, I find a regular seat very endurable. You lean your seat back as far as it will go, and you raise the cushioned leg-rest, and if it’s too low, then you can stick one of your pieces of luggage underneath to raise it up. I’ve done this trip twice now, to and fro, and it’s been great, even when I had to sleep sitting up all night.

You wake up with the sunrise and all that over northern Florida, and now it’s time for food. Four years ago when I took this trip, they had a dining car, and we had omelettes for breakfast! Alas, the dining car has been removed. So now there’s just a cafe car, but the Amtrak cafe menu was upgraded sometime in the last two years, and it’s pretty good. I got the turkey sandwich once, it was large and savory and filling. We had planned ahead and brought sandwiches, crackers, and biscuits with us. The dining car closed at 11 pm at night, and it opened up at 6 am the next morning. If you need a ‘brieg’, then the cafe car will also provide you with plastic cups, no explanation necessary (Arabs will understand this!)

And I guess that’s it – oh, other than that the train station in Orlando is historic! It was opened in 1927. There was a historic marker outside that gave lots of details. It’s a nice building. When I looked at the map, I saw that it is just a few blocks down from the PULSE nightclub, where the shooting happened. That was a dampening – when a place has been in the news so much, and you unexpectedly show up in the vicinity.

And that is it! The guilt-free, environmentally-friendly, and time-efficient, dare I say – given it’s overnight – way to get from NC to Florida. No stupid airport lines, no rush, no one yelling at you because your bag is too big, no security line, no cops all over the place, and no need to take your laptop and liquids out and take off your shoes. I mean, seriously.

 

Last messages from my animating kids

I like to finish each film with ‘Last messages’. I did it first with “Mr. Turtle Gets Sick”. I came up with the final thoughts myself. But this time around, I thought I’d ask the kids, and this is what they came up with..

The second-graders who made “Mr. Glump and the Poisonous Pond”:

  1. Algae is bad
  2. Fish can die
  3. clean the fish pond
  4. Do not pollute
  5. Don’t spray poison on your yard
  6. Keep things clean
  7. Protect fish
  8. If you have a question, go to the library and check it out
  9. Check out books
  10. Libraries are cool and teach you a bunch of things
  11. Keep reading.

Isn’t that lovely? There was a second class of second-graders who worked on this same film, but when it was their turn to offer final messages, they turned into holy terrors instead, so we skipped that part. And I condensed the first list into the following:

glump final message 3

And then, in connection with “Handbook to taking care of the earth” (the kids came up with that title; I love that they thought to include a fancy word like ‘handbook’!), here are the final messages:

  1. We only have as much water as we have, so let’s take care of it
  2. Don’t pollute water
  3. Please don’t pollute
  4. We want to swim in nice, clean water
  5. Pay attention to class, don’t pay attention to things that don’t matter
  6. Pay attention to family and friends, and important things
  7. Ignore people talking about silly stuff

handbook final message 3

Isn’t that lovely all over again?

Animations with kids and old Eurovision songs

I’ve had a song from the 1989 Eurovision stuck in my head. As I was editing/fixing/polishing/rendering the animations for McAllister Elementary, I listened to it on repeat, as I do, making handy use of the YouTube refresh button.

It was still on my computer when I dashed to McAllister the very day before our viewing party. When I’d been at the school the week before to show each class of second-graders their film and have them do a survey, I discovered that I had missed a kid! The idea for this project is that every child in class contributes a page to the animation, but this kid had joined one of the class in the middle of January, after we’d done all the full-class lessons, and I’d never gotten wind of it. Luckily, I caught him at the last minute, and that was why I was back at McAllister the day before the viewing party.

He was such a cute, sweet, confiding kid, so as I was setting up my laptop, the still-live YouTube page with the Eurovision song was still up, and I asked the kid if he wanted to listen to it. He said yes. He liked it!

Animating with kids: the home stretch

I am finished animating with all the kids I’m suppose to animate with, for now. I can’t believe it.

And something so nice happened on my very last day. I was back at Wolf Meadow. Let me back up … there’s no good ending as far as Anna goes, unfortunately¬† …¬† I just never animated with her.

But, on that last day, I finally got to animate with Leah. She did a great job, and as she finished up, she chanced to see my desktop wallpaper as I was flipping between programs. The picture is one of me and the baby that the neighbors next-door had in Chapel Hill. “Is that your son?” Leah asked.

No, I told her, it was just my neighbors, and then I thought I’d show her some more pictures of them, and as luck would have it, as I searched through my pictures I happened right upon the folder wherein I have an album of the times I took those same neighboring kids on tours of the University in Chapel Hill. I had like 80 photos – of the Old Well, of the funny chairs they’d placed outside the Campus Y, looking out the top floor of Davis Library; when we ate at Alpine Bagel, when one of the girls posed with the photo of Malala in the Union, when we went to the big Science Day they have every April and we took pictures with butterflies and brains and took a swing through the MakerSpace in Murray. Ah, I’m feeling nostalgic!

Then I asked Leah, so what do you want to do when you grow up? and she told me, and then I asked if she’d thought college, and then I blabbed out any encouraging words that came to mind (but I don’t think I came up with anything other than the trite, hackneyed things to say) and that was that. But what a nice ending for me and Leah after we started with ignomy!

The train in Pakistan is faster than Amtrak

Did you hear that, Amtrak?

Okay, it’s not¬†always faster, but just lookie here:

The train in Pakistan goes from Rahim Yar Khan to Karachi in 10 hours. That is 386 miles, or 621 kilometers.

rahim yar khan to karachi

Meanwhile, I have been on the “Carolinian” between Charlotte, North Carolina and Washington D.C. about 50 times. The route, which does an annoying dip down to Selma-Smithfield, is 475 miles (764 km). Ostensibly, this trip is supposed to take 10 hours, too.

amtrak carolinian route

So far, it’s barely better than the Pakistani train. The problem is that the Carolinian is always breaking down, and in my fifty times of traveling on it, it must have come an average of 1.5 hours late. Seriously! Lots of times it’s 2 hours late or more. Last time I checked, there was a cute little statistic on the Amtrak site claiming that the Carolinian was on average 20 minutes late or something. Hahahahahaha … NO!

Pakistan’s train is traveling at roughly 38.6 miles/hour. Last time I rode the Carolinian, it was four hours late. I’m sorry, that’s just unacceptable! And when it is four hours late, it is traveling slower than 34 miles/hour, so yes, it’s slower than the Pakistani train. And even when it’s two hours late, which is very normal for the Carolinian, then the train is traveling at 39.6 miles/hour. Barely better. Come on, Green New Deal, we need you!

Is Pakistan safe for tourists?

Security for travelers in Pakistan is intense.

There are rifle-wielding guards everywhere.

When you approach the airport in Karachi, you have to pass through a couple of check-points before you ever get to the airport. At the checkpoint, there will be a guard with a rifle pointed straight at you a little ways away. Then beyond him is another guard with a pointed rifle. Past him is a third, and past him is a fourth. That way if the first misses, there’s back-up.

The university where Jassim was at hires lots of security escorts, and they tag along, whether you’re going around town or visiting a historic site.

If you’re a man, at least, they are willing to take a selfie with you, dressed in their camouflage and beards.

One time, Jassim and a party of people from the university wanted to visit some ruin. The university security escorts approved the trip, so everyone set out. Halfway there, however, they came upon a security checkpoint. That checkpoint declared that after all, the party could not pass because there was a person with an American passport (Jassim) and another person with a Swedish passport in the group. It’s not that they don’t want Americans and Swedes to visit this place, but apparently there’s psychos in the region, and if someone lets it slip that foreigners are coming, they try to blow everyone up. They don’t just try to blow up the person with the foreign passport, but all the Pakistanis who are also on the trip with them. Apparently, a bus was blown up in that way a few years ago, and ever since, they’ve been taking extra precautions. The fear is that an evil person working at the hotel where the foreigners are staying will tip off his psycho buddies on the road, who will wait for the coming caravan and welcome it with explosions. Or maybe, it’s a person in the security forces themselves who tip off the psycho buddies down the road.

After a one hour discussion between the security checkpoint people and the security escort, Jassim and the man with the Swedish passport decided they would come back to their hotel alone, so at least the rest of the party could be allowed to continue.

Stuck in Pakistan

I wasn’t stuck in Pakistan; but someone I knew was. Let’s call him Jassim.

Jassim went to Pakistan for two weeks to attend conferences at two different universities. Just so you are aware, purchasing a regular tourist visa to Pakistan, at least for Americans, costs almost $200, but because Jassim was going for conferences, it was considered a “business” trip and that bumped the price up to $350ish. He applied for the visa two weeks before his (already-purchased) ticket was set to depart. The visa arrived from the Pakistani embassy one day before he left, and I think that was only because he spent about four hours on the phone trying to get someone at the embassy to expedite things. He wasn’t talking to anyone; he was waiting hours while the “ding-ding-ding” on-hold music played until someone would pick up. Then as soon as someone picked up, the lined dropped; so he had to call again and listen to the “ding-ding-ding” music another hour until someone answered.

Right around as Jassim was arriving in Pakistan, a big explosion occurred that killed 40 Indian soldiers. India bombed Pakistan in retaliation; and then Pakistan shot down an Indian plane and took the pilot prisoner. We texted Jassim during all the commotion to ask, “are things tense?” and he goes, “no, not at all!” But next thing we know, all the internal flights were grounded in Pakistan. Jassim had just finished up the last items on his business agenda in a city called Rahim Yar Khan, and he was supposed to be in Karachi the next day to catch his plane out of the country. It is almost 400 miles (about 620 km) …

rahim yar khan to karachi

and he no longer had a flight to get there! Luckily, there’s a train. Google Maps says there is no train, but there is. It takes 10 hours, and it’s an overnighter. Jassim found out at 4:00 pm that the planes were canceled; and this overnight train was leaving at 4:30! He rushed to his hotel; he still had to pack up all his things. He grabbed everything, helter-skelter, ran down to the lobby, and made to get on his way. At least he wasn’t alone. All his university professor hosts, plus an entourage of about 10 students, were trying to make sure Jassim made the train. In the lobby, there was a hold-up. The rifle-carrying guards who apparently man all of Pakistan informed Jassim that his journey to the train station, seeing as it had been decided upon just minutes before, wasn’t registered and therefore they couldn’t give him permission to go. A big discussion ensued. The university professors were saying, “just get out of the way and let us go!” After a conference of about 5 minutes, the security police relented, and everyone rushed to the station. Three minutes after they got there, the train came chugging through: choo choo. The entourage of students grabbed all of Jassim’s bags and hurried him and his stuff onto the train. The train departed.

So he just barely made it, but unfortunately all the rush was for nothing, because by the next day, all the international flights were grounded, too, and Jassim’s flight out of Karachi, at whose insistence all the fuss with the train had occurred, was canceled.

Jassim’s train pulled into Karachi on February 28, in the morning. He called the American embassy, but they weren’t ready yet to haul in the military and evacuate all American citizens. They told him: call your airlines and keep updated.

On March 1, the airline Etihad announced that all flights had returned to normal operations. Jassim spent hours on the phone to get a spot, but you know that there were two or three days’ worth of missed flights full of passengers trying to do the same, and the earliest anyone would put him on a flight out was March 6. But he kept calling, and by some miracle, eventually a guy got him a seat on the flight leaving in less than 6 hours. Ta-da!

There were so many checkpoints and security lines around the airport that after all that hassle, he still nearly missed his flight. But he made it in the end. Now he was un-stuck from Pakistan.