My 2019 AGU talks

AGU is a conference held in December each year, about a week before Christmas. AGU stands for American Geophysical Union. It’s more interesting than it sounds, promise! Usually it’s held in San Francisco. I’ve been a couple of time.

This past December, I had three talks at AGU. Two were invited. I felt very special.

To get to AGU, I first took the train from Houston to Los Angeles. It was a very nice train — and it didn’t take so long — and look at all the pretty things I saw along the way.

Then from Los Angeles, I took mostly an overnight bus north. Overnight so I wouldn’t waste a day traveling. The bus literally does run all night long, and at long last, just after sunrise (it was winter, so the sunrise was kind of late), we arrived in San Francisco. I stayed for a week, gave my 3 talks, and it was great.

My talks were all about my Animations with Kids program. For the second talk, I got to show everyone how I teach the kids 3D animation.

Bus #84 in Houston

I think bus #84 is my favorite in Houston. It goes to many comforting places: two movie theatres, the Ikea, and the Houston Arboretum.

To be fair, it doesn’t exactly go past the Ikea. It goes instead to the Northwest Transit Center. The Northwest Transit Center always struck me as a lonely, ugly, heartless spot. But then I discovered that you can walk — and there’s a sidewalk the whole way — to the Ikea from there in like 15 or 20 minutes. It’s so nice! And on the way to Ikea, you pass one of the movie theatres.

So you can get candy from Ikea, and look at all the furniture, and then go back and watch a movie and eat popcorn, all in one go, and without having to drive.

If it’s a super hot day, and you don’t want to walk 20 minutes to Ikea, just transfer to either bus #49 or #39 at the Northwest Transit Center. Those two buses will take you to Ikea in about 2 minutes (the third stop).

As long as you bought your bus ticket through a mobile app or through a “q-card”, you don’t have to worry about paying extra money for the transfer. In fact, you have three hours in which to make the transfer.

Before bus #84 gets to the Transit Center (its very last stop), it trudges through all these neighborhoods in Houston. I took that bus a couple of times in November. Some of the streets we passed through were lit up in a splendid burst of golden Christmas lights — it was magical.

After it leaves the city neighborhoods, bus #84 goes zooming out onto a freeway. This freeway is of course packed with cars, and in common Houston standards, is all an ugly succession of concrete pillars and dull asphalt and pollution. But do you know what this freeway is acting as a border to? To a nice, lovely piece of greenery in the city — a large plot of land — miles across and throughout, so I’m sure you could get lost in it and forget the city. This plot of green is made up of Memorial Park and the Houston Arboretum. I’m not exactly sure where one ends and the other begins, but if you get off on the right bus stop on the freeway, you just have to walk about 11 minutes down a side road, and you get to the Arboretum. It’s a “natural” arboretum — so it’s not full of manicured lawns and flowers. Instead, they’ve tried to recreate natural ecosystems — forests in one area, swamps in another. On Saturday mornings, you can get a free guided hike on one of the trails. So I just love the idea of first catching the bus there (so you don’t have to deal with a car or pollute), and then being dropped off on the side of the freeway, and then letting your footsteps take you from the din of traffic to the peace of the park (except not really, because the sound of the cars follows you there), and being all surrounded by nature and people who care enough to volunteer to show you around the trees.

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Houston Arboretum

My only complaint about bus #84 is that it comes by only every 30 minutes on weekends. I had to take another bus to get to the Buffalo Speedway intersection where I could board bus #84. Sometimes, the first bus arrived like a minute after bus #84 had already whizzed through. So I’d have to wait a whole ‘nother half hour until the next one arrived.

Sometimes bus #84 is late getting to the stop at Buffalo Speedway. When that happens, the bus driver goes a little beserk, speeding through town, and somehow incredibly managing to arrive at the Northwest Transit Center right on the dot of the top of the hour, or the half hour, so you can run to your transfer bus before they all depart.

One more nice thing about the Transit Center: from it, you can catch a bus all the way out to Hammerly. It’s as far out as the buses go in the northwest direction of Houston, if you ride the bus to the end of its line before it turns back to the Transit Center. You end up in a place that still is all commercial and filled with zooming traffic; but there’s also tracts of trees, and it’s a little quieter. It just feels a little more soft and secluded than Houston proper.

 

More bokmärken in the US

I wrote once about the first time I ever found bokmärken in the US. It was such a wonderful occasion.

I went back to Payn’s Stationary story when I visited San Francisco again in December 2019 for a conference. He was still selling bokmärken, and there were different varieties than the last time I’d been there a year and a half previously. It was delicious! I bought a whole bunch, and the guy at the register, who I guess maybe was the owner, told me: oh, I’m going to have to order more of these now!

He said that he orders them from some whole-saler who imports them from Europe. He just orders more as he needs them. Yes, you keep doing that.

And then about a week later, I visited Solvang in southern California. This town is built as a “traditional Danish settlement”, though I don’t know exactly how much real Danish history that town has. Whatever the case may be, there’s lots of stores there that sell trinkets, and among them was a store entirely dedicated to Christmas stuff. It was called Jule-something. Amidst all the Christmas ornaments and decorations, I found a shelf drowning in bokmärken! It was so wonderful. And they were selling for cheaper than at Payn’s! Like half-price. I bought all I wanted (maybe 6 sheets), and although I got some Christmasy ones, I also got frogs, and fairytales, and flowers, and all sorts.

However, the sad news is that according to the cashiers, their supplier of bokmärken is no longer selling them or something. So I think that stash on that shelf might be the last of them. Maybe they’re just slowing going to wean themselves off of that particular piece of merchandise. It’s a shame.

I afterwards took the train from California to Chicago. In Chicago, I visited the Swedish-American museum. They don’t sell bokmärken there! Can you believe it?

How to survive your 2-day Amtrak trip

I’ve been on the two-day California Zephyr between Chicago and San Francisco; the two-night/one-day Sunset Limited between Houston and Los Angeles; and the two-day Southwest Chief between Los Angeles and Chicago.

So, in terms of your basic needs (sleep, food, using the bathroom, and, if you like, prayer), how will you survive??

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Salt Lake City train station, December 2015; stop on the California Zephyr, Chicago –> San Francisco

Train lay-out

First, know the layout of the train. The trains are pretty cute because they have all these nice touches — like the bathrooms and luggage storage are neatly on the first floor of each carriage, and then you climb these cute little stairs — and it makes you feel like you’re tiptoeing into a new land, past this realm and into the next — and then you’re on the second floor of the carriage, and that’s where the seats are [**if you don’t really think stairs are that cute because you might have trouble climbing them, then no fear — some of the carriages are arranged with seats for disabled or elderly passengers on the first floor]. Across each window are curtains that you can pull back and forth. Then you can walk through your carriage, and the next and the next, and you’ll finally get to a nice big carriage that’s the observation car. There’s no regular seats, just lounge chairs and tables. It’s like your parlor. Below is a cafe car with turkey sandwiches, yummy grapes, and ginger ale, and cheese pizzas, and cheese and crackers, and vegan burgers (quite a nice kitchen).

Sleeping

This account, by the way, is for passengers, like me, too poor to buy a sleeper car. You have only enough to buy a coach seat. Technically, that means you are entitled to exactly one seat, but just listen here. There’s a very good chance you can nab a seat with no one sitting next to you, and if that’s the case, you just stretch out on both seats at night when it’s time to sleep and you’ll be very comfortable. Especially so, because the seats have these massive leg-rests that you pull out from right underneath. It makes the seats twice as wide. So if you lie down, and you have your knees curled up and jutting out a little, they’ll still be supported underneath.

Depending on what train and when you get on, there’s some strategies involved for having two coach seats to yourself all night long:

Strategy #1: you board the train in the middle of its journey. That, at least, has been my experience. This is what I mean. I boarded the California Zephyr at its starting point in Chicago. I was assigned a seat next to someone else. Likewise, I boarded the Southwest Chief at its starting point in Los Angeles. Again, I was assigned a seat beside someone. On the other hand, I boarded the Sunset Limited in Houston. The Sunset Limited had already been chugging all day coming out from New Orleans. Well, all of us passengers boarding in Houston were placed in an empty car, and there were so few of us that everyone (except families who wanted to sit together) got their own seat. It was so comfortable! And throughout the rest of the journey, really no newly boarding passengers were introduced into our carriage, so we stayed the same amount of people and never had to share seats the whole way.

Strategy #2: go get yourself a new seat. So suppose you are in fact boarding the train at its very first stop, and the Amtrak workers herd everyone into a single car. This is exactly what happened to me when boarding the Southwest Chief in Los Angeles. There was a horde of passengers who boarded in LA. Also, they segregate you based on your final location. So everyone who was going from Los Angeles to Chicago had to sit together in the same car, and we filled up the entire thing (and there are like 60 seats per car). I had to sit next to this 70-year-old man who told me, yes, his 50-year marriage had been long, nice, but happy? Um … Well, any case, he was really nice, but by the second night onboard, I really really wanted to stretch out. Every time I took a stroll up and down the train, I would pass through these other carriages where the passengers were not crammed together side by side. Everyone had two seats to their credit, and there were even some empty seats. Those were the lucky passengers who had boarded at stops beyond Los Angeles — they had more room just to themselves, just like I’d had when I boarded the Sunset Limited midway in Houston. So I just took it upon myself, in the evening of that second night, to move to one of those empty seats. I took the little ticket tag that the Amtrak attendants leave hanging over your seat assignment, and re-inserted it at my new seat of choice. It was bad luck, because the Amtrak attendants had cleverly written what my seat number was in the old carriage (seat 8). Well, seat 8 was taken in the new carriage, so I couldn’t do the thing seamlessly, but I found that seat 58 was empty, so that seemed the best bet. Well, no one said anything at all. I had the nicest night ever, lying down and curled up under my blanket and coat, and the next morning, in fact, the Amtrak attendants had swapped out all the ticket tags anyways with new ones. I now fit right in.

Now, this does not always work, but it was my experience on the Sunset Limited, the California Zephyr, and the Southwest Chief. I will add that I did all three of these train trips in December, anywhere from three weeks to one week before Christmas (the time of your trip might affect the crowds).

I have seen other people sleep on the floor of the large bathroom for people with disabilities. You open up the door, and surprise! Someone’s spread out in front of you. It kind of gave me a fright. I do not recommend this.

Once, I was on a 1-day, 1-night trip from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon. That train was miserably crowded. It’s called the Coastal Starlight. There’s not much of the magic and mystery of starlight onboard that train, believe me, both times I’ve been on it. I could not find any empty seats anywhere, but I was able to find 2 or 3 seats free to sleep on in the Observation car. So go check that out if you have nowhere else to go.

Last but not least, bring a blanket and a coat so you can be toasty and warm.

Food

You are going to be doing a lot of sitting, so you don’t need a lot of food. Also, the bathroom situation is not as comfortable as you’d probably like, so the less you eat, the better from that aspect.

On the other hand, you will want to eat because what’s cozier than stuffing your face as you watch the vast landscapes of the country unfold out the window? Here’s how I managed. For breakfast, the best cost-benefit analysis seems to be to go to the dining car and eat their scrambled eggs. It’s pretty good, and it comes with a side of potatoes (or grits, but yuck), and a small croissant. Slather everything with butter (I end up using like 8 of those little butter tubs, which are free and available), and that will be quite nice and filling. It’s $8.50, and that’s about the price of scrambled eggs and potatoes in most cafes, no? And it will last your stomach a long time. That is honestly the only thing I recommend you get from the dining cars. I do not recommend the dining car menu for lunch or dinner. First, the food doesn’t sound all that good — and the stuff that did sound good had pork sausage in it, or something, so I couldn’t eat it anyways. There was stuff like seafood, which I don’t really like. And for dinner, there’s an option of a big steak. Now, this is the last thing you should eat onboard a train when the bathroom situation is so dire. When I was on the Sunset Limited, everyone who ate the steak woke up the next morning complaining about how many times they’d had to use the bathroom, and how crummy they felt. You don’t want this to be you. They do have this nice pasta dish for dinner — but it’s $16 and I don’t think it’s worth it.

Amtrak observation car train
Amtrak observation car

But you can’t survive all day on just scrambled eggs, so what to do? Well, instead of the dining car, go to the cafe car for lunch and dinner. The offerings are pretty good. There’s chicken sandwiches, turkey sandwiches, and you can grab as much mayo and mustard as you like; there’s small cheese pizzas and vegan burgers and fruit and crackers and cheese and chips and big juicy grapes and chocolate and other comfort food. Now, the prices are quite high for what you’re buying, but cheaper than the dining car. They also sells all sorts of sodas, but I don’t recommend buying those — empty calories, and more bathroom trips, and too expensive.

And last but not least, bring lots and lots of snacks with you. I think about a third of my suitcase was just snacks — both salty and sweet. I had:

  • I had 12 little packets of tiny fudge-dipped oreos, yum, yum, yum, except I don’t know if these packets were a good idea. Each one only had like 7 cookies in it. Maybe buy a few of the larger packets instead
  • three apples as a way to clean out my refrigerator
  • eight packs of wheat-and-cheddar sandwich crackers, each of which had 6 little cracker sandwiches in it
  • and something else I don’t remember.

These were nice choices because everything was so individually packaged; so eating one little packet in one go would not result in any contamination of the remaining packets. Nor, like if you bring a big bag of chips, for example, would you have to leave it partially uneaten, leaving it open to the possibilities of spills or messiness. One the other hand, the individual packaging is not good for the environment. On the other hand, you’re on the train instead of the plane, so you’re already doing (almost) the most good you can.

I ate the snacks whenever I wanted; and had scrambled eggs for breakfast; and would buy one single sandwich from the cafe car at night; and one night I was feeling kind of full, so instead of a sandwich I had juicy grapes; and that was it! The snacks lasted two cross-country train trips, several overnight bus trips, and the various stays along the way — it was three weeks in total.

Also, if you are on the Sunset Limited, there’s a certain stop — but I don’t remember which — was it El Paso? — where someone called the burrito lady is standing outside the train tracks, and has a sack full of warm burritos in all flavors, and sells them. The vegetarian ones were only $2. They weren’t that great, to be honest. But very popular. We stopped in El Paso for like 30 minutes, so there was time for everyone who wanted to buy one. She will sell it to you and then give you a Christian blessing.

Amtrak train El Paso
El Paso train station stop; on the Sunset Limited, Houston –> Los Angeles.

If you are on the Southwest Chief, the station in Albuquerque has a restaurant with burgers and pizza. That was very popular, too, though again, I’m not sure if greasy food is the best choice for your train trip. And that brings us to the next topic:

Bathrooms

The way the trains are set up, the bathrooms are all on the first floor of the train, and the seats are all above on the second floor, once you slip behind the bend of the little magic staircase. It’s nice that way, because although you can get up those stairs, the smells of the bathroom mostly don’t seem to follow.

Now, what about the bathrooms themselves? There are about 5 per first first floor, all smushed into one half of the car, and they are tiny closets mostly. Actually, way smaller than most closets. I’m small-sized, and really there was not enough room for me between the door, the toilet, and the sink. It’s kind of gross. But there’s three other options:

1) at the very end of the hallway with the bathrooms, there’s one more door, with a slightly different sign. It’s a “lounge”. You go into the lounge, it has two sinks in it and a cushioned bench and a big mirror. You can brush your hair and do your make-up here, if you like, or freshen up. And there’s one more door inside the lounge, and that goes to one more closet-sized bathroom. It’s still small, but it should mostly be women using this bathroom. So less traffic and a little neater. I recommend it.

2) the bathroom for handicapped people and elderly. This is a large bathroom present on the first floor of the cars. But not all the cars. Sometimes, the first floor is split between racks for luggage on one side, and the bathrooms on the other side. Other times the first floor is split between seats for elderly and disabled passengers one side, and bathrooms on the other. If the cars has the seats for the elderly and disabled on the first floor, then it also has a large bathroom, with plenty of room to move around in. The trick is, if your particular car does not have this bathroom, then just go to the next car over. Is it wrong of me to recommend that people who are able-bodied use this handicapped bathroom? Hmmm, that actually only just occurred to me. Just don’t stay in there too long in case someone who actually cannot use the regular bathrooms is in need.

3) if the closest-sized bathrooms in your car are really dirty, then again, go over to the next car and see if those bathrooms are any better.

Prayer

I will write another post about prayer on the train, stay tuned.

Final thoughts

Think of the train ride as part of your trip, and enjoy it. Most likely, you’ll get to talk to some friendly, interesting people, and be alone with your own thoughts. Don’t count on having wifi. Enjoy the scenery. Enjoy the escape. Just cuddle up on your seat, alone with yourself and your thoughts, and let the train rock and hold you tight.

Amtrak train trip landscape
New Mexico or Arizona, onboard the Southwest Chief, Los Angeles –> Chicago

Why you should definitely not fly from Houston to LA

To get from Houston to Los Angeles by trains, there is no need to ever switch trains or any hassle like that: all you do is take one single train, the Sunset Limited. And I think you should almost definitely take the train, and not fly, because it’s a cute train; and it’s nice scenery; and it’s more convenient; and better for the environment; and flying isn’t actually going to save you that much time!

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Sunrise over a river in the Texas desert. View courtesy of the Sunset Limited.

So first, the cute train. I thought it was very cute. There’s little curtains on the windows. The carriages are two stories. You have plenty of room in your seat. I’ve been on this train twice and it wasn’t crowded either time, so hopefully no one will be bumping into you. You can visit the observation car, and the dining car, and the cafe. The train rocks you gently all night long.

 

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Our big, not so pretty, not so sanitary, slightly grimy, yet still endearing and sweetheart-ish train going out west.

The scenery: I don’t normally try to say anything nice about Texas, but the desert scenes were quite nice. The sun rising over the desert rivers was lovely. I had never seen this part of the country before, I had no idea what it would look like. I saw El Paso and Tuscon, Arizona. I saw over the border into Mexico. It was all fascinating to see.

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I think those mountains are in Mexico. We were really close to the border a lot of the way.

Convenience: instead of taking an hour-and-a-half bus ride to the airports in Houston, I just rode the light-rail and then a bus to the Amtrak station. In all, it took about 30 minutes. Plus, the bus took me right through downtown Houston. It was Christmas time, and I saw all the pretty Christmas lights that were up. There were blocks and blocks of golden light glowing in the black night, hovering over all the trees, from city square to city square. And from the Amtrak station there was a view out on all the skyscrapers of the city, all lit up, and even the Ferris wheel by the aquarium. Same with arriving in Los Angeles. We arrived smack in the downtown. I’ve never been to LAX but of course, as everyone else, I’ve heard it’s awful, and far from the city, and you probably don’t want to deal with it.

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Leaving downtown Houston on a Wednesday night in December.
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Arriving in downtown Los Angeles before dawn on Friday morning.

Time: the plane will not save you much time! I’ve worked this out. See, you get on the Sunset Limited in Houston at 7 pm, you spend the next day entirely on the train, and then you get to Los Angeles at 5:30 in the morning. It is a two-night and one-day trip. Well, during those two nights, you’re just going to sleep, and hopefully, you were planning to sleep even if you’d stayed at home, so that doesn’t really count as time lost. The only real time to consider is the full day on the train. In my opinion, this is pretty much exactly how much time you’d spend if you took the plane. If you take the plane, you have to get to the airport 2 hours in advance. The airport is probably an hour or more away from where you live, plus once you get to LA, let’s say (counting traffic) that the airport is two hours from where you’re trying to go. That adds three more hours. Also, you have the stress of airport security and all the crowds and the blinding lights, and the carbon emissions, and most likely, you won’t have a direct flight. You’ll have a lay-over somewhere. Even if you did not have a lay-over, there’s a big chance the plane will be late, and even if the plane wasn’t late, this whole sequence of events will still take you all day to get from Houston to LA. So you really might as well just take the train! No security, no angry people, and you can pretty much bring as much luggage as you can manage to carry.

Walking Brays Bayou in Houston

I’ve wanted to walk along one of the canals in Houston to get to an event. The canals here are called “bayous.” Whatever floats your boat.

This was the route I approximately wanted to take: starting from around the Museum of Fine Arts, and ending up at the University of Houston stadium.

route to U of Houston

Hey, you know how there’s University of California and University of North Carolina, and all these universities of different states? But then you come to a university for a single city. It seems like a big undertaking.

Now, to clarify, when I first google-mapped this route, it suggested a path straight through the city blocks, but I adjusted it to hug the Bayou. This particular bayou is called Brays Bayou (there’s a couple in Houston.) I was not so sure how safe it would be, but now that I’ve done the walk, I can tell you it felt pretty safe, and it was actually a beautiful walk.

First, you walk along the north side of Hermann Park. That was nice.

Then you go just a little bit south and you meet up with the Bayou. There was no path to get down there, so I just made my carefully-footed way down the kind of steep hillside to the Bayou sidewalk. Now, if you’ll notice, you just at that point you go under the bridges of some major freeway. That part is a little creepy as you walk under giant pole after giant pole. Huge blocks of concrete everywhere. Just colossal infrastructure hunting you down from every angle. Lots of nooks for a axe murderer to hide out in. I walked fast and kept looking over my shoulder.

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Brays Bayou under the freeway

route to U of Houston 2

But after that, it was really pretty. It was a long walk, but it was worth it. Because will you believe it, for the first time, Houston did something nice. They’ve planted all these beautiful wildflowers along the banks of the Bayou. Ooooh, they were so pretty. They were yellow and purple, and then every now and again there were tall stalks of sunflowers.

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Brays Bayou

One dog shouted at me. But thankfully, it was behind a fence and didn’t try to jump. There was one single intersection that had broken down buildings, but that passed quickly. The rest was homes and apartments.

route to U of Houston 3

Then towards the end, you go north. That part is nice, too. You just pass a bunch of churches and apartments, and then you get to the University campus, and that was nice, too.

So you can walk Brays Bayou, too, without too many worries.

And when I got to the University stadium, there was a rally for Bernie Sanders! That was cool. I had a moment of worry, because after walking for over 1.5 hours, I got to the stadium and there were all these rules I hadn’t known about. You can’t go into the stadium with a bag, unless it’s a clear bag. Clear all the way through. It’s a security thing. The only exception is if your bag is 6 inches by 4 inches. My bag was I believe more like 8 by 6 inches, but they let it by. I also had a canvas bag with me. I emptied it and stuck it in my jacket pocket. And then I carried my book and my empty container of food up to security and they let me and my armful all go in. Once in, I got the canvas bag back out and refilled it.

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Bernie Sanders rally in Houston

It was really nice, because they were selling popcorn and nachos and all this other stuff. This was the nicest campaign rally I’d ever been to. I’ve seen Obama twice. Both times were kind of miserable. We were just standing in a large fields, thousands of people, waiting for hours and hours, everything was late — and then were too far away to hear well, or really see. This time, we could sit on the seats in the stadium and be comfortable while we waited. There was a nice band playing. I read my book. There was free wifi. And Bernie came on time.

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Bernie Sanders rally in Houston
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Bernie Sanders himself

Public transportation in Houston

Everyone says public transportation in Houston is horrible.

I’ve lived there now for a few months, without a car, and it’s not as bad as everyone makes out. There’s some real positives, in fact — but there also are some real drawbacks.

I’d say the biggest drawback is that you really cannot get out into the suburbs, at all. If you go to Chicago, or Philadelphia, or New York, or San Francisco, or Washington D.C., you can take a train or a metro quite far out of the city. For example, if you’re in Chicago, you can take a local train out to Wheaton College (27 miles away), or the cute little town of Glen Ellyn. If you’re in D.C., you can take the metro to New Carrollton (okay, fine, that’s only 12 miles away, not that far.) If you’re in Philadelphia, you can take the trains and buses out to Ursinus College (30 miles away, and very cute), or out to the quaint town of Doylestown (almost 35 miles away, although it’s debatable whether it’s actually all that quaint.)

In Houston, sadly, you can’t do any of that. There’s no local trains taking you out of the city. There’s just some buses. For example, you can take the bus to the suburb of Cypress, which is about 30 miles away. Now this is all fine and dandy and totally great, EXCEPT, these buses only run Monday through Friday, only during commuting hours. So you can’t go to Cypress on the weekends, at all, via public transportation. And if you’re in Cypress, you can’t head for the city. This is true for all the surrounding settlements around Houston. You can’t go to Sam Houston National Forest, north of the city; you can’t get to Bear Creek Pioneers Park, to the west. Just suppose you’d really like to get to the suburb of Pasadena, for a Christmas market; well, you can’t. Or you want to go to visit someone in the suburb of Sugarland. Can’t do that, either. You’re just stuck in the city. The only direction slightly accessible is to the southeast, towards the seacoast, as you can get a bus to Galveston.

I used to live in Philadelphia. The city was somehow just more manageable than Houston. I biked all over the place. I wouldn’t probably bike there today, having lost my youthful fantasy of invincibility since then; but it was doable. Most of the streets are set out on a grid, most of the streets have sidewalks, most of the streets connect simply and easily to each other. It might take you two hours, but you can definitely get from one side of the city to the other. Not so in Houston. When I compare back to Philadelphia, Houston feels like one big freeway. Freeway here and freeway there — even if you wanted to bike, how are you going to manage it when everything connected by freeway?

Just another note on that commuter bus that goes to Cypress: its sole destination is a park-and-ride lot in Cypress. That’s it. So everyone else gets off the bus and just goes to grab their car and drive home; but if you don’t have a car waiting for you, then you either are going to walk to circles around the park-and-ride lot, or you are going to have to call for a Lyft to get to your final destination, wherever that is in Cypress. There’s no other bus at the park-and-ride lot to take you anywhere. It sucks.

Given all of this, if you want to live in Houston without a car, then you need to live pretty close to your work, for two reasons: 1) if you live in the suburbs, then there’s a good chance you won’t be able to get to work on the buses; and 2) if you live in the city, but, say, 5 miles away from your job, there’s a good possibility that the buses will take an hour to get you to work. So good luck with that!

This means that you probably want to live no more than two to three miles away from your job to make the commute reasonable; and that kind of limits you to the parts of town where the rents are highest.

So where can you get to in Houston? Well, there is a very nice light-rail system, and this will take you to downtown Houston, to Rice University, and to the northern and southern parts of the city. There are also buses that can take you to the movie theatre and Ikea (about an hour — as a reference, in Philly, I could bike to the Ikea. It was a bit of a stressful bike ride, but I managed). You can also take the bus to Trader Joe’s pretty easily (if you’re starting at Rice), and to a Barnes and Noble. You can get to the big cluster of museums (some of which are very nice) near the center of the city, and you can get to Herman Park, which is a green oasis with a lake and boats and trees. I have also been able to get to eye doctors, dentists, and regular doctor appointments.

One time, I took a bus north to get to a free museum. I got off the bus stop and I had to walk for a few blocks west. My steps took me right through a university I’d never heard of, and they were hosting an Italian festival I’d also never heard of. So I saw both the festival and the university, and the free museum. On my way back, I arrived at the bus stop just as the bus zoomed off. Feeling grumpy, I decided I didn’t want to wait for the next bus, so I started walking back south. I walked one block, and I came upon the most delicious lovely library ever! So I just ducked in there while waiting for the next bus (there was another bus stop right outside). Occasionally, someone with mental problems starts yelling at me on the light rail platform or on the bus, but so far, nothing violent has happened. Sometimes, I get a little nervous because it’s dark out, and I’ll be waiting for a transfer between buses at some bus stop in the middle of the city, and I’ll be bracing myself for something to happen; but then after all, it ends up feeling quite safe.

At each bus stop, you can also text a number, and a text will come back letting you know when to expect the next bus. Sometimes, it will say 5 minutes; but then 5 minutes come and go, and there’s no bus, and so you text again, and this time it says 3 minutes. And sometimes you text and it says 20 minutes; so you browse around inside a store, and because you didn’t keep texting, you didn’t realize that the bus was speeding up and after all, the bus comes in 18 minutes and you miss it.

You can also get to the airports. To get to the smaller airport, you take the light-rail all the way south, and then you take a long bus ride. I did this once. I got yelled at by the people in the airport: don’t you know the buses aren’t safe, ma’am, you don’t want to get onboard those. Excuse me, what do you think I’ve been doing all this time?

To get to the larger, international airport, you take the light rail downtown, and then you take an even longer bus ride. You know what’s funny about that bus to the international airport? It is called an “express” bus … but somehow, it’s got over 60 stops, and takes an hour to get to the airport, and goes through all these neighborhoods. But okay.

The nicest part of the public transportation in Houston is that your ticket only costs $1.25. This is the same cost of a bus in the no-one’s-heard-of-it town of Concord, North Carolina. Can you believe it? Except the Houston tickets are even better, because your ticket there is valid for 3 hours. You can ride on as many buses and light rails as you want within that 3 hour period. In most other places, a ticket just gets you a ride and a single transfer — and in Concord, there’s all these ornery rules and conditions limiting the type of transfer you can muster.

So given the nice price, and given that I was able to get to the movie theatre and Ikea and the Amtrak train station and to go see the downtown Christmas lights, I was thinking, oh, the public transportation in Houston isn’t so bad after all. It gets a bad rap unnecessarily. Also, I should add that many of the buses are quite frequent — sometimes every 15 minutes — and usually my transfer waiting time between buses aren’t that long — and the light rail sometimes comes by every 5 minutes. I was thinking of all this, and thinking, I guess the public transportation in Houston deserves some respect.

But then I went to Chicago just before Christmas. I went to Chicago on cross-country trains. And while I was there, I took the local trains all the way from downtown Chicago to a far-away suburb. While sitting on nice, tidy, local train, it finally struck me: this is what’s missing from Houston. You really can’t go anywhere outside the city without a car. And then I started remembering a bit more of when I lived in Philadelphia, and how much of the city was accessible, and more and more I am starting to see the difference in mobility.

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.

 

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!

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.