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Published: November 6th 2014
How to survive the United States without a car? This is probably the major issue most foreigners face in this country. As I will stay around the home of the brave only for 4 months or so, I decided not to get a vehicle for myself (except my 70 USD Walmart bike which is giving me lots of trouble lately...). On the other hand, I want to use my limited time in the States to see as much as I can of this incredibly huge country. Major issue: public transport is almost non-existent in the USA and especially in Texas it is a huge headache. There is a nation-wide train system called Amtrak but, of course, it does not reach the beautiful city of College Station where I am based. What is the alternative? Taking the bus, an adventure which most of the middle-class Americans try to avoid at every cost for their entire life.
Now, there are different bus lines one can choose from if you want to go for it: but again, staying close to the middle of nowhere, I do have only one choice: the (in)famous Greyhound bus lines. Greyhound made the headlines when a couple of
years ago some crazy Chinese guy decided to decapitate his fellow passenger with a machete on a night bus and to consume various parts of his body in front of the other passengers. So far so good. When I came to the States I was initially hesitant to opt for this company as I had heard some personal horror stories myself. One of my friends got a gun pulled on him on a Greyhound in Vermont and another told me that people on the back seats were smoking crack. One of my other buddies told me that Greyhound was anyhow "just a bus like any other" and so I had to check this out for myself.
After two short and not particularly interesting Greyhound rides to Austin a couple of weeks ago, I opted for the long-haul overnight bus down to the Creole and Cajun capital of New Orleans in the deep swamps of Louisiana. This meant a 3 hour ride up to Houston, a 4 hour layover and another 7 hour ride down to NOLA. The ride to Houston went quite smooth and the layover, although not particularly pleasant, was aided by quite a lot of armed security
Me and the baby gator
guards around the station. The real problems usually start on the overnight trips. In my case, there was only 1 major incident on the way going. At about 5am, in a place called Baton Rouge in Louisiana, one of my fellow passengers decided that his neighbor was too fat. In other words, he did not have enough space to sit. So he went up to our bus driver and told him about the issue and that "the whole trip sucks".
What happened next was a mix between annoying and, considering that it was 5am, pretty shocking. The driver stopped and told him that he is not the manager of the company and thus can not help with the issue. Fair call. What exactly happened I can't tell as I tried to sleep next to my (overweight and smelly-feet) neighbor too, but the half an hour quarrel ended up by the passenger being sent out of the bus with all his stuff. In the middle of nowhere in the cold of Louisiana. Not particularly encouraging although my paranoid mind was expecting a shootout at some point of the discussion. Anyhow, so far so good.
Once I arrived in NOLA
Hut in the swamps
things turned out to be better, with an exception of the temperature dropping from 25 to 10 degree Celsius in one night, which forced me to wear part of my Michael Myers Halloween costume for the 3 days as a jacket. I can say that New Orleans is a quite interesting city, also reinforced by the fact that it is among the top tourist destination in the USA. In short, NOLA is the birthplace of Jazz, a blend of French, African and Spanish culture, as well as the American capital of Voodoo. Bound by the Mississippi river and set among a vast marshland of swamps, the 400.000 soul city comes up as much bigger than it actually is.
Founded by the French, shortly occupied by the Spanish and later sold to the USA, New Orleans was the center of sugar cane and cotton production, the large base of slaves employed for this gave birth to the strong African-American culture in the city. As so often in the States, this has also created a notable gap in the distribution of wealth. In the South of central NOLA, there lies an area called the "Garden District". My hostel was fairly close
to the place and I took the chance to wander around its beautiful alleys. Huge trees throw their shade on the cobbled sidewalks, local (mostly white) residents are walking their dogs or jogging, and almost every house you see is a beautiful suburban mansion. In this district is a famous French cemetery called Lafayette. Now, the problem is that there are two of them, called Lafayette 1 and 2 respectively.
Following Google Maps I went a little further south from the Garden District towards, what i would later figure out, was Lafayette Cemetery 2. Just turning one street corner the mansions transformed into shabby little houses and the largely upper-class white population entirely turned into an African-American ghetto. I was actually made aware by this by the "what do you think you are doing here" looks I got from the local residents. Being white, this was not the most comfortable of feelings and I realized that a similar ethnic divide is not common in Europe but here it seems to be. In fact, Louisiana is one of the poorer states of the US and New Orleans is famous for being able to change from rags to riches in just
one street corner. On the same note it was interesting to see that there were countless (mostly white) punks in the historical city center, begging and occasionally harassing the people walking by.
Except the fact that this was my first Halloween in the USA, there were two things which I found very interesting about New Orleans and/or Louisiana. First, the food. New Orleans' turbulent history has not only created an interesting ethnic mix, but also managed to reflect this on what they call the "Creole cusine". Signature dishes include a fish based rice soup named "Gumbo", Jambalaya rice, crawfish in various forms and, last but not least, the famous New Orleans Po' Boys (they are just sandwiches really, but don't tell the locals!). Most of Creole kitchen is like the origin of the local Creole people, a combination of pretty much everything topped with a various array of spices. In contrast to this complex kitchen, stands the "Cajun cuisine", mainly enjoyed by the descendants of the French speaking settlers in the area. Although the use of ingredients often overlaps with Creole food (Alligator sausage anyone?), Cajuns bring a French sense of class and style into the mix. A deep
Cemetery of a village wiped out by a Typhoon
fried pastry called "Beignets" is indeed as French as mustaches and striped t-shirts.
Second, I was impressed by the swamps surrounding New Orleans and most part of Southern Louisiana. Passing by car one sees countless tree stumps reaching out from the marshes and if one actually takes the effort to safely approach the swamps, one can find alligators and all kind of other animals in the shallow waters. I took a little boat ride for an hour with an interesting Cajun guy, who mainly complained about Cajuns being forced towards speaking English by the national school systems and that he used to get beaten for speaking French in public schools. It seems that ethnic tensions are also not far away in a highly multicultural place such as NOLA. He also told me that, contrary to Creoles, Cajuns do not believe in Voodoo and are more comfortable in the swamps than in the city... as I have no other source of information I decided to believe him on this.
Anyway, lets come back to where we started. After my 2 days of NOLA I had the pleasure to take another Greyhound bus back. While on my first trip only
Loved the landscape
20% of passengers were obviously homeless, the return trip quota was more around 50%. Except some snoring, smelling and talking to themselves they did anyhow not give me any further trouble on the ride home. There is one thing I need to tell you though my American friends and readers. It is a pity that this country does absolutely not invest in public transport. I do understand that gas is cheap and the country was built around the use of a car, but even places like China are currently spending millions on getting you from A to B without a car. In other words, its never too late to invest in these things. From my part, I am sure this was the last overnight greyhound I want to take. In 5 days my old buddy Kauf will be joining me here for a 3 week road trip around the central States. Be ready for more madness to come when the boys will strand in the middle of nowhere once again!
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