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Stateside: My Fellow Americans (Part 2)

Stateside With Rosalea Barker

My Fellow Americans (Part 2)

See also… Stateside: My fellow Americans (Part 1)

As a kind of rite of passage (or trial by sore bum, depending how you look at it) I celebrated my becoming a U.S. Citizen by taking a three-day Greyhound Bus trip from DC back to California. This series highlights some of the people I met.

Greyhound is not so much a bus company as a people-freight company. A Greyhound ticket is like a human cargo manifest that anyone can use; no one asks to see your ID when you line up to get on board. There is no assigned seating, and if you do get through the terminal boarding door to get a seat, you place your own bags in the cargo well, even if you’ve checked them. If the seats fill up before you get coachside, you and your bags simply wait for the next coach.

With incredible efficiency—from a freight-handling point of view--Greyhound moves hundreds of thousands of people around the United States each day. Each traveler has a set of schedules printed on their receipt/itinerary and those schedules intersect with any number of other schedules. A schedule number change means you’re going to be getting onto a new bus with a new bunch of people. My schedule changes between DC and Oakland were in Pittsburgh, St Louis, Denver and Salt Lake City.

::The Runaway Wife and the Ethiopian Trucker::\

In Denver, our new schedule intersects with a bunch of people heading towards the Pacific Northwest from the South. One of them is a woman in her twenties who has been traveling for a couple of days already from Florida and seems not to have gotten any sleep so has gone into gab-overdrive.

She’s going to her grandmother’s funeral in Washington state, and we learn—from her interminable, loud cellphone conversations—that this does not sit well with her husband, who had had to borrow the money to buy her ticket. Not only that, but a large amount of this cellphone talk is with an older man back in the town where her grandmother is being buried, who treats her so romantically that he even rented a couple of horses to graze in a field next to where they were having a picnic one time. Her husband’s idea of a romantic spot for a picnic is his parents’ back yard in Florida.

At a rest stop, when she hasn’t yet gotten back on the bus, the group of us sitting nearby can’t help but discuss her situation and wish she would shut up about it. Later, I’m the big ogre and ask her to talk more quietly on her phone, at which point she promptly goes to sleep for a couple of hours. When she awakens, she strikes up a conversation with the man sitting next to her. They are sitting directly behind me and I hear her asking him a lot of questions about how he can afford to travel so much.

He is a truck driver. He is from Ethiopia. In the earlier group conversation it seemed he was quite puzzled by this uniquely American phenomenon of a married woman running off to be with an older man. But as she draws him out, I begin to wonder if she is something other than a runaway wife. I hear him mention that he’s recently been in Dubai and a string of Eastern European countries.

In the book Maximum City, by Suketu Mehta, which is about the Muslim and Hindu clashes in India, Dubai is singled out as the endpoint of a process in which “a bag of rupees given to a shopkeeper or diamond merchant in Bombay transforms itself quickly and efficiently into an envelope full of dollars” via “the paperless money-laundering system” of the hawala networks.

These are the same networks that have allegedly been used to fund terrorism, and while I don’t subscribe to the extremist views of I’d say it’s an odd thing in supposedly terrorist-conscious America to be traveling on a nationwide bus system that has no security checks whatsoever, moving people around under whatever name they choose to use, their baggage not inspected for anything at all.

Except, that as we pull away from the Salt Lake City Intermodal Transit Center, where the San Francisco-bound folks part company from those going to the Northwest—such as the runaway wife and the trucker--a security guard can be seen wanding the NW-bound travelers and searching the bags they have with them. For guns and knives? Or for something more serious?



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