Touring America? Avoid Amtrak

Touring America? Avoid Amtrak.

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Touring America? Avoid Amtrak

The stories of travelling in American cannot be complete even in the age of supersonic jets without the railroad. The history of its development dates to the 1870s according to Wikipedia although the group agreed that passenger travel has seen better days.

In buying a single flight ticket to Denver, I was hoping to rail through the distance from Denver to Milwaukee. From Milwaukee, I foresaw two possibilities – another rail trip back to Ottawa through Toronto or a boat cruise to Montreal. If anything convinced me that cruises are not in my horizon, it would probably be the tour of USS Little Rock in Buffalo,NY which happened, thanks to the inefficiency of Amtrak.

Before I hit buffalo, I bought a Milwaukee ticket in Denver with a scheduled stop-over in Chicago. It was supposed to take off at 7:10pm. I left home to arrive the Union Amtrak Station at least one hour before the expected arrival of the train. On arrival, I was advised to take another three hours as the train is delayed. Not one to give up exploring the city of Denver, I immediately jumped on the free mall ride to the very end of 16th Street.

I was in luck as the city’s food and music carnival was in its last day. I quickly disappeared I the colourful glitz of the occasion and though most stands were about closing, I was able to buy a ticket for my first tequila ever. It was a little cold and I was hoping the spirit would warm me up because I was not thinking of buying a jacket. Soon, I was moving from bandstands to the first free performance of what I initially thought was a mild form of martial arts performing to music and singing. I later learnt it was a Capoeira performance with its origins in Africa. I couldn’t resist its drumbeats, choral singing and the acrobatics even though I had no clue of its origins. Drums would always attract me.

By the time I glanced at my watch, It announced I better start moving towards the station if I was not to miss was my train. My special friend had advertised a particular street drummer and I was eager to check him out. I found him right at the major intersection with his set of drums and a paint bucket. The melody oozing out of the odd combination and the artistry he put into it was captivating. So, I settled down to capture him on video. He politely asked me to put that on DowntownDenver website so he could see himself perform for the first time. I promised I would try.

I hurried back to the station but at 10pm, the train was not on its tracks. It did not come until a few minutes after midnight. There was anger and frustration written on the faces of passengers as we each looked for a spot and settled in. I found a spot beside a pretty Venezuelan and settled for the ride to the Windy City – Chicago.

The historic ride I envisaged turned out to be a nightmare. For the next day, we were on a seemingly endless journey. Our train took puffing stops for smokers and towards the end even managed to clip the rear of a vehicle further delaying us for nearly an hour and a half while traffic police and the train owners had to guarantee that the train was safe to continue its journey. All through, the doors were locked shut even though food and drink supply on board had virtually depleted. By the time the train we arrived Chicago, the last train to Milwaukee had left.

Unkempt and unwashed for a whole night, I hauled my bag to the information centre where a lady was trying to chorale a long line of passengers to their next destination. I and four other passengers had Milwaukee as our destination. We were shepherded into a waiting luxury bus. We arrived the Greyhound Station, Milwaukee exactly 2:30 am for a journey scheduled to have ended 5:30pm the day before. I was not expecting to wake anybody at such an ungodly hour.

Those with better knowledge warned me never to take a train ride except I had nothing doing. I have always loved the train. Three days later, I was back at the Milwaukee terminus booking another Amtrak ride to Toronto. Informed that my train would leave Milwaukee at 5:30 pm but that I was free to take the ride to Chicago at any moment on the day of departure, I was fired up for more adventure. When I checked the schedule, I was to have at least five hours of downtime in the Windy City before my final lap home to Canada.

I took the morning Ride to Chicago and and took a boat tour of the Windy City before the lap to Buffalo. Here again, there was a delay of nearly two hours. To kill time, I went on a tour of USS Little Rock and visited the premises of Elies College and the old Post Office. By the time I was back, the train had finally whirled into the small station for my final lap.

The trip from Chicago to Toronto was no difference even with the customs formalities between the borders of Canada and the US. By the time we arrived Toronto there were no trains going to Ottawa.

Here is my advice – unless you have no appointments, avoid the trains in the US.
Will I still do the rail in the US? You betcha. I met great people on the train one of who generously offset part of the bill for a miserable continental breakfast and the legendary tips even for bad service. But, you don’t have to be like me.

 

This Too Is America – III – Milwaukee

Author trying out the 2014 Harley Davidson bike

Author trying out the 2014 Harley Davidson bike

Milwaukee

No thanks to Amtrak which turned a six hour journey into a 12 hour nightmare, the bus approached the Greyhound Station, Milwaukee at 2:30am. Even that late on Sunday, I could hardly wait for daybreak to locate the Harley Davidson Museum. Although I do not owe one, HD power bikes have been childhood obsession.

After paying $25 for the ride to 28th Street North that early morning, I decided that if I was to stay on budget, I would have to do a bit of trekking or find out the schedule of the Milwaukee County Transit System. My host, a charming Chinese lady, speaks no word of English, so early in the morning, I carry out my usual recce of the neighbourhood. What I saw informed me that I would have to be careful who I associated with and that I would have to trust my instincts to get by.

An Indian owned shop on 27th Street assured me there is no day pass in Milwaukee.
‘You can buy a vignette or a week pass for $17’, he said with finality. I thank him and walk back home to a nearby shop where I bought three vignettes for $6 from an Arab shop-keeper who I found out runs the only shop not barricaded in.

Within minutes, I was on the 57 back to Greyhound Centre first because I had noticed wifi and second, it was clean and looked like the kind of place to get adequate city information. The bus driver told me to walk down and take another bus to the HD Museum but I ended up on the pristine campus of Marquette University and decided to check out its Haggerty Museum.

The Haggerty Museum – Marquette University

Visiting museums has always had a sombreness for me akin to visiting place of worship. The most treasured that links generations, the hours of work that culminated in the arts and artefacts and the stories that accompany them evokes reverence. There are two floors to this one. The first is titled ‘Print Room’ heralding arts of the European Renaissance, mainly paintings, photography and ceramics dating to the 16th Century among which is an ornate Harvest Jug dated 1810.

The top floor is titled ‘Aesthetic Afterlife’, the work of six Wisconsin contemporary artists working around the theme of globalization and consumerism. They include William Anderson’s Mi er wa qi, Heather McCalla’s whose appeal to retaining domestic objects blends thematically with Hongtao Zhou’s Reconstituted. These artists turn jetables furniture, fashion and accessories into objects to be reexamined. Admittance to this museum is free.

The Harley Davidson Museum

From here, I got a proper direction to the 111 year old Harley Davidson Museum across the lake. With my student ID, the total tour package, including the audio tour amounted to less than $20. This museum with its collection of perhaps over 3,000 motorcycles is perhaps the only one which permits flash photography, a bonus for me and two of my best accessories – my Nikon D3200 and the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. Dodging visitors in range, I reasoned that the best way to do justice to this tour would be a combination of video and flash photography.

Watch it here – http://youtu.be/4nC70Iqc_WQ

The museum was built to keep you, and it is worth staying. There is a fantastic restaurant serving food and drinks and a souvenir shop selling the odd Harley Davidson memorabilia and rider’s accessories. They do not come cheap but neither do the cycles which range in retail price from $19,000 to as much as $50,000 and has kitted among several army and police forces, including fire services and courier companies. The icing on the cake of this tour is the opportunity to pose on the latest models of the power bikes, get your pictures taken by the computer and mailed to yourself or loved ones. Then, a unique opportunity to test ride them outside the museum entrance.

Milwaukee Art Museum

Designed by Santiago Calatrava, the Quadracci Pavilion’s Burke Brise Soleil sits on the banks of Lake Michigan like a bird with its wings in full span. Indeed, you can watch the wings open and close at specified moments. There are two other buildings incorporated – the Kahler Building and the War Memorial Center designed by the duo of David Kahler and Eero Saarinen. This 117,000 square feet gallery holds over 30,000 works from antiquity to the present. Tour tickets are less than $20 without the audio tour.

It is made of four levels with ample underground parking, restrooms, restaurant and cloak rooms. Non-flash photography is allowed in certain areas, large bags and backpacks are not.
Museums are difficult to write about in the age of video and a few clips would illustrate the objects in this museum.

General comments

Milwaukee is cool except that every one in three adult puffs cigarettes. Power biking here is done without helmets, same with driving without belts. African-Americans seem to be on the lowest rung of the ladder. From 12th Street up, you will find young men in groups smoking and totally prone to mischief. Indeed, a shooting incident occurred two days after my arrival on 28th Street. Sirens blared through the day and night. Shop owners, (including gas stations) are barricaded in with bullet-proof glass casings. Indeed Milwaukee’s prisons are swarming with inmates, 20,000 of them according to local radio. While downtown Milwaukee is in construction boom, parts of the residences are dilapidated and in urgent need of fixing.

Next destination Chicago, Illinois – daylight stopover.

 

 

This Too Is America: Impressions of a solo holiday – II

Denver Capitol

Downtown-Denver_16th-Street

Picture – 1. Above – The Denver Capitol in Colorado
Picture 2 – Below – A statue of a cow with graffiti also on 16th Street

As I approached the Colorado Capitol, one thought that kept bugging my mind is how easy it is for the people to connect with their leaders and the institutions that runs things in America.this is the equivalence of any Government House in any state capital in Nigeria. Yet, until recently when it moved out the state Supreme Court from this building, the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary where quartered in this building. They had been for a hundred years plus.

Once I’d passed the doors, a stocky black man in black pants and ash-coloured shirt greeted me warmly and asked me to empty my pockets of any metal, including any ‘jackknife’ I might be carrying into a tray and then walk pass the metal detectors. A smile creased my face at the thought of carrying any weapon at all here.

‘Which part of Africa is that accent from’, I asked.
‘Ghana’, he enthused proudly asking, ‘and you?’
‘Nigeria’, I responded trying to hide my shame at the rut in my own land.
Minutes after the screening, I was standing with a group of eight or so pensioners ready for a free tour of the seat of government. The tour begins at the office of the Governor, currently occupied by the former Mayor of Denver, John Hickenlooper, who apparently was outside the building addressing the press. It is just past ten.

This imposing building, built over a hundred years ago retains not just its architectural beauty. It’s exteriors are made of granite, the pink stone is made of rose onyx found only in Beulah, Colorado and nowhere else in the world. It has been chiseled to show Abraham Washington on one side of the wall. The grand staircase on the first rotunda is carved in oak leaves and acorns cast in pure glittering brass. There are eight murals on the first floor depicting the history of Colorado (Spanish for red earth) and it’s quest for water, after all, this town with all its green grass was built almost on arid land.

Most of the windows are adorned in stain glass, with the drawings of the people that made marks. On that ground floor is the handwoven Women’s Gold which reminds citizens of the role that women played in building this city in its first centennial. It took 3,500 people stitching to complete and was made in two years.

Gabby, our svelte guide explains that the renovation of the dome is a 30-year ritual, asking ‘don’t you guys return here in 30 years because there will be another renovation going on’. The simple joke explains the planning that goes into maintenance which is taken seriously anywhere in North America. The top of the dome is draped in 200 ounces of pure gold mined from Colorado and donated by citizens. The visible coating is thinner than toilet rolls.

From the Capitol, you can see the City and County Building as well as the Mint which prints part of the American dollar coins and leaves an innocuous letter D for any inquisitive person – so next time you get an American coin, check it properly.

The 45 minutes tour over, it was time to check out what else was the city of Denver has to offer. So, I walked up the street to check out the imposing Catholic Church building with the statue of Pope John Paul now adorning its side. A few metres away are junkies and homeless camped together and smoking away the rest of their misery and maybe their lives too. I took a few shots and moved towards downtown Denver. But the red earth building of the Presbyterian Church attracted my lens and the building a few metres away with giant domes almost like a mosque dome.

Downtown Denver is like any other. Architects, like sculptors have engaged themselves in a war to show who is the best. The results are picturesque giving the stuff you want to use as screen cover. The buildings are imposing and glittering in the searing heat. The cars whine pass them as if to mock their imposing motionlessness – follow me if you dare!

I can spend the entire day admiring the glass buildings and it’s competition with the clear blue skies, or is it the snow-capped mountains? But I can’t resist the allure of 16th Street. Neither can the city of Denver, for they have provided free bus rides from the Union Station down to the very end. A pamphlet here describes the street as ‘buzzing with activity’, but it’s an understatement. On this sunny afternoon, the street is a beehive. Workers are on break, their Creasy shirts, sharp pants and trendy shoes pounding the earth and colouring the atmosphere with buzzing tourists.

This street invites you to play one of the many pianos colourfully painted and strewn across its length. Yes, and artists and musicians have take up the challenge adding music to the buzz of the city. There are various performing arts and the array of restaurants and bars take no notice of the labour unions shaming every part of the glitter – from the banks to CEO of companies with which it has beef. There are stores catering to the greed of tourists with memes on plaques, sculpting and of course T-shirts. One even offers Colorado Gold in an encasement.

It is difficult not to be entranced by it all. So, I find a spot in a Japanese eatery serving a combination of teriyaki meat meals,brown rice, sushi and side salad. I also order a strawberry/mango drink and sat down to soak in the atmosphere. Remembering that I had not really perfected my use of chopsticks (perhaps never will), and eager not to spoil other people’s appetite, I lied. Yes, I confess I lied to the waitress and asked her to please pack my meal as takeaway instead, feigning an important message.

Minutes later, I was taking the free bus ride provided by the city to take me back to the Union Station and back to Colorado Station. I could hardly wait for the meal as my stomach was now grumbling. Sorry, did I say that a Denvan actually paid for my first train ride as he saw me fuzzing over the ticket vending machine at Colorado Station earlier? Oh gosh, there I go, giving away my dirty little secrets.

 

 

This Too Is America – Impressions of a solo holiday – I

Morrison_Red_Rock_Mountains

 

Picture here is the magnificent Red Rock Mountains in Morrison, near Denver, Colorado. Pix: Author

Day Two. Woke up and went to see my surroundings. The Colorado Mountains are looking down on me from the distant, rotund and resplendent, wearing the evidence of a long winter like a cap. The thawing ice is splashed on the topmost part of the mountains, the way my late mother would spread her gari after it must have been fried. The difference here is that the snow is not afraid of the rains. Back then, we would, because a smile from heaven could destroy the efforts of weeks of preparation and blight our endless struggle against our landlord – poverty.

I loose myself from the overbearing thoughts of the poverty that my parents never successfully fought. I loose my thoughts from the fact that I am tailing that same road and focus on Colorado. This part of town is booming. On East Warren Avenue are storage units. I take an upper walk, my immediate task is to stock up on essentials – the odd biscuit, bread, eggs, oats and any lactose free milk.

But all I see are the storage units, the big cars and the classic ones, adding their bits and pieces to the phenomenon of global warming. There are also liquor shops here, I guess liquor is the fuel of recession. Most people soak themselves in it to gloss over reality, except that when their eyes are cleared, the trouble is still there, sometimes calcified.

Jerusalem Market, the signpost says. I walk past, cross one or two streets and all I see are the same things, car shops, insurance companies, collision centres aka panelbeaters for my Nigerian audience.

So I take a few shots and out of curiosity pulled the wooden doors of the Jerusalem Market. A man emerged from behind the counter as I filled my hands with a few items.
‘Hello, good morning’, he says. My mind wanders off. This is America. I am freaking black, wandering into a shop wearing khaki shorts and T-Shirt. Is this guy caressing his Luger under the counter in case…? I returned the greeting and went for a basket as I found a few more things I might want to add to the list – Pistachios, digestive biscuits (they don’t sell those ones in Ottawa?); dates and one tea bag.
‘Are you new in town’, he asks in what I now evidently see as smattering English.
‘Yes’.
‘Where are you from’, I asked?
‘Libya’, he responded. I could make out his scrawny face now, sucked of its juice by excess use of tobacco. He had just rushed out for a fix in the two minutes I’ve been here. I offered my hand, and felt the warmth of a brother.
‘And you, where are you from’, he asked?
‘Ottawa’, I replied. Then I saw him bury his head a little and reckoned, he had no clue where that is. ‘Canada’, I offered. His face brightened up. ‘How is life there? I mean the economy?’
My countenance brightened. Merchants know more about the American economy than Ben Benanke or who is in charge now?
‘Very good generally, although elections are closer in Ontario and people are looking at dollars and cents. The Liberals want to sack people so as to grow the economy and the Tories want to remain in power. There are no jobs, at least in Ontario,but maybe it’s different elsewhere. I get your idea, I am from Nigeria.’
‘Oh great’, he said. I couldn’t believe that, but pride wouldn’t let me say so. So I diverted the conversation.
‘Sorry bro, they messed up your country. How long have you been here?’
‘Since nineteen ninety something,’ he responded. ‘I think it will get better, it will…take time, but maybe it will…get better.’
‘I agree. Mine is screwed up too, but differently. I think it would have been better to let the mad man do a gradual transition rather than destroy the whole country the way it is.’
‘It will get better’.
‘I hope so,’ I concluded as he tallied my purchases.
‘$19.95’, he said as I handed him a twenty dollar bill. He handed me my change and asked what I do.
‘Am a tourist’, I replied, a false sense of self-importance bloating my ego.
I walk out from the shop and down on Colorado avenue where I picked a freshly baked whole wheat bread. Then I walk further down, across a major road and much as the glitter of the cars in the sun, a girl disembarking from a city bus and two young black boys sitting legs tucked in just in front of a laundromat caught my eyes.

This is one part of Denver, Colorado. One part of America. But the other part is equally interesting, perhaps more interesting than this glitter. For this glitter is a fake gloss over the underlying rut. And as I contemplate dropping by a massage parlour to see if they can bring back peace to my cramped feet, the evidence of the other part of America, the decaying part struck me.

A few blocks away in a mortel are two squad cars. A woman was leaning on the window of one and I couldn’t see what was in the other. Too many documentaries reminds me that where there are more patrols, there may be clear and lurking danger. So, I activate defence and careful mode. This motel, though not pristine in looks is well occupied. There are cars and a few trucks in its parking lot.

But just across the street is another one, derelict, it’s brown blocks complaining of disuse. A few light bulbs telling the unwary passerby that this too was once like the other one. What happened? It is the testimonial of a part of America that nearly eight years of Obamanomics is unlikely to resuscitate. This part of America is a relic, just like the boy approaching me, his shorts dropping from his mid-section, his walkers bearing testimony to the many roads it has trod.

His eyes met mine but there was no message of love there, neither is there hate – just that hollowness that sometimes make you think that people are saying – ‘I am not ungrateful God, but really? Really? Is this all there is to life?’ I crossed the street so that our paths do not jam. I am not afraid of him, and I don’t think he is even conscious of my passage, but I have watched too many episodes of ‘The First 48’ not to take care.

I returned to the bar for where I had called my host the night before and ordered a hamburger and the most favourite shot of the house. I paid my bills, hurried my burger and threw the Lays Classic chips in my bag. I have no intention of eating this, maybe someone might. It’s Day Two and am supposed to be catching up on lost sleep, yes and find a way to stay in connection with the rest of humanity outside wifi now that my phone did not roam.