Post-pandemic travel: planes, trains & the Flixbus

All Bus Destinations: Book your Bus Tickets from $4.99 → FlixBus

The FlixbBus Experience has won my personal post-pandemic travel award. Surpassing Amtrak, several major airlines, Lyft, Uber, even Big D’s Limos and my own beloved 2001 Volvo S40 – just to illustrate the scope of transportation choices made since we were sprung from Covid captivity. Unsure of how much traveling remains in my anticipated lifetime, and even less sure of how many virus variants are yet to come for us, I’ve been doing some serious roaming the country in the past few months. None of it dull. But the FlixBus Afternoon wins the gold medal for sheer adventure.

Pre-pandemic, I had never heard of FlixBus. You may not be familiar with it yourself, unless you’re one of the 100+ million travelers across Europe and the U.S. who have hopped aboard one of the lime green jumbos since they came into being less than a decade ago. FlixBus was the genius idea of three young entrepreneurs in Munich, Germany who wanted to make sustainable bus travel both comfortable and affordable. (Read: environmentally friendly and the price won’t break your bank account.) I learned this post-trip from the FlixFacts on the website; all I knew in advance was that the FlixBus, according to the website on which I purchased a ticket, would have an indoor bathroom and free wi-fi, my two top travel priorities. I’d already gotten to NY from San Francisco on a traditional old airplane.

There being very few ways to get from Manhattan to Ithaca, New York, I booked a seat on a FlixBus. Actually, two seats. On making my reservation I was invited to buy the adjacent seat for $5 and “travel neighbor-free.” I was also invited to add 44 cents to offset my personal carbon footprint through a contribution to the National Forest Foundation. What’s not to love about the FlixBus? But it is the total experience that merits this award.

Former fellow step-sitter punching at fellow passengers

I got to the Manhattan departure site near Madison Square Garden just over an hour ahead of time. Big mistake. FlixBus does not waste its energies (or your money) on things like bus stations, benches or ticket agents. You already bought your ticket online, anyway; don’t you know where you’re going? I finally found someone who seemed to know about things like announcements (there are none) and waiting areas. “See that building across the street?” he said; “you can sit on the steps with those people.”

Stone steps beat standing on sidewalks in 90-degree sunshine. This worked until a drugged-out fellow step-sitter above me fell over and rolled down to the sidewalk, nicking my backpack on his way. I decided it was a good time to recross the street, where I noticed a line forming beside one of the lime green FlixBuses. Someone said it was indeed going to Ithaca, so I stood in line (where the drugged-out former step-sitter was now shadow-boxing other standees) and eventually we departed.

Because drivers can’t easily access the indoor bathroom while they’re working, we pulled into a mega-gas-station/deli/store several hours later. The driver announced a 15-minute rest stop. Most of us filed in to find an iced latte, or hung around doing yoga stretches for the allotted time, at the end of which the driver reappeared and started counting noses. There were not enough. He disappeared back into the store for a while and returned to count noses again. We were still two passengers short. After two more trips and rechecks, two unconcerned passengers mysteriously reappeared and we were on our way.

In Ithaca the FlixBus came to a halt on a downtown street (where there was at least a bench) and bus and driver quickly disappeared into thin air. The other passengers were disappearing about as fast, but I asked one of them where we were and he said, “Green Street.” The Lyft people said (via app) “Are you sure you want to confirm? There are very few drivers and you may not get a ride.” The Uber people just said “No cars available.” I eventually learned there is one taxi company in Ithaca (277-7777, you can at least remember its number) and someone there said they would pick me up on Green Street; happily they knew where I was, in front of Urban Outfitters. Some 20 minutes and a repeat call later, a cab pulled up and I completed my trip from Manhattan to destination.

A few days later Big D’s picked me up – you’ll want to know about Big D’s Limos if you don’t have your own car in Ithaca and would like to count on a ride – and got me to the Syracuse terminal from which Amtrak got me back to Manhattan just in time for Hurricane Ida. An airplane later got me back to San Francisco, and all is well. For post-pandemic travel, though, the FlixBus link was definitely the most memorable segment.  

Happy Old Year from Mother Nature

Planet earthFarewell, 2019.

It’s not been the best of years for human beings. Fires, floods, extreme weather events (Hello, climate change deniers?;) migrants around the globe fleeing poverty and violence; a lot of us in the U.S. watching with horror & dismay as reproductive justice disappears and democracy is threatened on a zillion other fronts.

Arctic - bird on water
Arctic bird in flight

But here’s the good news: The beauty of Nature remains unchanged.

Oh, we can mess with it, threaten it with things like removal of environmental protections in the name of “deregulation.” (Deregulation is reflexively a great good thing? Hello again.)

Galapagos - Turtle
Galapagos Turtle

But as the bumper sticker – too good to waste on a bumper, so it’s still on the bulletin board – some friends sent many years ago says, Nature Bats Last. We let too many glaciers melt; Nature will erode our beaches and flood our low-lying cities. (Could we flood Mar a Lago, please? Just a tiny bit?) We let the planet warm with our irresponsibility; Nature will get our attention with devastating wildfires across multiple continents. Hurricanes. Tornadoes.

Sunrise - SF 10.19
San Francisco Sunrise

Meanwhile, Nature keeps right on offering us beauty: forests, flowers, lakes, creatures of amazing varieties. Recently I was lucky enough to spend a few days in the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador. Just before the oil spill that threatens even that fiercely protected habitat of an amazing variety of Nature’s wondrous creatures of air, land and sea.

Georgia skies 10.19
Georgia skies

 

Earlier in this inscrutable year I was also lucky enough to visit Amsterdam in tulip season, and to walk on some of the fast-shrinking tundra and glaciers of the Arctic Circle. And to watch the sunrise and sunset over San Francisco. Same thing. Nature’s beauty is astounding, even where its carefully-protected creatures and its bountiful provisions are threatened. So here is a fond look back at just a few of the blessings of Nature I crossed paths with over the past 365 – well, 362 so far – days. And here’s hoping we humans will do a better job of expressing our gratitude in the New Year. Peace & joy to us all.

 

dove of peace

 

On Being High on Cities

For a small-town girl, I am embarrassingly in love with cities. Their energy, their sometime sophistication, their proud histories, their devil-may-care attitude toward the constantly undulating (some fast, some pokey) throngs of their citizens as they go about doing whatever it is that city people incessantly do.Prague castle

I fell for Prague the first step I took onto the first of its cobblestone bridges spanning the centuries of its brave survival of constant conquest and cultural assaults. A guide in the Prague Museum taught me a lesson worth a college semester with one proud sentence, “We do not have an army.” Thus giving this U.S.-raised citizen new insight into what armies can really mean.

In Bruges my husband and I discovered out-of-the-way museums and savored chocolate (ink-dark for him; pale for me) with our coffee while watching the canal boats.Bruges canal But mostly we wandered the endlessly wandering streets. It was in Bruges that we perfected the phrase employed for so many years throughout so many other cities, from Chicago to Shanghai: “Let’s just walk.”

I love Porto Alegre not just for being the city of my birth – the last sultry thing I ever did, I often say, was being born in Brazil – but for its mix of gentle warmth and cowboy swagger. On the single visit I made to the place where my father had helped start the Instituto Porto Alegre my husband and I were treated like royalty by representatives of that august institution. We were feted with meat-heavy banquets, tours and an organ concert and sent off with a bouquet of flowers; what’s not to love about a city offering that to a stranger?

Paris. Well, Paris.

DunhuangMy experience of China was one two-week excursion with the Oakland Museum Art Guild, which clearly makes me an expert on all things Chinese including its cities. So. While I loved the bustle (and the leafy former French Concession) of Shanghai, and marveled at the frenetic pace of both Shanghai and Beijing, Dunhuang stole my heart. Maybe because it’s been around since – oh, 2,000 B.C., there was something casually settled about Dunhuang. Everyone seemed to move more slowly, wrapped in the desert air, smilingly unconcerned with invading tourists, of whom there were not so many as elsewhere. When I asked one colorfully-dressed woman, through several bungled words and a lot of stupid gestures, if I might take a picture of her adorable tiny daughter, she grinned, pulled me to her side and insisted in a flurry of rapid-fire instructions to a passerby that he take a picture of the three of us, the toddler nestled happily in my arms. How could I not love Dunhuang?

I was in St. Petersburg at the end of a river trip from Moscow that had been pure joy and a time of revelation. But I had OD’d on castles. Plus, I really wanted to see the Dostoevsky Museum, which was not on the agenda for my tour group.Dostoevsky Museum So I set out on my own, equipped with a map by which I planned to count bridges and a total ignorance of the Cyrillic alphabet. My secret weapon was the ability to approach perfect strangers, point to my map and say, “Dostoevsky Musee?” in my most beseeching Southern accent. Six or seven instructors in I wound up with a polite gentleman who suggested, in severe Slavic gestures, that it would be best if he lead me there. I would never otherwise have found the nondescript entry into the apartment where the great man himself lived his last months, a small but remarkable museum that leaves one feeling as if Fyodor just stepped out for a drink. I was mesmerized by St. Petersburg.

Though I will always leave, and find, my heart in San Francisco, it can get a little fickle about New York. A recent visit coincided with the Twin Towers memorial lights of 9/11, and visits to two of my favorite museums in the world: the Whitney & the Morgan Library, and a stroll of the High Line from end to end and back.

Twin Towers Lights 9.11.19A discussion about New Yorkers could’ve been a discussion of city people anywhere. My New Yorker friend argued that his compatriots are rude and insensitive. I said, “I can stand at the top, or the bottom, of any flight of stairs anywhere with my carry-on bag, and within 30 seconds someone will appear and ask, ‘Would you like help with that, ma’am?’ Never fails. People are people, just more densely so in cities.

Oceans and beaches and mountains and parks remain full of wonder for me; cities are full of wondrous humankind.

Staying Secure in the Digital Age

Security - dr licenseThis space is proud to announce my having passed the California driver’s license test. Which means – if my eyes and my car hold out – I’m good for another five years, with a valid ID in my wallet. Or so I thought. Turns out I neglected to apply for a Federal Compliant Real ID driver’s license rather than a regular old driver’s license. Who knew? As of October 2020, unless I go back to the DMV and successfully complete whatever I inadvertently omitted, this lovely new license will not get me through the airport. If I knew not, I know now: Instead of the golden bear signifying this is a Real ID Driver License in the upper right corner, my brand new license bears the small print: Federal Limits Apply. No getting into the Federal Building for me. Sigh.

At the moment I am headed out of the country and into an exploration of the Arctic Circle (more on that later, when we find out how many glaciers haven’t yet melted, and after I return to internet access territory.) My new license, combined with my old but still valid passport, almost got me into the security check at SFO. Security - TSA preWould have, actually, except the TSA lady said my boarding pass didn’t have the green check for my TSA Pre-check. As I was not about to join the mile-long non-TSA Pre-check line, I returned to the Air France people and eventually procured a new boarding pass with the magic green check. Happily I had my Trusted Traveler number with me.

A few years ago I drove (legally) out to the TSA place and spent the best $85 I’ve spent in a long time getting finger-printed, answering a bunch of questions and – after I got back home – waiting a few months before I learned that the Transportation Security Administration, an agency of the United States Department of Homeland Security thankyouverymuch had satisfied itself that I was not much of a threat to public safety. Ever since, I have happily skipped the endless lines waiting to get through airport security in favor of the quite manageable (usually, unless it’s Hartsfield-Atlanta) TSA Pre-check lines.Security - Gl EntryTSA Pre-check will get you out of the country, but good luck getting back in. One emerges from a wearying international flight to be greeted by the endless lines waiting to go through Customs.

But I now have Global Entry!! Like TSA Pre-check, Global Entry is a program of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, all of this overseen by the Homeland Security people. If our homeland is not secure, I don’t know why. (Well, yes I do, actually, but Mr. Putin told Mr. Trump that everything is fine, so we shouldn’t worry about Russia.)

On my return I guess I’ll trudge back to the DMV and apply for a Real ID to go with my TSA Pre-Check, Trusted Traveler number and Global Entry card and – well, I do have a Social Security number, and a U.S. passport and a Brazilian passport (possibly expired now but still . . .) and 4 pages of saved passwords somewhere, if I can remember where I filed them. All of these, with luck, will be all the global security protection I need in this modern day and age.Security - Univ Enroll It is tricky to keep track of it all. One has to hope that our planetary borders are secure.

And meanwhile, God bless us every one.

Planet earth

Pushing the Vacation Mode Button

Decision making 101IMG_1580

Ever had a vacation plan come unhinged? You get to the hotel and the reservation was made for last week? The great aunt brings two cousins who don’t get along? Intestinal flu joins the party on the second day?

This writer’s recent vacation, a visit with friends and family in Georgia and North Carolina, was not like that; but it had elements of challenge. Primarily because I am too compulsively news-addicted and task-oriented for a quick transition into vacation mode. Everyone should have a vacation mode button. A switch that goes from On!: World hunger. Gaza v Israel v Syria v Egypt. Reproductive justice. – to – Off!: Vacation.

And right above the vacation-mode button, a plan-and-preparation dial.

For openers, a vacationer arriving on the east coast fresh from parched-dry California can face a tiny injustice: heavy rains, flash flooding and pea-soup fog throughout agonizing hours of driving continuous-corkscrew two-lane mountain roads. And for travel entertainment there is news of the day delivered by high-stress radio commentators with conspiracy theories, and constant replay of Luke Bryan offering this response to pain and loss:

“I’m gonna set right here. On the edge of this pier. Watch the sunset disappear. (Pause.) And drink a beer.” It does not help to learn, on arrival, that every other person on the planet knows Luke and his plaintive song; and perhaps, if one were not driving an unfamiliar rental car on an unfamiliar rain-slicked two-lane mountain road it wouldn’t seem designed to drive one to drink. (Speaking of which, you might enjoy this recent commentary on driving sober.)

The plan-and-preparation dial could avoid this. NPR exists in North Carolina. Weather reports – handy for leading one to pack boots and sweaters rather than white shorts and bathing suits – can also indicate that mountain driving is not advised for the faint hearted. (On mountain roads, turnouts are our friends. Monster trucks driving at high speeds regularly, mysteriously appear just behind the faint hearted driver; a preparation dial would plot the nearest turnout.)

But it is the vacation mode button that’s most urgently needed. Some of us, habitually immersed in jobs, tasks, world news, causes and self-perceived saving of the planet, do not slip easily into vacation mode. How, for example, can you be on a conference call about reproductive justice or cycles of poverty on Tuesday night, and blissfully oblivious to everything but the sand castle you’re building Wednesday morning? People do this all the time, but some of us simply do not get it. Everybody else is fluent in Vacation Speak while our brains are stuck on WordPress.

Ours not to reason why. Maybe it’s not all that super cool to be able to talk roadside antiques and croquet games and beach cabanas in a steady, sophisticated stream, but it seems so to the disoriented new vacationer. Surely – because this is definitely uncool – the new vacationer can shut up about military incursions in the Middle East and think of something appropriate to moonlit seashores. Or at the least, make the transition before it’s time to go back home.

Couldn’t someone invent a little half-moon Vacation Mode icon to tattoo on the forehead?

I’m just askin’.