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General · 27th June 2009
Carrie Saxifrage
As I made my way through the crowded, dirty Los Angeles bus station, among cloth-swathed African women, older Mexican men in cowboy boots and hats, young guys with pants hanging on their thighs, black people in nice coats and tough looking Mexican women with children, I noticed that of the 200 people there, four were white and no one else was wearing a long organic cotton sweatshirt with fashionable, star trekky zippers. I looked for food even though I had lots of salmon jerky and dried fruit from home. Buying food was something to do. In a whole store of food, the only thing that wasn’t sugared or fried was reconstituted orange juice. I bought it, wondering how people survive out here in the main world.

The first leg of my journey to Mexico by bus had taken 23 hours, from Portland, Oregon to Los Angeles. There had been one unscheduled transfer. In LA, my big purple duffle was not among the bags coming off this second bus. I searched in the vast warehouse of abandoned luggage that Greyhound claimed to be a baggage claim. Not there, either.

We’d arrived in Los Angeles three hours late, so I’d missed my connection to Phoenix. When I reached the front of a long line of people to ask what to do, a man in a stained uniform told me that two Phoenix buses had just left and the next one would leave in three hours. He suggested that I get in line right away, because seating would be on a first come, first serve basis.

After an hour, I went to the door the man had directed me to. The sign above flashed several place names in red lights, but not “Phoenix.” The line behind me grew. I put my day pack on the floor and perched on it, reading. After awhile I asked an obese woman to watch it (bus etiquette allows one to hold a place in line with belongings) while I went to call my partner on the credit card pay phone. I dialed the number several times before I got a ring. When the ring stopped, there was silence on the other end, no voice, no answering machine. I spoke, in case any one could hear my words on that other planet, home.

“I’m in LA waiting three hours for the next bus and my luggage is lost.”

“I’m okay though.”

My voice trailed off.

“I love you. Bye.”

I wondered if it had been such a good idea to leave my loving family and beautiful home to be at the mercy of a bewildering bus system, relying on the civility of strangers who might have every reason to resent me.

To buck myself up, I reminded myself why I chose to travel this way. Even though there was not a recycling container in sight, everyone in this bus station, including the woman behind me in line with three young kids who bragged about her pregnant thirteen year old daughter, represent my carbon ideal. In spite of appearances, and unlike my extended family and friends, their travel does not emit many tonnes of carbon with every trip, an impact that dwarfs recycling by comparison.

I considered the English study that identified the link between affluence, education and environmental awareness. The study calculated the carbon foot prints of those wealthy people and then compared it with the footprint of people with lower income and education levels. Even though the wealthier subjects were much more likely to identify themselves as enthusiastically green, and to recycle, compost and use power saving light bulbs, their carbon footprints were much larger than those in the less environmentally aware, less affluent group.

Another study found that the wealthiest eight percent of the population emits half of the world’s carbon. Presumably flying accounts for a substantial portion of this, since wealthy people tend to fly a lot and flight is the fastest way for an individual to fill the atmosphere with carbon and other green house gases.

Accepted science indicates that if each person immediately limits their emissions to three, maybe four, tons of carbon per person, we may prevent the terrible destruction we face from climate change. Yet as a group, affluent, educated people with environmental awareness ignore the fact that their high-carbon luxury can’t continue. They can either live in comfort, drive efficient cars, heat their houses, and buy what they need as well as some luxuries and stay within this limit, or they can fly from Vancouver to Paris, emitting over five tonnes in a few hours. But they can’t do both.

My fellow travelers in the bus station weren’t flying. They weren’t even driving their own car. They were sharing a low-carbon ride.

No doubt they have fewer choices and many would choose high carbon flight if their personal circumstances were different. But they don’t fly and, with climate change, it’s physical impacts that matter, not good intentions.

In North America, a bus with twenty people on it beats all other forms of transportation for carbon emissions, with the exception of a full Prius. A bus with thirty people on it beats even a full Prius. Individual carbon emissions for bus riders are one eighth to one sixteenth of individual greenhouse gas emissions for a flight of the same distance. North American trains are far behind European ones and emit about twice as much carbon as busses. (See chart.)

Many people who do fly feel like they have no alternative because of limited time. We grew up expecting to go on many trips and to get there fast, unlike earlier generations who were fortunate if they got to take a few long trips in their lives and spent months doing so.

This winter, I had time. Even though I’ve given up the high-carbon damage of travel by flying, I haven’t given up travel. I wanted to figure out the alternatives. I wanted to take a longer, slower trip like days gone by. I wanted to spend a month in Mexico learning Spanish.

But taking the bus to Mexico was proving to be no picnic.

Fortunately, my duffel showed up in Phoenix. Also, the Phoenix bus station was much nicer than the station in Los Angeles. But it wasn’t until I crossed the border into Mexico that the bus experience entirely changed.

All the Phoenix passengers had to transfer to a Mexican bus in the border town of El Paso. I suspect Mexicans in Mexico wouldn’t tolerate Greyhound’s dirty, overcrowded buses with broken TVs. Our new bus had fewer seats, much more legroom and was very clean. Also, the TVs worked and showed really good movies.

But the change in bus atmosphere went beyond these physical improvements. Once past the border, the passengers relaxed. They expanded and began to enjoy themselves. It was as if the border transformed us from bus scum into middle class, even well to do, travelers.

Most people in Mexico use buses to travel long distances, not airplanes. And the bus system shows it. There are numerous companies competing for customers with nice buses, frequent departure times and efficient, friendly service.

I disembarked in Chihuahua and looked for my next bus, to Guadalajara. The Chihuahua bus station is everything a bus station should be: huge and airy, with metal ceilings and stone floors. A man carefully traverses those floors with a giant mop, hour after hour, keeping things tidy. Eight bus company booths line the wall, much more like an airport than a Greyhound station.

After traveling for 72 hours, including a recovery night in Phoenix, I was ready to experience one of Mexico’s fanciest busses. The Turis Star counter bragged, “Only twenty three seats,” so I bought my ticket there, even though it was going to ding my carbon record.

At the bus door, a young woman handed me a water bottle and a sandwich: Wonder Bread and American cheese with, thank heavens, a jalapeno plunked in the center. My seat was right below a blaring TV screen. Eventually, the driver turned the movie off and everyone moved their seats back to sleep. A cushiony slab folded down from the seat in front of me to support my lower legs and we all had little pillows. It was comfy. I covered myself with my sarong, settled the little pillow under my head and fell asleep.

This bus stopped only once, for ten minutes, on the 12 hour ride to Guadalajara. I’d avoided bus bathrooms up until now by dehydrating myself. But I had to use it on this bus. It was fine. I started drinking water again.

I spent a couple of nights in Guadalajara before getting on my last bus, to San Patricio Melaque, a town five and half hours west of Guadalajara and about two hours south of Puerto Vallarta. I plan to stay in this area for a month.

This bus was a Primera Plus, with 36 seats, ample legroom and a few little pillows scattered about. It powered past fields of sugar cane and pastures where cows and horses rambled. It sped under brightly painted arches in pretty little towns. Bushes gave way to skinny trees and flatland molded into hills and valleys. The driver’s mix of touching movies and sentimentally beautiful music gave me, to my embarrassment, several rounds of weeping. Rows of blue agave plants shot past like linear bursts of silvery blue stars. I could understand the conversation of the men in the seat ahead of me. One called me pretty. The other said I couldn’t understand a word of Spanish. I felt immersed in comfort and adventure. I didn’t feel as if I was going somewhere. I felt as if I had arrived. I was On the Bus, and it was great.

I arrived at my destination six days after leaving home, including three layover days. I never got that sense of displacement that flying brings, of being abruptly dropped into a different climate and culture. I know exactly what lies between here and home, because I have covered the ground.
Wonderful essay
Comment by gestur on 23rd February 2013
Such a well written essay, chocked full of both adventure and eco-information. I personally have given up on all travel, but this essay is the kind I like to read since it provides me with both a delightful and virtually carbon free holiday. Many thanks, Carrie.
love your style
Comment by Andrea Block on 28th January 2009
wish i was there with you! next time we will rent a bus for our families for the u.S. portion ( Barry's idea)