I spent yesterday on an Amtrak train from Los Angeles to Oakland along the coast of California. I’m here for a few days for a speaking event at Middle East Children’s Alliance tomorrow at 2 PM. I haven’t taken this train since I was about 12 and my family traveled between Seattle and Los Angeles during Christmas. That time all I remember is that there was some weather problem and we had to back up for 8 hours or so and take an alternate route.
This time it was a bit less eventful in some ways, more so in others. This time the train was delated, too, but for a very different reason. Somewhere between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo the train stopped for 2 hours in order to let the Vandenberg Air Force Base launch missiles into the sea. Meanwhile, I sat in my chair, enjoyed the view, the books I read, and the ride.
I decided to take the train because I have the time, there is no ridiculous airport-style security system, and you can bring your own food and drinks on the train with you. There are other perks too: lots of leg room and a beautiful scenic view along the way (see photo gallery below).
But what I did not expect was the less than pleasant dining car experience. During lunch I endured a mathematician sharing his pride at having helped to build drones (those lovely instruments that massacre people in places like Yemen and Pakistan every week, drone attacks that have increased exponentially on Obama’s watch). I interrupted this man and explained the real consequences of those drones and he apologized and was silent for the rest of the meal. But I did not learn my lesson and returned for dinner. This time there was a threesome and all of them were far worse: first, there was an elderly man who began dinner conversation by informing us all that the Qur’an was full of hate and that we must all do what we can to kill the rest of the Muslims around the world. He was speaking to two other men at the table, both of whom were veterans who participated in the murder of who knows how many Iraqi people. They were quite proud of this fact and they all three spent the entire dinner bemoaning the fact that they did not get to kill enough. I held my breath, got my check early, and as I left shared a list of expletives that I had stored up during my meal. The Amtrak employee who heard this threatened to kick me off the train and promised to send a conductor back to my seat to speak with me about this. I said if it is okay for them to celebrate massacres and for my language to somehow be more offensive than that I would be happy to be removed from the train. But no one ever came to find me.
In the middle of the day there were park rangers who boarded the train to narrate various scenic sites along the way. Part of what they narrated was the sanitized colonial missionary Spanish expedition of Juan Bautista de Anza. But what was most telling was their story about how the railroad was bult. They used the referent “they” to refer to the laborers who built it. Not once did they identify those laborers as the Chinese men who worked under horrendous conditions. Not that I would expect much else.
The trip was a reminder of the ignorance that one is surrounded by in the U.S., but also a reminder of the amazing natural beauty.