When the Path and Purpose of Travel Changes

Climbing stairs to reach the Jetavanaramaya Stupa in Sri Lanka.

This year I will be using the train more as a metaphor than a mode of transportation. Passenger train systems are limited. Many of the places I wanted to travel via train were either not on the route map, too expensive compared with other modes of transit, or took so long to reach that it was unmanageable. That’s not to say that this is the end of the line for me traveling by train. I have been a train enthusiast for most of my life. That wonderful first moment of sitting down in a comfy train seat heading out to somewhere I’ve never been before, and handing control to the train crew, will always grab me. I am a five-minute walk to a commuter line that brings me right to the heart of Chicago, a world-class city where the Amtrak station serves as a transportation hub for the entire country. I am fortunate to have such an option. However, train travel is no longer enough. I don’t want to be limited by where the train tracks lead. My path and purpose for traveling has changed. Continue reading

Discovering the Buddhist Way in Sri Lanka

The Polonnaruwa Vatadage“It is better to travel well than to arrive” – Buddha

The shop stalls in Negombo were packed with beads, Batik dresses and bright blue elephant pants that added a burst of color to the streets. “You’re friend just bought a skirt,” called out one of the shopkeepers in English. I laughed at his assumption that all ivory skinned people on the street must be friends. At the same time I knew my own assumptions would be challenged while traveling in Sri Lanka, especially because I was traveling with a new friend, Bhante Sujatha, a Theravada Buddhist monk and native of this country.

Known by many as the “loving kindness” monk, Bhante’s physical stature is small, more like that of an adolescent boy. His smile is boyish too, at times impish. I met him at the Blue Lotus Temple in Woodstock, Illinois, where he is the abbot and founder. Ordained in Sri Lanka at the age of eleven, he has been living in the United States for 20 years. For the past six years he has taken a small group of Americans to visit his native country. I readily accepted his invitation to join them. Continue reading

Walking Barrington

It was 6:45am when Susan McConnell and I stood on the corner of Haegers Bend Road and Lake Cook Road in Barrington Hills, Illinois. Sprinkles of sunlight hit the pavement. The air was cool and pleasant. The sky spread its blue hue for as far as we could see. It was a good day for a walk. Sometimes travel doesn’t need to include flights, trains or cars, nor exotic places and people. The walking journey, or spaziergang as the Germans call it, is a chance to slow down, observe, and refresh one’s outlook. As residents of Barrington, Illinois Susan and I had driven down Lake Cook Road thousands of times. Yet we had never walked its length and knew of no one who had. After traveling across the world this past year, I longed to explore my own backyard. Continue reading

Traveling to Totality

Solar Eclipse viewing hill in Du Quoin

Solar eclipse watchers on a hill at Du Quoin State Fairgrounds.

When traveling I often wonder what matters most – where I go or whom I go with. Two weeks before the solar eclipse I still had no plan. I wanted to see the solar eclipse in totality with someone I knew. I had procrastinated over the three-day, $800 dorm rooms offered at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. When I found someone who would do that, the rooms were no longer available. Then my lifelong friend Joan said she’d take Sunday off from her job at a casino in Joliet and drive down to southern Illinois with me.

It was my former neighbor and friend Dennis who convinced me that Eclipse colander experimentI must see the total eclipse. “It’s life changing,” he said. “Everything you thought you knew is put into question.” Okay, he had been drinking when he said that but he is not one to sensationalize.

Joan didn’t care if I had a plan. “We can always sleep in the car at a truck stop if we have to,” she suggested. While she’s on a tight budget, Joan was the right person to go with. She’s a lot of fun and easygoing. I found a tent in my basement and called the Du Quoin State Fairgrounds to see if they had space available. “Yes, we have lots of space. Just come. No need for reservations,” the woman on the phone said. This would be an ideal place within the path of totality. Du Quoin is about 20 miles north of Carbondale. We would avoid the anticipated traffic congestion and crowds being reported by news outlets. I had attended a rodeo at the fairgrounds so was somewhat familiar with it. Continue reading

Finding Inspiration on a Commuter Train

Commuter trainHeading toward Chicago on a Metra commuter train I didn’t notice the woman who sat down beside me until she said, “I hope you don’t feel crowded.” She had pushed a large piece of luggage toward her legs to clear the aisle. There was a Cub’s game that day and the train was packed with fans. The woman also held a small backpack. She was going somewhere beyond a day trip to Chicago.

I looked at her luggage and said, “No, don’t worry about it.” And asked: “Are you going on a trip?”

“Yes, through the Canadian Rockies on the train.” I got excited and immediately wished I was going with her. She was on her own, an adventurer, and up in years. I had to know more.

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An Overnight Train to Allahabad

Train arrives in Allahabad, India

The Bundelkhand Express #11107 arrives in Allahabad from Jhansi, India.

The train is late. We wait. It will transport us overnight to Allahabad (ALD) and into Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state and one with the largest number of people living below the poverty line. My son and I have been in India for six days. We have yet to see anyone on top of a rail car. We don’t see unaccompanied children. The station in Jhansi is filled with young men, just as we have seen in the streets and shops. When I asked an English speaker about the lack of women out and about I was told, “Many women remain in the home with their families.”

It’s nearing midnight. The station has a waiting room for women only. A few elderly ladies dressed in colorful saris and some mothers with young children sit on the benches wearing forlorn faces. I don’t know if men and women travel in different compartments on this train. In Delhi, the metro trains had a women’s car. I chose to ride in one and found it comfortable – less crowded, less noisy and less smelly than the other cars. Will it matter to the men if I am sleeping in the same space as them? Will it matter to me?

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Train Ride to Orchha and Local Life in India

India passenger train vendorsMy 21-year old son Henry and I are ready to board the 10:10 a.m. daily Thirukkural Express at the Agra Cantt rail station heading for Jhansi. The train ride is nearly the same distance as Amtrak’s Downeaster that runs from Boston to Brunswick, Maine in the U.S.A. The timetables are comparable at about 3.5 hours.

A strong stench of urine wafts near the Express train car door. This is a mystery to me until later I observe a cow urinating on a station platform. Animals co-exist with the human population in India. At a snack stand in the station a monkey plays on the overhead pipes. Outside, a goat leans against the wall. Cows meander and dogs trot along what seems to be a familiar path. I like the daily reminder that we share this earth with many creatures.

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Train Travel to Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal visitorsThe Taj Mahal in Agra is one of India’s biggest tourist attractions. It is a beautiful building recognized as one of the wonders of the world. It is also a great place to people watch. People from all over the world visit the site. I happily agree to pose in pictures for those not accustomed to seeing ivory skinned westerners from America. Traveling to the Taj Mahal by train is easy, especially from Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport.

At the airport near Terminal 3 you can purchase a train token and board the Metro to the New Delhi Station (NDLS). The airport Metro train arrives every 10 minutes and takes approximately 22 minutes to reach NDLS. Security precautions require scanning your bags. At the New Delhi station, board the Bhopal Shatabdi Express. If all goes well you will reach Agra in approximately two hours.

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Train Trip on Sunset Limited to Houston & NRG Park

Sunset Limited Amtrak train

The National Football League is pitting the AFC champion New England Patriots against the NFC champion Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI (51) at NRG Park in Houston this weekend. Country music star Luke Bryan will sing the national anthem and Lady Gaga will perform during the Super Bowl half time show. But there are many more events planned throughout 2017 at NGR Park and in Houston. Here’s how you can get to and from Houston by train.

Amtrak’s Sunset Limited train runs between Los Angeles and New Orleans with intermittent stops three days a week.

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Travel to Washington DC Inauguration by Train

train station at Washington DC

Washington Union Station

Yes, you can still get a train ticket on some Amtrak routes to Washington DC to attend the inauguration of Donald Trump on Friday, January 20th. You will pay more this week than another time, but timing is important when traveling. Inauguration day in Washington DC is an event every American should try to attend some time in their life. If you wait for someone you really like to take the oath, you may end up never attending the event. One person witnessing history in the making can have a ripple effect. Stories get told and shared.

With an estimated 900,000 people attending this year’s presidential inauguration, train travel may be the easiest way to get there. Amtrak has released travel tips for the event encouraging passengers to allow additional time arriving at stations and citing limited access to entry and exit points at Washington’s Union Station. Minor stuff.

Washington Union StationWashington’s Union Station is across the street from the Capitol Building and the National Mall. You won’t need any transportation to get where you want to be. Signs will direct you to the event. There are still some hotels with rooms available that are less than a mile from Union Station. Washington has a great public transit system. However, closed streets will affect bus and car traffic, so take the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) trains if your feet get tired. The Smithsonian station stop will get you to the Mall from wherever you may have wandered. Remember to pack light and plan extra time for almost everything as the city swells with crowds.

Washington DC monumentIf you want to avoid or join the planned demonstrations, marches and protests here is the Washington Post guide with locations, time and dates. Here is the National Mall map to help orient you to the area.

Enjoy the train ride with your fellow citizens. You can tweet about your ride using @Inaug2017 and #Amtrak hashtag. I am @maryklest on twitter.