A Stranger In My Own Country

August 11, 2006
Day 317

I was able to sleep in the airport until about 6:30 this morning when the noise of people coming and going got to be too much. It was still too early to start making phone calls, so I got a cup of coffee and worked on my computer for a few hours.

My plans with Rohit didn't work out. Of course it was completely understandable and I must offer congratulations to him and his wife. Still, I had to figure out something else to do. I got a calling card for $10 that claimed to be only five cents per minute figuring I'd need to make several calls throughout the day. One thing I noticed right away was that none of the pay phones had callback numbers, so I knew that every call I made would be on my bank.

There were about five information desks in the airport, and I walked to every one of them, but they were all closed. It's very frustrating when you can't even get basic information like a map and bus schedules from an airport. Finally, at about 10:00, one of the information desks opened. I got a map of the city but discovered that I was nowhere near I-75, the route I wanted to take north, so hitchhiking was looking more difficult.

I took a city bus, which was nice but completely empty except for me, to the Greyhound station. I guess that's the only way to get a bus out of town. I was thinking of visiting my friend Mike, so I asked the lady at the desk how much it would be to go to St Petersburg. "41" was her response.

"Dollars?" My eyeballs just about popped out. I spent less than that going all the way through Peru in the last two weeks. St Petersburg is only a few hours from Miami.

"Yes." The lady at the desk must've thought I was crazy.

I decided to think it over and take a walk around. Except that wasn't possible because none of the streets had sidewalks. Cars furiously rushed by me, and there was absolutely no room for me to walk on the side of the road. It was too dangerous even to walk down the street, so I turned back. All of the streets I tried seemed to be built without pedestrians in mind, but I eventually found a safer road with no traffic and saw a sign for "TriRail." I figured it was a train station, so I walked toward it.

TriRail was indeed a train station, but it only went north into the suburbs. I figured there had to be something else for me to do, and my best idea was to use the Internet. Wherever I went in South America, I could always fall back on the Internet to help me out. A terrorist attack was stopped at the last minute yesterday, and I heard that a lot of people were canceling their flights, either out of fear or because they didn't want to deal with inconveniences. Maybe there would be cheap flights available. Maybe I'd find a better bus or train home. Maybe somebody would offer me a ride. I had put out an ad on a rideshare website, and had already gotten two offers. One was leaving too soon, and the other too late, but maybe I'd get another one. The Internet always seemed to solve my problems. Until now.

At the train station, I asked if there was anywhere I could use the Internet in the vicinity. Nothing. I felt completely trapped. This is one of the richest countries in the world. How could there not be Internet access available anywhere? It seemed unfathomable to me.

I was already at the train station, so I figured I'd go somewhere. I decided on West Palm Beach, the second-last stop on the line, partly because it sounded nice, but also because "Mangonia," the last stop, gave me a visual of being abducted.

Just like my bus experience earlier in the day, the train was nice, but almost empty. The entire ride took me through city after city. I saw countless residential, commercial, and industrial zones, but something seemed out of place. There were no people. We went through neighborhood after neighborhood, thousands of houses in all, but nobody was walking around. We even went past a beautiful park with baseball diamonds (something I hadn't seen since starting my trip), playgrounds, and walking trails through a wooded area, but still there were no people. Granted it was the middle of a weekday, but still. I began to wonder if anyone actually lived in Miami.

When I got to West Palm Beach, I went into the Amtrak office. I didn't get many opportunities to travel on trains in South America, but when I did, I enjoyed them more than buses. I figured taking a train back home would brighten my mood. No luck for me again. The trains were all booked for the next few days. I didn't feel like burning through $150 per day just to wait for a train, so I had to come up with a better idea.

On my way out of the train station, a stuck-up girl started to complain to me about the heat. Come to think of it, it was quite hot outside. It was way hotter even than Ecuador, and that's on the freakin' Equator! Still, what was I supposed to do about it? All she had to do was walk in the door next to her and sit in the air conditioning, but instead, she felt the need to sit outside and bitch and moan to anyone who would listen. And as if that wasn't annoying enough, a young, able-bodied man dressed in nice clean clothes asked me for a quarter so he could "buy a soda." It's obscene that a healthy man in a rich country would resort to begging for money at train stations rather than getting a job.

There just had to be Internet access somewhere in town, so I started walking through the stifling heat with my heavy backpack like a man on a mission. I also had a backup plan. The wireless card for my laptop broke awhile back, but I was finally in an area where I could buy a new one. If there was no Internet cafe, at least I could find an electronics store, buy a new wireless card, then look for a McDonald's or some other restaurant that offered free wireless access.

While walking around, I saw enough excess consumerism to make me vomit. Expensive clothing boutiques and trendy restaurants were everywhere. Everyone drove nice cars. I couldn't believe the number of BMW's, Porsche's, and even Ferrari's rolling down the road. I even saw a kid about 16 years old driving a convertible Mercedes worth around $90,000. Everyone seemed to be flashing their wealth like it was nobody's business.

A few weeks ago when I was in La Paz, I was eating some bread that I had bought for about twelve cents for breakfast. An old lady approached me with her hands stretched out. She looked about 70 and just clinging to life. She must have weighed all of 80 pounds, could barely walk, and her eyes were almost completely white. She was probably nearly blind. I had a few rolls left that I probably wouldn't eat anyway, so I gave her one. It only cost me about two cents, but I was moved by her reaction to my "generosity." She thanked me as best she could, but it was barely audible. Then she smiled softly and practically started crying. I had more bread next to me, but she didn't even ask for it. She just turned around and started nibbling, content with the gift she had just received.

And now I had to deal with people driving expensive cars for all distances longer than half a block, complaining about the hot weather while sitting right next to an air-conditioned building, and begging for money despite being physically fit and dressed with clothes straight out of the mall.

I kept walking around looking for some kind of solution that would take me out of this place. The local people were of no help. I'd occasionally see them scurrying from one store to another, but none of them stayed outside long enough for me to start a conversation with them. The few people I did see outside stared me like I was an animal at the zoo. One of them even commented loudly on his cellphone, "This is the craziest thing I've seen all day." They stared at me more than the natives in the remote sections of Bolivia I visited. I felt like a stranger in my own country.

After a few hours of walking I found a McDonald's, and I thought I spotted an electronics store in a strip mall, but it turned out that they sold everything but electronics. The heat was finally getting to me so I walked back to the bus station. I asked how much it would be to take Greyhound to Chicago, and as expected, it would be over $100. I said I'd think about it and asked once again about Internet access. The guy at the counter thought I could use it at the library. Of course!

I walked over to the library and got an hour on the Internet for free. I looked up plane ticket prices, but at the last minute, they were over twice as expensive as normal. That was OK with me, though, because I don't really like flying anyway. Everything changes so quickly when you fly. You walk off the plane and the entire world around you is different, but you missed everything between. I checked my email and found a ride offer up to Chicago, so I figured I'd either take that ride or go with Greyhound.

I tried to call the rideshare guy from a payphone, but his number was long distance, despite being in the same metropolitan area. I used my phone card and discovered that I only had five minutes left. I paid $10 for that card and talked on it for about 5 seconds because I kept getting peoples' voicemails. What a ripoff! Anyway, the guy's job interview in Chicago got changed to later in the week, and he wasn't going to invite me over to his place for four days. Nothing seemed to be working out in my favor.

I was too tired and sick of Miami, so I decided to take the "easy" way out and bought a Greyhound ticket. I got a ticket for 9:30 PM but still had a few hours to kill. I tried to leave my backpack behind the Greyhound desk but the guy working there wouldn't let me. "All luggage must stay with the passenger until the bus leaves," he said to me like he was reading from a script. He was more apathetic than anyone I dealt with in South America. In fact, I couldn't believe how poor the customer service was in Miami in general.

I walked around some more and came back to the bus station in plenty of time to catch my 9:30 bus. When the bus showed up, I walked outside to see the driver yelling at everyone. It was complete chaos. The driver kept telling everybody to stand back and that he wouldn't allow any luggage to go on the bus without a tag. I hadn't seen such a tag before, so I didn't know what he was talking about. The driver was clearly too irate to field any of my questions, so I walked back in and asked the guy behind the desk how I could acquire a luggage ticket. "You'll have to wait in line like everyone else," he said. That just about set me off. I already waited in line when I bought my bus ticket. Why didn't he just give me the god-damned luggage ticket then? It took half an hour to get to the front of the line, but the bus was long gone by then. It didn't really matter, though, because it was full anyway. I had no chance of getting on that bus, even though I had a ticket for it.

The next bus didn't leave until 11:50, so I did the only thing I could do and waited for it. I had my luggage ticket, so I figured I'd get on no problem this time. At 11:00 the bus station closed and I was forced to wait outside. A security guard was there, but he mainly chose to wait the night out inside rather than walk around. Immediately I noticed a lot of shady figures all around me. A few people appeared to be waiting for buses, but bums started coming in and sleeping on benches, and lots of people drove up, looked around suspiciously, and drove off again. This was clearly a bad situation to be in.

At 11:50, the next bus showed up, but it was full too. Two people got off, but there were about a dozen of us waiting to get on. Everyone started pushing and shoving to try to get on. There was absolutely no order to things. The driver told me I'd have to wait another hour along with the ten other people at the station and hope to force my way onto the next bus. I really hated Greyhound at that point. How could they sell me a ticket but not even give me a seat? The entire idea seemed ludicrous to me. Bolivia, where the average annual income is only about $1000, has better organization than that.

I kept waiting in the parking lot and realized why I hated Miami so much. I've seen plenty of rich people before and never had a problem with them. I also have seen a lot of poverty, but I've rarely let it get to me. But the thing about Miami is that you can have a place like the bus station, which is more poverty-stricken and dangerous than just about anywhere I visited on my entire trip, and a five-minute walk away is more opulence than I've ever seen. You have rich and poor side-by-side, the rich aren't willing to anything about the poor, and the poor see the rich right next to them and turn into criminals. I was certain I was going to get robbed sitting there with all of my worldly possessions in the parking lot. It was a horrible place, and I wanted nothing more than to leave, but I couldn't because Greyhound is run by a bunch of idiots who don't care about anything other than taking your money. Why else would they overbook their buses, knowing that some people would have to wait all night for another one?

At 1:05, another bus came, but surprise, surprise, it was full. A few people nearly got into a fight trying to force their way onto the bus, and I just didn't even want to get involved. Part of me wanted the buses to be full until morning so I could tell Greyhound what I thought of them and start walking home. Seriously, I rather would've done anything other than keep sitting there. In over ten months of traveling through South America, I never got treated so badly, and I never felt such a strong hatred for anywhere I visited.

Later, a bus heading toward Miami dropped off a lady. She was about fifty years old, was incredibly skinny, wore high heals, tight jeans, and a low-cut blouse with long sleeves. As soon she got off the bus, she started talking at a million miles per hour about how unfair it was that someone had to get kicked off the bus because it was full and she got picked. She stared babbling uncontrollably to the security guard, who sat back patiently and listened. I couldn't believe how wired she seemed to be at two in the morning. Eventually she rolled up her sleeves and I saw red marks all the way up and down her arm. Great, now there was a crack whore on the premises along with the thugs and bums.

At nearly 3:00, another bus showed up and for the first time all night, it wasn't full. When we pulled away, the only people left other than the sleeping bums were the crack whore and the security guard, who were having a conversation on the only bench with nobody sleeping on it.

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