The train ride that made me decide tourists aren’t so bad after all
I dodge locals. I always have and probably always will. But on the train ride to Washington D.C., I had a tougher time declaring this unwritten travel rule.
I’d previously thought about going to D.C. before former President Barack H. Obama left office, but plane and hotel travel expenses made me shy away from the idea. Then The Root had a social media contest for participants to win free Amtrak tickets to anywhere in the United States, and I was one of the winners. I knew if I didn’t jump on this opportunity now, I’d miss out on a historical visit to the White House — one that would probably never happen again.
This was a perfect time for me to see the MLK Memorial, stroll around Pennsylvania Avenue and find out why people gushed over the Abraham Lincoln Memorial so much. I asked my mother to be my plus one, and she happily agreed. If left up to me, she would be the only person I talked to from Chicago (minus the president and the First Lady, if we’d been chosen from their White House visitor waiting list).
My hangup with talking to tourists
No matter where you travel, there are always a group of travelers who ask you questions like, “Where are you from?” “What’s it like there?” and then give news reports about what they’ve heard. If I wanted to talk about Chicago or get an update on Chicago, I’d have stayed at home. When I travel, the goal is to talk to locals from that area and to get to know what life is like there, not home.
And sometimes you’ll get pulled into the worst conversations in the most beautiful places. I distinctly recall a couple from Chicago counting off recent murders while a group of us were sitting by a boat getting ready to parasail in Oahu’s ocean. Talk about a buzzkill.
So when my mother and I stepped onto the Amtrak train, I scrambled to our quiet corner and charged my tech gear. I was pleasantly surprised by how comfortable the seats were and the amount of leg room I had. That didn’t stop my mother and I from hanging out in the cafe cars to stretch our legs, admire the outside view and grab a snack or two. But I could easily roll up into a ball with my journal and enjoy the ride. I had not been in an Amtrak train in well over a decade and forgot it was fun to ride.
Morning came and we were informed that our packed-to-capacity train required sitting with strangers for breakfast on the dining car. I rolled my eyes to the sky. It did not feel packed, but maybe more passengers were on the train than I suspected. There were no long waits to the bathroom during this trip, which is usually a woman’s way of guesstimating a crowd. I wondered why in the world I didn’t just pony up the money for two plane flights and save myself from this awkward meal. My mother pinched me and demanded that I “play nice” when we got to the dining car.
I’m more of a dog person than a people person. But since nobody had dogs on this pet-friendly train ride, I already felt robbed. Not only was there nothing furry and friendly to greet me, but I’d have to have a dry conversation with randoms, too? Ugh. However, I wanted my omelette and no more pinching from my mother, so I smiled politely when a woman in her early 50s sat down in front of us.
We sat there quietly munching along and looking out of the windows. But as much as I am a dog person, I also haven’t mastered how to be quiet. (It’s the reason I’ll never leave Toastmasters.) So it didn’t take more than a solid five minutes before I started a conversation, and this equally quiet woman jumped right in to match my blabbing. She was a proud mother who’d just come home from seeing her son graduate from college. The photographs came out. The gossip about his girlfriend started. We pondered on dream jobs we still wanted and career goals that were long gone. And all of my fond undergrad memories came floating back to me, remembering my own days of crossing the stage in my cap and gown.
We talked with her for so long that the cafe attendants had to politely ask us if our meals were finished. Breakfast was not over, and they needed to let another group use our table. The people who were previously sitting behind and across from us were long gone, and I never even noticed them stand up. I was disappointed. I wanted to hang out longer with this stranger, but we gathered our things and parted ways.
We passed our breakfast buddy’s seat on our way off the train a couple hours later. I made eye contact with her before I called the hotel shuttle. And this time my polite smile was genuine, and so was hers. Sometimes we pass people by on buses, trains and planes, and may miss out on the opportunity to have enlightening conversations. Most days, I prefer it that way. And while I still have my own opinions about dodging tourists when I travel, an Amtrak stranger proved just how nice it can be to have a chat with a fellow traveler.
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