By Farooq A. Kperogi
Have you ever traveled on a bus continuously for 51 hours (that is, for over two days!) with only occasional layovers? Well, I did two weeks ago. And it was an indescribably thrilling and sublime experience for me.
I traveled from Atlanta to a town called Bristol in the state of Rhode Island, America’s tiniest state located on the northeastern fringe of the country. Bristol is a charmingly picturesque, water-logged town of about 23,000 people that prides itself on being America’s “most patriotic town” on account of being host to the oldest continuous Fourth of July celebration. (Fourth of July is the fond alternative name for "American Independence Day," equivalent to our own First of October).
Atlanta and Bristol are located on almost opposite ends of the cartographic spectrum, kind of like traveling from Enugu to Maiduguri in Nigeria. If you take into account the fact that America is the world’s third largest country and that Nigeria is the world’s 32nd largest country, you can imagine the stretch of land I traveled by bus. But why didn’t I travel by air?
Well, I didn’t travel by bus on purpose. In retrospect, however, I am glad I did. I had been notified of the acceptance of my paper at the “New Media and the Global Diaspora” conference at the Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island, many months ago. And my department has dedicated funds to sponsor professors and doctoral students whose papers have been accepted for presentation in competitive, peer-reviewed academic conferences.
However, I didn’t have the presence of mind to book a flight for the conference one month in advance as is the custom here. Booking a flight a month before the actual flight reduces the cost by more than half.
I had only two options, the business manager told me: inform the organizers that I could no longer attend the conference, or put in my personal funds to supplement the departmental travel budget to purchase the outrageously exorbitant air ticket.
The first option was not an option for me because I had given my word to the organizers that I would attend the conference several months ago. Besides, many notable academics would be at the conference and I didn’t want to lose the opportunity to socialize with and learn from such a rare assemblage of high-achieving, cutting-edge academics.
The second option was not appealing to me either. So I told the business manager that I had a third option. “What’s that?” she asked. “I will travel by Greyhound,” I said. She was overcome with amazement. “Why would you do that to yourself!” she exclaimed. I assured her that I would be well and left her office.
Greyhound Lines, for those who are not familiar with the American transportation system, is the largest inter-city common carrier of passengers by bus in North America. Americans simply call it “Greyhound.” And it is named after the tall slender dog of an ancient breed noted for swiftness and keen sight, which is used in dog racing.
I had traveled by Greyhound bus to many destinations in the United States before. But this was the first time I was traveling for this long on a bus. I became an object of pity among my American friends and colleagues when I told them of my decision.
But why should I be an object of pity? This is an excellent, well-coordinated common carrier with very well-maintained fleets of buses that are, in reality, aircraft on land. The buses are neat and equipped with state-of-the-art toilet facilities. And they are incredibly fast and almost accident-free. Since 1914 when the Greyhound Lines has been commuting people from city to city in this unbelievably vast country, it has had fewer than 10 notable accidents. Plus, it is safe to travel in; there are no armed robbers lurking in the bush to ambuscade and rob people like in Nigeria.
Road transportation in America is an absolute delight. The roads are exceedingly wide, beautifully paved, and gracefully interlocked. Speed limits are religiously enforced and observed. Where there are no police officers on the highway monitoring compliance with speed limits, there are radars installed on the road to check speed in cars, buses and trucks.
Wayfarers’ comfort on the road is also assured. After every couple of miles, there are exits to which you can drive off to find well-maintained buildings with lush green background, called “rest areas,” where you can buy food, take a shower, use the toilet, refuel you car, or simply relax.
But Americans don’t think anything of these conveniences. They take them for granted. These spoiled Americans! That’s why my colleagues had “pity” on me for choosing to travel by road from Georgia to Rhode Island.
But I wasn’t discouraged because I knew I would have a heck of a lot of thrill. And sure enough, my trip was very eventful, adventurous and enlightening. Best of all: I have added to my list of states I know in the United States. I can now boast that I have been to almost half of the states in America.
And many of my American friends are “jealous” of me for this “feat” because states here are like countries, not only because of the huge expanse of land that separates them but also because of the remarkable differences in the cultures of the people of different states. In this trip, I saw a lot of the differences— and similarities, too—between the south and the north of America, which I will discuss later.
But let me first relate my experience of traveling through American villages. I had done this in the past, but the length of my present trip heightened my consciousness of the difference between American villages and ours. Here, villages are so called only because of their size and their exquisite rusticity. They do not lack the conveniences of modern living as ours do.
As our bus passed through the road-side villages, I couldn’t help being held spellbound by their elegant simplicity, their romantic charm, their spatial uniqueness, and their well-maintained lawns and farms. I saw communities that were simultaneously in perfect harmony with nature and in touch with modernity.
The sight of cows, sheep and other domestic animals joyfully gamboling and grazing in luxuriantly green meadows and of well-looked-after children playing boisterously in the background while their apparently contented parents sat on their easy chairs in the porches of their homes savoring, and rollicking in, the idyllic simplicity and chasteness of their exquisite abodes, inspired an inexpressible wistfulness in me. Oh, how I love the American countryside!
Interestingly, even American cities are very green and in constant dialogue with nature. For instance, New York, the world’s most technologically advanced city, is also a very leafy city. Atlanta, another high-tech city, is in fact called “a city in the forest” because it is interlarded with delightfully verdant forests. The viridity of American cities, towns and villages shames me to no end.
I am saying this against the backdrop of what obtains in Nigeria. Although Africa is often associated, in the popular imagination, with being the world’s surviving link to “nature,” our cities, especially in Nigeria, are in truth denuded of nature. There is no Nigerian city I know of that has forests interspersed with houses. We cut down entire forests because we want to establish a settlement.
When I lived in Kaduna, I witnessed an old white man cry a river as former governor Makarfi’s administration ordered that the trees on Ahmadu Bello Way, planted by the late Sarduna’s government in the 1950s, be cut off. Makarfi’s idea of development was to eliminate nature. It took the wailing of the old white man to stop the madness—temporarily.
But people who even make attempts to make amends are vilified. In Nigerian universities, for instance, vice chancellors are often viciously pilloried for merely “planting flowers” and “painting walls.” What is it with us and drab, colorless, and uninspiring environments?
Why is it difficult for even academics, most of whom have studied in America and Europe, to appreciate the wisdom in “planting flowers” and “painting walls”? It renews the soul, re-energizes the spirit, reinvigorates the mind, unburdens the creative impulses and even liberates the intellect.
To be continued next week
1. Voyage to America's Most Patriotic Town (II)
2. Voyage to America's Most Patriotic Town (III)