Travelling responsibly: stories from the bus

As a resident in Munich, Germany, with family in Scotland, I used to take the plane 1 to 2 times in the year to get to my parents' place because it was much quicker and cheaper than other forms of transport. However, it is generally recognised that air travel produces much more carbon dioxide than by travelling the same distances by train or bus (in most instances). Incidentally – at some point it you might want to listen to my song: Cheap Flight, a sort of black-comic look at the issues of flying, escapism, taking flying for granted, waking up and finding gratitude.

At the time, I had already completed a Masters course in human ecology which was all about the (mainly) non-biological interactions between humans and their environment in the context of understanding the causes of environmental destruction and possible solutions.

The course was a life-changer for me because it made me look personally at the question: “what is a creative, fulfilling life which replaces that inner void people have, which consumerism (the greatest cause of environmental destruction) so greatly depends on to prevail.

I became significantly more aware of many issues including global warming and the relative pollution-effects of different forms of travel. Nevertheless I still couldn't bring myself to do the more expensive, uncomfortable and time-consuming option, in this case – bus. In the late 90s the cost of a return train ticket from Munich to London was prohibitively expensive. I was the mindset: “it would mean too much hardship and almost everyone takes the plane anyway. I can't change anything." This was of course partly an excuse not to get out of my comfort zone.

It wasn't until I started to practice Buddhism where I was taught to start focusing on the power of a change starting with the individual, that my behaviour was transformed. I found a deep passion and resolve growing within me to start taking 100% responsibility for my own actions. I wasn't following any rules, the feeling just awakened and resonated with the Buddhist teachings. I decided to stop flying full stop. At first I was pretty dogmatic about it and could no longer see air travel as justifiable! With time I understand completely that the reasons for travelling by air range from ignorance and selfishness to humanitarian and productive.

But I thought to myself – I can't face living like a hypocrite. The alternatives can't be as torturous as what the people in poorer nations have put up with on a daily basis. So many Africans have to walk miles just to collect water and from a position of comfort, people in rich countries take things like flying for granted. I can't complain about global warming to people and look them straight in the face right now. I am just another pawn in the pollution process.

So I booked my 1st trip with Eurolines overnight to London and there changed to rail up to Edinburgh on a cheap advance ticket. Pricewise it came to about 2 to 3 times as much as a flight and would take about a day, but I was determined to prove whether my life was heading in the direction of real poverty and suffering or not because of my new lifestyle choice.

On that 1st occasion I arrived at my parents' pretty exhausted through lack of sleep so I tried to use the power of my mind to somehow find more rest the next time. Also, I was determined to meet interesting people. During my next trip to the UK I ended up sitting next to a kindred spirit with whom I became best friends. We had reams to talk about – she was also a musician who grew up near to Munich and was living in the quite alternative, ecological town of Stroud in England. There is a lot of interest there in self-sufficiency, nonmonetary exchange of goods and services, local organic food etc. I stayed with my new friend on the return stretch to Germany and even later played some gigs with her! I also managed to get enough sleep both times and needed no recovery the next day!

On another journey I met an architect who busks in Munich (like I used to do). We also became great friends and jammed at the back of the bus, taking care not to disturb anyone. He happened to miss his return journey by a day which meant that we were “by chance" on the same bus coming back. We took advantage of a 2nd opportunity to entertain other passengers and ourselves!

The usual bus driver on the stretch from Munich to Brussels was Belgian and only spoke French to passengers. I always greeted him in his own tongue, so when there was an enforced detour due to a traffic accident on the motorway near Munich, he asked me of all people to sit at the front and do a spot of map reading to help him find his way through unknown territory! On the return journey on a different, sub-contracted bus with completely different drivers, the GPS system broke down near Brussels. I was singled out for no apparent reason and asked to help map read to get into the City!

I even made repeated trips from Munich to Grenada in southern Spain (bus or bus and train) which took over one and a half days in each direction! The most memorable experience was where I met a French Algerian who warmly introduced himself at a bus station near the border with Portugal. We got on and headed straight for the back which, in case you are wondering, is an attempt to get a lying down possibility for sleeping! Another Algerian from Holland joined us, and the 2 countrymen started chatting enthusiastically. My new friend exclaimed how they were like brothers and had been sent together by Allah!

He was quite a burly chap with tattoos and told me how hard life was in the Paris ghetto where he was based -full of drug addiction, violent crime and pseudo-friends that became traitors, backstabbers and endless money borrowers. He had run out of cash himself and was forced to travel to his family in Algeria and where he would work to keep his head above water. He was suffering from schizophrenia and as a result of his medication and the uncomfortable bus environment, he hadn't slept at all during the last 2 to 3 days and felt “highly-strung".He nonetheless showed great intelligence and mentioned that he had read a fair amount of Chinese philosophy. But then he revealed that he was a kung fu expert and made it clear of his anger towards the Moroccan bus driver, who was admittedly quite aggressive and authoritarian in his dealings with the passengers regarding small details like eating inside the bus, which he forbid. The Algerian had already shouted at him a couple of times. Now there is a history of conflict between Algeria and Morocco going back generations, and more recently to do with conflicting oil interests. So I started to get concerned when the Algerian said he wanted to kill the driver. I tried to distract him at 1st with other topics of conversation but it came to a head when we had the next break at a motorway cafe for 30 min. Because the Algerian was still in deep conversation over a coffee, he forgot about the time, and after 30 five-minute driver (understandably) can to us and retorted that we should get back on the vehicle with its waiting passengers immediately. He then hurried back himself.

My Algerian friend was now fuming and it looks serious when he repeated that he was going to kill the driver. I felt like it was one of these situations where the Algerian saw himself pressurised on all fronts, and thought he had nothing to lose by lashing out. So I said all at once, “What would Allah say? Alloa would surely tell you that if you can find the courage within you to search deeply for respect for your opponent, and perceive him as another human being with his own weaknesses and problems, you will have already won your battle." He looked at me blankly for a second, but then his stressed out expression gave way to a broad grin. “You are completely right. That is so wise". He relaxed immediately and explained his new interpretation of events to his other compatriot sitting next to him. He was now chatting cheerfully like a child with a new toy! I then went up to the bus driver and apologised that we caused a delay, saying that my friend was suffering from mental illness and lack of sleep. He, too, visibly quietened down and we continued on our journey. That was the matter closed. Relief. I felt a surge of hope fill me because I had proven to myself yet again that amazing turnarounds are possible when one maintains clarity and offers a few choice words with a positive intention, at the right moment.

I have had many more eventful trips but I am not going to tell you about them here except for one last fitting account. On most of my trips to Granada I had to change in Barcelona with several hours to spare. I would hop on a local bus to a coastal nature reserve which was a pleasant oasis, full of interesting birds, and in order to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. The 2nd time I had been given €80 by a couple of Romanian girls at the bus station in Munich, to transport a large bag to a relative of theirs who would collect it at the station in Barcelona. Legally speaking, I probably shouldn't have done this, but they seemed sincerely nice and I was persuaded that they were trying to save money by not having to pay for official delivery or take it themselves. A man turned up at the other end as promised, and gave me the cash. I then proceeded to the nature reserve with my binoculars, telescope and tripod for birdwatching and unfortunately, also my guitar in a heavy hardcase, because there was no room in the lockers in town. It had been a couple of years since I had last been in the vicinity. I couldn't quite recall which bus stop to get out at because it was one of the series just off the motorway which all looked very similar. I overshot by 3 to 4 km. It was a searing hot day at the end of May and padded off with all my gear, wearing too many clothes, sweating profusely, trying to recollect the reserve entrance. On my way up the road I encountered a pimp sitting on the deck chair in the shade of a large tree next to his mountain bike, and his several prostitutes spaced out optimally along the hard shoulder. I asked all of them where the reserve might be. They all convivially gave me the wrong directions but after much tramping around and losing copious amounts of sweat, it paid off to follow my own intuition. I headed to the shade of the reserve information centre where I chatted with the warden. As I expected, the expansion of Barcelona airport right next to this important and beautiful wetland, was swallowing up areas needed for wildlife. It seemed like a slap in the face, not only because of my efforts to reduce my own carbon footprint by avoiding planes. So I donated €40 to help the conservationists fight their huge battle to preserve what little is left of healthy Spanish (Catalonian) wetlands. 5 min after leaving the hut I was rewarded by getting great views of a family of great spotted cuckoos – a delightful bird species which I have never seen before!

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