Travelling travails

“Travel” and “travail” are both derived from a medieval Latin word for torture. That’s something you can brood on as you stand in the airport-security line — the strap of your one allowed carry-on bag digging painfully into your shoulder — waiting to find out whether you’ll be the next patriotic American to be:

• Prevented from boarding your flight because your name (or a name that looks like yours) shows up on a secret national anti-terror list (as happened in Milwaukee to a group of student peace activists on their way to the April 20 demonstrations in Washington, D.C., according to the April 19 Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel).

• Publicly strip-searched because you’re wearing a turban, though you’re neither carrying nor doing anything suspicious (as happened to Samar Kaukab at O’Hare Airport in January, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which is helping her sue the airport).

• Kicked off the plane because you’re of Middle Eastern descent, and your presence makes the flight crew or your fellow passengers nervous (as has been reported happening to numerous people, including one of President Bush’s own Secret Service agents, as reported by Cox News Service on Jan. 4).

• Verbally harassed by federalized security personnel while they dump out your luggage and paw through your unmentionables in public view (as a rising tide of angry and — contrary to what you’d expect — politically conservative writers of commentaries and letters-to-the-editor in the mainstream media are complaining about).

And all that’s before you’re even airborne.

You may take some comfort in the fact that your chances of being blown out of the sky by one of your fellow passengers are infinitesimal. A far greater threat is catching a cold or flu from them — thanks to the airlines’ continual efforts to pinch pennies on fuel expenses by cutting down on the amount of fresh outside air included in the miasma recirculated in the cabin. The average carbon-dioxide reading for outdoor air is 400 parts per million; in an airplane, it’s 1,756 ppm, according to Health magazine.

This stale air probably also contains traces of the pesticides most airlines regularly spray in their planes. And for every five hours you spend jetting through the troposphere, you absorb as much cosmic radiation as you would get from a chest X-ray — and up to 100 times more during solar storms. (These and other facts are cited by Marshall Glickman in “Unfriendly skies: Flying may be hazardous to your health — in more ways than one,” E Magazine, March/April 2002.)

If you absolutely have to fly, there might be a bright side here: Local airports say the lines in front of the metal detectors are moving faster and more efficiently now. They recommend that you arrive only one hour ahead of your scheduled departure time, down from two hours just after Sept. 11. Eight out of 10 flights nationwide are now arriving at their destinations within 15 minutes of schedule, the highest percentage in at least eight years, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics — because air traffic is still so far below pre-9/11 levels.

Then again, if you will unavoidably be TWA (Traveling While Arab) or are merely disinclined to display the contents of your 8-year-old niece’s art-supply case — as an Xpress staffer was recently asked to do — you might consider one of the following alternative forms of mass transportation.

If you don’t mind $15 omelets

Amtrak’s passenger trains are once again under threat of being shut down for lack of funds. (That’s right, when your tax money isn’t bailing out corporate-owned airlines, it’s helping keep our federally managed train system on track.) If Uncle Sam comes through with a couple hundred mil by the time you read this, however, you can still kick back on the upper deck of a lounge car, sipping pricey drinks as you watch amber waves of grain roll past. And if you can overlook the expensive refreshments, the cost of a ticket isn’t too far removed from a standard airline fare (in some cases significantly less). So if you’ve got a few days to spare — it takes about three days to cross the continental U.S. by rail — this may be the way to go.

So far, the trains seem to be steering between the Scylla and Charybdis of terrorist threat and tyrannical response (but see sidebar, “You have the right to say no”). If you’re over 18, you’ll have to show a photo ID to buy a ticket or check baggage, but you probably won’t be barked at or body-cavity searched. Conductors tend to treat you like a hotel guest, not a lurking threat.

Admittedly, the darn things do derail now and then, sometimes (as with May’s still-unsolved Florida crash) for reasons as mysterious as, well, as that tailfin that recently fell off an airliner in midflight. And for only vaguely explained reasons, the cars are kept very cold inside, so bring a blanket. (Maybe Amtrak makes a few extra bucks by occasionally transporting meat in the cars.)

The train stations are often hard to find, since they’re usually in the oldest part of a sprawling modern town. Print a map off the Web, and allow plenty of time for getting lost on your way there. Greenville, S.C., is the closest station to Asheville, and it’s no exception.

Old faithful

The old grey dog just ain’t what it used to be. Back in the Golden Age of Transportation — the mid-20th century — Greyhound competed with Continental Trailways and other bus lines for your fare. Old-timers recall that the drivers were invariably polite, the passengers came from all socio-economic strata, and the stations were clean, beautiful and well-stocked with good food.

Today, under Greyhound’s monopoly, this author has found that its drivers tend to come in three types: silent and uninformative (common), surly and dictatorial (all too common), and kind and helpful, ready to go out of their way to help you (all too rare, but still out there). The passengers these days are mostly those of us who can’t afford or can’t legally use any other form of travel. Stations are frequently in the seediest part of town, and the cafe seems never to be open during the long, late hours you’re stuck waiting there.

Greyhound’s sole — but still potent — advantage is that it’s cheap. In some seasons, you can travel coast to coast (it takes about five days) for under $100. If you do choose to ride the dog, remember these key tips: Bring earplugs, that thick but interesting book you’ve never had time to read, and a small pillow or rolled-up sweater. Try to sit in the middle: The front seats are for the overfriendly old ladies who want to ingratiate themselves with the driver, while the back seats are for the partiers who think the driver can’t see what they’re doing back there. (He can.)

But whichever way you decide to travel, there’s one timeless bit of advice that’s especially appropriate for us hapless pilgrims in these dark days when the world has come full circle, and highwaymen once again terrorize us while robber barons tyrannize us: Get superstition. Forget about air marshals and pilots packing stun guns. Since time immemorial, those who travel have protected themselves from travail by carrying a magical talisman. It can be a St. Christopher’s medal (he was defrocked by the church back in 1969, but what the heck) or a pentacle or a feather or fuzzy dice or — according to a local Witch we consulted — a small compass, or perhaps a piece of hematite. The best travel talisman of all is any object given you for good luck by someone who cares enough about you to see your safe return.

You have the right to say no

Police and other law-enforcement agents routinely board buses and trains these days, working their way down the aisles while asking passengers to answer questions and show ID, searching luggage and sometimes bodies. (“Vere are your papers?” isn’t just a hoary war-movie-Nazi stereotype any more.) If you’re an American citizen, you have the constitutional right to refuse all these requests, according to the ACLU. And no matter how much the agents bluster and threaten, they have to honor your refusal of consent. If they ignore it and search you anyway, don’t resist. Instead, get their name or badge number if possible (they or their supervisor usually carries the equivalent of a business card), and contact the ACLU at your first opportunity. (The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina can be reached at (919)834-3390.)

It takes guts these days to exercise your civil rights — all the more so now that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled (in United States v. Drayton, 01-631, reported by the Associated Press on June 17) that police can question passengers on buses and trains and search for evidence without informing them that they can refuse.

So it’s up to you to politely advise the person with the badge as to your wishes and to Just Say No (if that’s what you prefer) to questions or searches without a warrant. If the officer threatens to detain you till he gets one, rely on your mutual understanding that he has no legal grounds to do so without probable cause — and exercising your right as a citizen to refuse consent does not (not yet, anyway) constitute probable cause.

Apparently you’ve lost the right to refuse a warrantless search in an airport, however, because even the Supreme Court’s minority opinion assumes that “it is universally accepted that such intrusions are necessary to hedge against risks that, nowadays, even small children understand,” in the words of Justice David Souter.

Forget about the bullwhip

If you do choose to fly, don’t forget to carry a government-issued picture ID (such as your driver’s license). And it’s strongly recommended that you check out your departure airport’s Web site before heading out the door.

You should also scan the Transportation Security Agency Web site (www.tsa.dot.gov) for the latest on banned carry-on items. The agency warns that scissors (all kinds), pocketknives, corkscrews and Mace(TM) are the items most commonly seized at security checkpoints — and you not only won’t get them back, you could be fined up to $1,110 if you try to sneak them through. Pack them in checked luggage, or leave them at home.

On April 30, the TSA issued the following updated list of items that will not be allowed through security checkpoints: Ammunition; automatic weapons; axes; baseball bats; BB guns; billy clubs; blackjacks; blasting caps; bows and arrows; box cutters; brass knuckles; bullwhips; cattle prods; compressed-air guns; corkscrews; cricket bats; crowbars; disabling chemicals or gases; dog-repellent spray; dynamite; fire extinguishers; flare pistols; golf clubs; gun-lighters; gunpowder; hammers; hand grenades; hatchets; hockey sticks; hunting knives; ice axes/icepicks; knives (any length); batons; large, heavy tools (wrenches, pliers, etc.); Mace(TM); martial-arts devices; meat cleavers; metal scissors with pointed tips; nunchucks; pellet guns; penknives; pepper spray; pistols; plastic explosives; pool cues; portable power drills; portable power saws; razor blades (unless they’re in a cartridge); religious knives; replica weapons; revolvers; rifles; road flares; scuba knives; sabers; screwdrivers; shotguns; ski poles; spear guns; starter pistols; straight razors; stun guns/shocking devices; swords; tear gas; throwing stars; toy transformer robots (this toy forms a toy gun); toy weapons.

Many of the above items may be transported in checked baggage. For more information, go to the TSA Web site or call your airline.

To clear up passengers’ confusion about certain items, the agency also issued this list of things that are allowed on flights: Pets (check with airline), walking canes and umbrellas (once inspected), nail clippers with files, nail files, tweezers, safety razors, syringes (with medication and professionally printed label), insulin delivery systems and eyelash curlers.

For more information

Researching these relevant Web sites before you go will spare you a lot of confusion and frustration:

Airports

• Asheville (AVL): www.ashevilleregionalairport.com

• Charlotte (CLT): www.charlotteairport.com

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