Travel: an environmental dilemma

While boys my age huddled in their bedroom closets sneaking peeks at scantily-clothed women, I nurtured fantasies of another sort. “State Capitol Building,” (city, state), I’d write. “Dear Sir: Please send me information about your state for my school project. Sincerely yours, Nancy Werking.”

In return for my effort and three-cent stamps provided by my parents, I received brochures from nearly every state. I filed the materials alphabetically in a cardboard box, stored in my bedroom closet.

It was the second state, Arizona, that most captured my imagination. (Alaska hadn’t yet been admitted.) Arizona’s P.R. materials had glossy photographs of rugged mountain peaks, varieties of cacti, Native Americans engaging in rituals. Colors were the browns and oranges of the earth, and turquoise.

I’ve just returned from seventeen days in Arizona. While Facebook friends back home complained about frigid temperatures, I absorbed the warmth of the Arizona sun. My husband and I hiked in the desert and visited old Spanish missions. Every morning I ate breakfast out on the balcony of our little efficiency apartment.

It wasn’t my first trip to Arizona, but the first time I’ve considered how my travels impact the environment.

My husband and I flew round trip from Charlotte, NC, to Tucson, AZ. “According to the Department of Energy, an airplane emits 21 pounds of carbon dioxide per gallon of A-1 jet fuel it burns. If we need 6,900 gallons to fly a full plane round trip New York to Phoenix, that’s an emission of nearly 145,000 pounds of carbon dioxide” (http://gscleanenergy.blogspot.com/2013/04/how-much-gas-does-it-take-to-fly-you.html).

We rented a car. Budget upgraded us to a Chevrolet Impala, which gets about 22 miles per gallon in combined city/country driving. We drove an average of eighty miles a day, each day burning around four gallons of gasoline. Don’t ask me how, but a gallon of gasoline produces about 20 pounds of carbon dioxide.

Then there’s the issue of water. By definition a desert receives little rainfall. Yet, like the nearly million people living in the Tucson area, we regularly showered, flushed the toilet, washed our dishes, and did a few loads of laundry.

I’ve been fortunate to visit Europe, Africa, and Asia. I’ve been exposed to other cultures and have loved the people everywhere I’ve gone.

But for the sake of the planet, I may have to give up travel.

On the other hand, the U.S. is in a de-regulation mood. If so few care about Earth’s destruction, why should I?

(Nancy Werking Poling is author of a new book, “Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987),” available where books are sold.)

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African migrants in Spain

Like other tourists searching for a place to eat across the street from Seville’s university. we were—not accosted, let’s say our patronage was aggressively sought. A tug on a sleeve, the magic word paella shouted. Finally unable to say no, we chose a table on the wide sidewalk. Spanish dictionaries in hand, we ordered tapas: salmon on a bed of lettuce, a surtido. I repositioned my chair to better fit under the shadow of the slanted umbrella and protect my fair skin.

Around us waiters rushed like a weaver’s shuttle among the tables. There were brief periods when they all went inside to the kitchen. Seemingly from nowhere  African migrants appeared. Their ebony skin contrasting with the complexions of tourists, they pushed trays of sunglasses, leather purses, and pirated CDs in customers’ faces. Yet it was as if they were invisible. With the back of our hands we all brushed them away and continued to eat.

As a writer who’s experienced plenty of rejection, I couldn’t help but consider the persistence of these men. And they were all men. Which also led me to wonder where their families were. Back in Africa, waiting for their husbands/sons/brothers to make enough money to send for them? Trapped in refugee camps?

Seville wasn’t the only place we encountered African migrants. They were selling their wares in Madrid too. In the Puerta del Sol—the center of Spain it’s said to be—they had spread their wares on white sheets. Metal rods for taking selfies were quite the rage, and judging from all the tourists snapping their pictures in front of the bronze bear and madrona tree, vendors selling the rods were experiencing some success.

My husband noticed before I did, the way the African migrants had nylon cords wrapped around their wrists. We quickly witnessed the purpose.

A whistle, a shout? An offstage cue? Before our eyes, the vendors jerked on the nylon cords. Instantly the corners of the sheets came together. Like Santa tossing his pack over his shoulders, the African migrants threw their wares over their shoulders. In haste they scattered, each going a different direction. Seconds later two Policia Local, in friendly conversation, strolled by what a moment earlier had been a stage of commerce.

How do they hide among white throngs, these men whose skin color reveals origins across the Strait?

Last year 12,549 African migrants were caught trying to enter Spain illegally. Are the vendors in Spain’s cities ones who were not caught? Most come from sub-Saharan Africa, but also from the war-torn countries of Syria and Somalia. They are desperate to leave lands where Christians kill Muslims and Muslims kill Christians. Where boys are conscripted into military service. Where families go hungry and lack basic necessities.

Back in our apartment we read the news on our iPhones: In Mediterranean waters 700 illegal African migrants had drowned. I reminded myself that the bodies were not debris like plastic bottles and styrofoam cups floating on the water’s surface but human beings who had been doing all they could to survive. As were the vendors at the sidewalk cafe and in the Puerta del Sol.

While I vacationed.

Madrid African vendors 1-7

African migrants in Madrid