How the Other Half Lives

How the Other Half LivesWe rolled into El Paso just as the sun was rising over the city. For several minutes, the train passed within mere feet of the oversized fence placed between Texas and Juarez, Mexico, on the other side. The two cities were dusty and dry, hot in the morning sun. On both sides of the fence, people dressed in worn slacks and button-up shirts walked to work.

People frequently talk about Mexico with an underlying tone that highlights its diminished financial status in comparison to the United States, as if such poverty doesn’t exist on “our side” of the fence. The fence is a mechanism to keep the haves from the have-nots, to separate us from them.

We were on the Sunset Limited, which had left the day before from Los Angeles and would reach New Orleans the following afternoon. Along the way, we were encouraged to relax and enjoy the view from the large windows in the observation car. Indeed, the countryside in Southern California and across Texas was beautiful, miles away from the closest road and deep into the fields where wildlife roamed. But it was between these expanses of isolated space that proved to be the most eye-opening.

Trains naturally seem to wind their way through industrial areas, inviting people to step beyond the confines of pre-defined city life with large, concrete brick walls ideal for spray painting graffiti. In L.A., beneath the colorful art, people had heaved their full garbage bags, now rotting in the sun. Broken glass glimmered in the dirt. Two lone chairs and a sagging tent sat next to a tiny camp stove. Someone called this place home.

As we passed through Texas, makeshift tent cities constructed against high industrial walls provided shade from the heat and concealment from those who would otherwise call the inhabitants lazy, dirty and drunk. Used tires, discarded couches and broken appliances lay abandoned along the tracks.

In Louisiana, soggy ditches clogged with plastic bags and rusty paint cans followed alongside the train, broken only by bowed roads and small towns. No longer hidden in the derelict part of a larger city, these towns were the very definition of poverty. Houses that should have been condemned supported families that exploded into the yards. Makeshift rooms had been constructed out of sheets and tarps. Laundry hung over rotting fences. Outhouses provided relief where no indoor plumbing existed.

I sipped water from where I sat in the observation car and scribbled notes in my journal. The chicken and egg question popped into my mind. Which came first? The train tracks or these homes? Was this a case of the tracks being built through their backyards or a matter of only being able to afford something that existed next to the train tracks?

We may have built a fence to separate the United States from Mexico but if life along the train tracks is any indication, we have only to look out the window to see how the other half lives.

Note: This post has been entered into the Grantourismo-HomeAway travel writing competition.

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How the Other Half Lives
JoAnna is a globe-trotting, idea-inventing, culture-collecting creativity connoisseur with big dreams and a desire to touch all seven continents. You can also find JoAnna at joannahaugen.com and at The 52 Letters Project.

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20 Responses

  1. Gray says:

    Beautifully-written, JoAnna.

  2. In Germany railways often run double-deck cars on high railroad embankments so you can have a look into the backyards of the houses. Similar to your story it is very interesting to see what kind of stuff is stored there

  3. Jill says:

    Very thought provoking. Too many Americans never see the real face of poverty anymore.

  4. Alouise says:

    Great post. It’s easy to say poverty only happen in other countries. But I’m sure one wouldn’t have to venture too far from their own neighborhood to see it.

  5. Suzy says:

    Great post and thank you for bringing it to the public’s attention. It’s funny because I was driving through Arkansas and Oklahoma last month thinking the same exact thing. There are people that live in homes you don’t even think is a home. Possessions as you say spill out on the lawn. It bothers me when people think the US is just a materialistic oasis of nice cars, grand homes, and stuff. There are plenty of glazed over areas in the US that never seem to get help.

  6. jessiev says:

    oh, this is so wonderful. because it’s these exact sort of questions that are always running through my mind. beautifully written.

    good luck!

  7. Really wonderful piece — I hope it opens many eyes. Too often people go through their travels or their lives without really seeing what’s around them. I think the observant among us, like you, have almost an obligation to point things out to the ones with blinders on, and you do it so beautifully.

  8. Shannon OD says:

    Really beautifully written, and so thought provoking. Lately here in Guatemala I’ve met several people who have been incredibly inquisitive about poverty in America, and how we handle. It’s so easy to just pretend like it doesn’t exist in our country of golden opportunities, but as you say, it just takes looking to find it.

  9. JoAnna says:

    @Gray and @jessiev ~ Thank you. I’m glad I have a way to share my observations with others.

    @Travelwriticus ~ We saw crazy things in the backyards: Bathtubs, makeshift closets, etc. I rode a long-distance train in Norway once, but I don’t remember seeing things like we did on our way to New Orleans.

    @Jill and @Alouise ~ I think it’s probably easier for a lot of Americans just to pretend poverty doesn’t exist. It’s sort of like the “don’t ask, don’t tell” mindset.

    @Suzy and @Shannon OD ~ It’s often surprising to me how quick we are to dismiss the poverty that exists in the United States. When I was in Kenya, so many people didn’t believe that there were homeless people in the U.S. or that people lived on the street, slept in cardboard boxes, etc. I think that’s because we don’t acknowledge it here. Sometimes I wonder why we don’t think about helping our own citizens before rushing to provide aid in other countries; while both are important, it makes me wonder what kind of message we’re really sending when we don’t even acknowledge people who live in our own neighborhoods.

    @Trisha ~ To some extent, I think people who travel and observe the imperfect things in life have a responsibility to share their observations and experiences. The world isn’t perfect, but by bringing its imperfections to light, perhaps we’ll start to talk about what we can do to make it a better place to live.

  10. Jocy says:

    Wonderful post.

  11. JoAnna says:

    Thank you Jocy. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  12. lara dunston says:

    Thanks again for entering our Grantourismo competition, JoAnna! Beautiful entry! Good luck!

  13. Sara C. says:

    This is sooo good! I was really hoping for less competition than this… :p

  14. JoAnna says:

    @Lara ~ Thanks for reading my entry. I appreciated the opportunity to enter the contest. There were many great entries.

    @Sara ~ Thanks for stopping by! Your entry was also really good.

  15. lara dunston says:

    Hi JoAnna

    Just wanted to let you know that — because you were *so* close to winning the third prize in the April Grantourismo Competition, AFAR magazine, who sponsor the third prize, would love to send you a t-shirt as a congrats!

    I’ll email you or feel free to email me and I’ll put you in touch.

    Hope you’re going to enter the May comp!

  16. JoAnna says:

    Thank you Lara! I’m glad you enjoyed my entry. I sent you an email. :)

  17. Anca Popa says:

    Hi JoAnna,

    Just thought I should let you know that this month Grantourismo is running a new competition with the theme ‘Food and Travel’, so if you have a memorable food experience from your travels please feel free to share it with us. We’d love to hear from you again!

    http://grantourismotravels.com/2010/05/05/grantourismo-travel-blogging-competition-may/

  18. JoAnna says:

    Good to know Anca! Thanks for passing on the information.

  19. Nellie says:

    Very thought-provoking! For me — who’s only seen the glitz and glamour of the U.S. — it’s sparked an interest in me to explore the grittier side of North America… the next time I’m there, I’ll definitely look you up!

  20. JoAnna says:

    There are so many gritty regions in the U.S. The media just does an awesome job pretending they don’t exist.

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