My Bus Karma
I never thought that I would have a travel story to rival my African bus adventures. For you comparison, they are here and here.
But my karma is nothing, if not consistent.
I have been in Albuquerque NM with my daughter, son-in-law and new grand baby since Dec 7. They are fabulous (more later) and the travel there and the stay were delightful and simpatico. But eventually it was time to go home.
So There I was...
Trying to get home.
I knew that the weather was dicey and more than dicey up in the Northwest. I had reports from Alivia on two treacherous Seattle drives. But my travel day was supposed to be a break between storms.
My daughter looked on line and said that they were landing planes at PDX, and took me to the Sunport. (that's what they call the airport down there)
Things looked good but the man who took my baggage said.
"They've cancelled the first flight, but we are going to try and get the next three planes in" He looked me earnestly in the eye and said
"Good Luck, Ma'am"
"Bon Chance, Madame" is one of my code words with God. It usually means "Heads Up Peg - this may get rough". With no great leading on the line, I should have taken my bag back, called my daughter and gone back to their house for another week of baby snuggling. But one of my character flaws is a severe allergy to anything that feels like going backwards. And one of my consistent delusions is that the normal rules of the universe don't apply to me. The combo gets me in trouble all the time.
So I let him take my bag and I went up to the gate.
I watched as they cancelled the next flight and the line of people trying to re-ticket became a hundred strong.
Everyone who flies much knows this scenario. They don't just cancel all the flights at once, they put out the false hope that maybe the next one will get through. While adding incrementally to the host of the distressed and desperate.
My flight was to go through Phoenix and there change planes to Portland. Phoenix was no problem. I would get there, and get stuck there. For who knows how long. Phoenix is nothing and no one to me.
I wanted a little insider info. I saw a Southwest employee at a gate where there were no planes or people.
I sidled up. "What do you know about Portland tonight?"
He shook his head. "Come around on this side"
He showed me a screen on the computer of all flights in or out of PDX.
All red - cancelled.
My flight was one of two that had not got the hatchet yet.
Dead planes taxi-ing.
"Do you have any powers at this terminal?"
"I can't write you a new ticket - I can print you a new boarding pass - maybe keep you on that plane in Phoenix. It ends up in Oakland - Is that any better for you?"
"Much better! - drop me there, please"
And he did. And then he used his walkie talkie to find a man on the tarmac to find my bag, and use his magic marker to mark it OAK instead of PDX, which would have got it pulled at Phoenix.
I, having made a Luddite vow of low tech for the trip had no phone. I asked a young random stranger if I could use her phone. She said yes and handed me her blackberry. I had to ask her to punch in the numbers to Liv. He tiny keyboard confounded me.
"Liv - Can't talk long - gonna get stuck - call Pam and Helen and see if they are in Oakland, and if they can swoop me up, tell them I will be on a flight coming from Phoenix."
Fly by Faith not by sight.
The trip to Oakland was uneventful.
I was about ready to ask a friendly stranger for a phone when I saw Pam at the bottom of the escalator. Ahhh.... a port in the storm. Happy I was to see my friend. Before we left the airport I checked with another SW employee. All flights cancelled to PDX. The next available seat four days hence on Boxing Day. I took a reservation for it.
After a good meal and a glass of wine with good friends I settled in for the night. Not Home, but within striking distance, I felt. And if not home for Christmas then at home with people who love me. I had no complaints.
In the morning I felt peaceful. But after coffee I broke my techno fast and used Pam's computer to check out the situation. No planes going north. No seats on any trains. Buses selling seats but not driving over the Siskiyou Mountains into Oregon. I called home. They told me that the Christmas Eve service was on, as the weather was breaking in Salem. Christmas Eve Service in 36 hours weather permitting.
I love the Christmas Eve Service at Freedom Friends. We have candles, we have Scripture, we have sweet music. (some Friends do) I had not missed leading a Quaker Christmas Eve Service since 1995. It is my favorite moment of the year. But this would be the year. Being a good Quaker I was going to be ok. I called home and told them so. Liv thought it sounded like I was trying to convince myself. My daughter said it sounded like I was lying. The former, most like. But I settled in, took a walk about Oakland. Palm trees and hoodlums, so festive.
At the grocery I had another funny omen. They had Rwandan Coffee - an extremely rare find. From the Gorilla Mountains, on the road to Goma. I laughed and bought some. And told myself, At least you aren't taking that bus ride today... (sometimes I don't listen to myself very well)
I went back to Laurel Street, and decided to read my e-mails - about 375 of them. The Greyhound site popped up because I had hibernated without closing. They now said that they were going north. I called in telephonically and asked them if this was for real. They assured me it was. They had seats. on a bus that would go overnight and have me in Salem for breakfast a full 12 hours before the Christmas Eve Service. I bought a ticket.
Pam and Helen were only a little disappointed that I was bugging out so soon. Pam, a wise traveller said that she had good experience of Greyhound in a pitch, but explained to me that a bus ticket was not a guaranteed seat, just a promise to take you that way whenever they could. You get in a line and when the bus comes in , if eight people get off then eight people get to climb on. The rest of the line waits for the next bus. hmm. I would have to change buses in Sacramento. Sounded like likely place to get stuck. Pam kindly allowed that while she wasn't driving to the State Capitol to get me tonight, that she did know Quakers there, and would call them if need be.
Greyhound is the People's bus. It is way blue collar. I noticed immediately some groups of people who choose it.
The very nicotine addicted. They stop nearly every hour or so, and almost the whole bus gets off to smoke.
And those who smoke other plants and who do not want to go through any kind of personal security check. Several passengers had a personal space zone that was pretty spacey. You though about who you wanted to sit next to and whether you wanted to have a second-hand stimulant or relaxant.
Also people who might not want their weapons confiscated. They did a cursory check of the bags. They might have noticed a bomb, or an AK, but small arms and drugs on your person - no problemo. We don't see them - you don't have trouble.
And the elderly who only speak Spanish.
And single moms with kids.
These were the people of our bus.
On the trip to Sacramento I sat by a Hispanic man who looked for all the world like Captain Adama on BG. Turned out he was a professional boxer and Nam Vet, now doing medical admin, who had just taken a course in disaster relief and trauma. He was looking towards a new career in counseling. We had a lot to talk about. I encouraged him to think about getting into trauma work with vets. His last words to me...
"Thanks for the talk, Peg. I think you did a little work here tonight. Now rest and get home safe."
At Sacramento there were twice as many people wanting to go North as there were bus seats. People were nervous, edgy. They guarded the line from people cutting, with a ferocity that the "A" group on Southwest never has to muster. We formed tightly knit bands for the purpose of watching luggage during toilet breaks. We stayed in line a couple of hours. We watched over the very young and the very old. Tweakers from the street tried to cage food from travelers. Young hoodlums bantered and cussed. Even young hoodlums sometimes try and go home for Christmas.
I made the bus. They had an empty one for us. It looked a little old. It was "restroom equipped for your convenience" Turns out that means a open drop latrine sloshing about in the back compartment - nice - I thought - almost African.
Our female driver, handing out boarding stubs seemed peeved. She told us that she thought we would have to change to another bus at Redding (the last stop in California) because she didn't think they had her scheduled any farther. She drove like Jehu through heavy rain to Redding getting us there about midnight. She said it would be a ten minute stop.
I watched her have a heated discussion with the station master and a driver who had just got in from the north. They had her scheduled through to Eugene. She did not want to go. She had enough hours, said the master. The other driver was on mandated 6 hour rest. Our driver jumped ship. She said in a loud voice, "I declare myself fatigued - I am unsafe to drive" and she picked up her bags and walked off the premises. We were marooned.
The other driver popped his head in. "Don't worry folks - they are going to get you another driver and then you will be on your way. An hour later the station master boarded. "We are trying to get you another driver - they are putting one on the next bus from Sac - it will be about two more hours." And then they closed up the station with the vending machines and decent toilets. And they turned out the lights. And left us there in an idling bus (so we had heat) and left not one employee to watch us. We could have driven the thing off - it occurred to some of us. At Seven hours - they opened the station back up and the driver from the north came back, just as a bus finally got in from Sac. He was supposed to be their driver. He looked in on us "You aren't the people from last night? - O, God - You are! I guess I better drive you." We approved of his initiative.
Before we left they allowed people from the bus behind us to fill any seats we had left. The more elderly and lame joined us. And sitting across the aisle from me an enormous black man. He seemed very agitated.
But we were off, 13 hours into what was supposed to be a 13 hour trip and not even out of the valley.
We discovered why our previous bus driver bailed. In the next 7 hours our driver got us over the two sets of mountains, the foothills of Shasta and then the Siskiyous. But not without having to stop four times to chain up the bus. A little man, but hardy, he was not allowed to accept help from any of the strong young men on the bus, as this was against regs. We did have the old-school bus. He told us it was an M-12, no automatic chains or toilets, but dependable. He didn't grumble a bit about dragging chains out of storage and wrapping many wheels, then unwrapping them whenever we hit clear pavement. When the chains are on you can only drive 35 mph.
Our previous driver would have been doing that in the pitch black of a three a.m. night. I would have bailed too.
We made Central Point, Oregon (outside Medford) about noon. Still six hours from home, but still possible to make church. If we hurried. The large man next to me got off the bus, he was still aggravated. I observed him have a couple of words with some young men from another bus. I watched him wave his arms and storm off to the truck stop. I went in and tried to find a phone. The man was ahead of me. Shouting into a pay phone. Having what I immediately recognized as a full blown African Chief of the Village rage. By this I mean that I recognized his accent as clearly African, and that he was whipped into a frenzy at some offense.
I made my call home and went back to the bus. Several members of the Central Point Police Department were getting off our bus. The African was talking heatedly with our driver. Then the officers were talking to the people of the other bus.
I got on the bus. I asked a near passenger
"What is the deal with our African friend?"
He said "Heck if I know, he don't speak a lick of English, I tried ta talk to him and couldn't understand a word he said."
I sat down. I watched out the window. I tried to stay out of it. I thought about surrendering to my fate. But I kept wondering if he was West African or Central African. Central Point is serious Yokelville. This guy could get himself hauled off to the pokey without much effort. Offering a perfectly normal African bribe would do it. Screaming at Police officers in a perfectly normal African tone of voice might do it. Sheesh. I got off the bus.
I walked over to the man, who was now fuming alone.
"Bad travel day?"
"Bad? It is Terrible! Terrible! A nightmare" He said in the Queens English with a very thick central African accent.
"Could be worse" Said I
"How?, How could it be worse than this - You do not know anything!"
"It could be Addis Ababa at Midnight"
He stopped, stared at me.
"What did you say?"
"You know, when they take your passport and you stand in line for hours to try and get a bed in a hotel ten miles from the airport, and they only have one visa clerk for 600 people"
"YOU, YOU have BEEN there"
And I asked him what was so bad today. Turns out that on the other bus were some young men he had seen at Sacramento. They had attempted to cut in his line. They had tried some culturally appropriate California young black guy banter. He had not let them cut. They had cussed him out. Called him a homosexual. Said something that implied that gays should be killed. He had thought he had avoided them, and then here they were in Oregon, and they said something to him again.
Turns out he was Ugandan. Survived the Lord's Resistance Army as a boy. Working now for a British petrol outfit. Had been flying to Seattle to Alaska and got dropped in Oakland. His company put him on the bus.
And of course he believed that these young men were planning to murder him, why else would they say so? They hurled the worst insults known to man. And he believed that they were armed and he was not. And he had walked into the Truck stop and called 911 and reported attempted murder in progress on the Greyhound bus. And the police seemed corrupt because they acted as if they could not understand what he was saying in perfect English, although they themselves talked very funny. And he did not know where he was, and did not know what to do.
He agreed to accept my help. So I translated, African Queens English to Oregon Yokel English. And we agreed that the officers would check the young men for weapons, and that we would get on our bus and that our driver would not allow them on our bus or park next to them again, and that we would all be peaceable and go on our way.
The Central Point PD was glad to declare it an internal Greyhound matter. Our driver was relieved to go on. The Ugandan felt listened to and accepted my assurances that we would be safe.
And when we were all on, I changed places and sat with him, and said
"Can I tell you a story?"
And he agreed, and I said
"Let me tell you the tale of my bus trip from Buja to Goma"
And he laughed at all the right places, and was amazed at all the right places, and eventually took a nice nap.
And when I got off at Salem with 15 minutes to spare until Christmas Eve service, I said "May you Reach successfully"
And he said "Salama" which is in the Kiswahili - Peace - and the name of my home town.
Going Off Grid
Going to Albuquerque for some intensive baby-snuggling.
I will have neither computer nor phone for two weeks.
I will return to comments and messages after Christmas.
Peace and Joy to you all!
They Come and Go
American Singer Odetta Holmes
on the bus that brought my grandchild in.
She was one of the first singers that I ever saw at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
She was stunning.
To the end.