Wheels on the Bus*

December 10, 2010

[Thunderous applause]

Thank you. Thank you. It’s an honor to be here. Thank you.

[Lingering whistles; audience is seated]

Thank you all for joining me on this very special evening. Many of you have gone to great lengths to be here tonight – battling bright computer screens in the midst of cruel hangovers and jeopardizing billable hours or otherwise valuable time. Your sacrifices do not go unnoticed, and let me be the first to say that I am deeply grateful for your presence as I celebrate my 28th hour of non-stop Eurolines international auto-bus travel.

[Applause resumes; woman faints]

This international journey would not have been possible without the help of countless Madrid Air Traffic Controllers and other airline personnel dedicated to performing a strike of monumental proportions: May a closed airport and 250,000 stranded and/or rerouted passengers be the bargaining chip for which you have long labored. Together you have proven that no national military can successfully scab the wound of your absence. As a wide-eyed witness to today’s events, I am proud to report that luggage conveyors can hold the weight of hundreds of sleeping human beings; that customers will still wait in line despite closed ticket counters; and that, yes, grown men do cry.

Thirty-six hours ago, I was but one of the many commuters making the two-and-a-half hour journey from Salamanca to Madrid. I fell asleep dreaming of my upcoming schedule: a flight from Madrid to Zurich followed by a train to Innsbruck. As any traveler knows, a seamless itinerary is the strongest sedative. Two hours later, I awoke to a police officer boarding the bus with an urgent message. Half asleep in a strictly Spanish-speaking situation, the odds of understanding were against me, but the cries and curses of my fellow-passengers snapped the language barrier with remarkable ease: airport closed, flights canceled. The trilingual woman in seat fourteen informed no one in particular that all the hostels, hotels, and rent-able flat surfaces within Madrid city limits were full. The bus driver, having stumbled into an exciting day at the office, proposed a vote with unsettling enthusiasm. With a little help from my high school Spanish days, I was able to determine that democracy was at a stand-still – it was “no” versus “no.” Seat fourteen helped translate the details: unless we were an empty taxi, we were not getting anywhere near the airport. Our choices were to dropped off here [in the abyss of maze-like airport ramps] or at a bus station south of the city. The passengers opted for anarchy and chose to phone a friend. Meanwhile, in the midst of dialing my rational self, the authoritarian clouds parted, and our bus began to move towards the heart of the airport.

It is within this war-zone of a transportation hub that my twenty-eight-hour bus baby was conceived. It may come as a shock to many of you that this bundle of adventure was unexpected; fate, as I have learned, knows no contraception. Like a lone sandbag in New Orleans, requests via loudspeaker to “please leave the airport” were drowned by an endless flood of panic, apathy, and anger. People everywhere seemed to claim their territory with sharpened elbows and greased suitcase wheels. The sight of one particularly sleepy gentleman, face-pressed and drooling against the slack-line normally used to structure the cue, rendered me motionless with the fear of impending doom. A Japanese tour group capitalized upon my moment of weakness and funneled me towards the far wall. I quickly gathered myself and weaved my way towards the bright light of a travel agency.

This brings me to my second round of acknowledgments: Corte de Ingles Viaje – the booking company that ultimately nominated me for this once-in-a-lifetime travel cameo. Special thanks to the out-of-uniform travel agent who insisted that I “act quickly!” and book one of the only remaining overpriced seats on the overnight bus from Madrid to Zurich. It was a sixteen-hour bus ride arriving just in time to catch my scheduled train to Innsbruck. After a few ferocious taps of the keyboard, this frantic woman sent me running down the stairs to catch a bus to the city station. As I waited in the appointed terminal, I could still feel her voice, sharp and unforgiving, like the lingering ache of an index finger poking my rib cage.

For one hour, I waited patiently. For five gruesome minutes, I panicked tremendously. It was 2:30pm and the bus that never arrived was scheduled to depart. Sandwiched between backpacks, I pin-balled from non-English-speaking bus drivers to non-English speaking tourist information desks. You see, in order to stand in front of you today, I had to first become that traveler. I was the stress-monkey it pains you to look at. You know the type: cutting in front of lines, hands shaking, palms sweating, voice cracking, tears forming. That instinct is in all of us, and it surfaces with a vengeance. So thank you, bilingual mystery man, for emerging from the crowd and matching my panicked pace. If you’re out there tonight, please know that I am infinitely grateful for the grace with which you helped me shuffle the stiff cards of bureaucracy. You were my translator and you were my friend. It was your kindness that reserved me a spot on the next bus to Barcelona. Thank you for literally pointing me in the right direction. Thank you for repeating my itinerary to me three times. Thank you for the kind look in your eyes as you said: “There might be a bus for you there.” For all of this, I thank you.

My next shout-out goes to my seatmate on the Barcelona bus. You know who you are. It is you who politely corrected me when I stated an incorrect arrival time. It is you who, ever so gently, broke the news that I would have approximately six minutes to locate my next bus and approximately eight hours to let that anxiety fester. You were also sideswiped by the Madrid Incident, but you still had the energy to hide your panic when I told you that I didn’t exactly have a ticket for that bus. Thank you for accepting my invitation to share headphones and watch sad movies about sad people with sad circumstances. Because of you, comrade, I was sad but not lonely.

Eight hours later, I let loose on the Barcelona bus station, running up and down several flights of stairs and waving sweaty papers in the air. Three minutes and no progress later, I approached the bus with nothing but a backpack and a pathetic plea for help. Fortunately, the bus driver was fluent in desperation, and he waved me on board at exactly 12:29am. Sixty seconds later, we were Zurich-bound. I spotted an old woman stretched out in the back seat, and I knew immediately that we would be instant friends. Together, the two of us spanned no less than five seats and three generations. She flashed a smile and tucked me to sleep with the news that Zurich was still another twenty hours away. At that moment, I realized that I would live to experience twenty-eight continuous hours of bus travel. I dozed on and off for eight hours, waking only to a 3am passport check and the soft brush of my elderly friend’s stockings against my wool socks.

That bus became my home. My whole world boiled down to fifty-seats and a box on wheels. I felt strangely content, but wary of new passengers and border control officers. During the eighteenth hour, a drug dog boarded the bus followed by two uniformed passport agents. I steamed the window with interest as I watched two of my passengers dump their belongings onto the icy pavement. White packets and white powder hit the ground, and our bus moved forward, two bodies lighter.

The twenty-second hour brought a leaky ceiling that dripped eerily onto the empty seats of the accused and departed. The sun slipped behind the snowy horizon, momentarily painting the whites and grays and browns a shade more hopeful. A semi-pornographic film flickered its way through the twenty-third and twenty-fourth hours, and two Polish men made my twenty-fifth something to remember with a cup of hot coffee. I rounded the bases of the remaining three hours in a jittery, caffeinated state juxtaposed by Oscar Wilde’s calm descriptions of Dorian Gray and the demise of his aging –

[Music Sounds; Ushers Appear on Stage]

Oh, my – how embarrassing – I’ve lost track of time! My twenty-eighth hour has come and gone, and it’s time to trade this bus for a train. Thank you again for being here tonight. To all those listening back home, I’ll be on the alm without internet through January 6th, but I hope to find a way to post a time or two. Until then, I wish you –

[Curtain drops]

*Written on December 5th, 2010


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