I looked out of my third-floor walk-up apartment and groaned. Another four inches of snow atop the original covering of ice. I was really tired of clearing snow and scraping ice from my car. This was the third day in a row. I was also a bit fearful of doing another impromptu break dance routine on patches of black ice. My boyfriend had dumped me, and my rent went up another twenty dollars a month, and I was barely scraping by on Ramen Noodles and pasta.
The phone rang, and it was my Mom in Florida. She had tripped over her ancient labrador retriever Nemo and fractured her leg. Nemo was fine, poor pup, and of course, I was ready to rush to help Mom; how? Flying was out due to my phobia about it
and the expense, I had no car because I lived only a few blocks from work and Ubered anyplace in town.
I told my Mom not to worry that I had three weeks of vacation time, and I'd be there as soon as I could. But how?
My only option was the bus. I called work and made arrangements with my neighbor to water my plants and take in my mail. I took a taxi to the bus station. I'd save ten dollars a week, hoping to move up from my tiny studio apartment, so I had $1000 to work with.
I bought a round-trip ticket from Detroit to Tampa, which was $350, and took another $200 with me, hoping that's all I'd need. I had a Visa card but heard too many stories about becoming a slave to the 'card' and ending up only being able to pay the minimum, but the interest kept climbing. I vowed only to use it if I needed new glasses or a kidney.
The taxi driver was a kindly gentleman, and a look of concern clouded his expression. “Miss, are you sure you want to take the bus?” He had an Indian accent, and I wasn't sure why he asked,
“I don't really have a choice. Why?”
“Do you know how long it takes to bus it from Detroit to Tampa?
I hadn't thought about that part since it was my only mode of transport. “Fifteen hours?”
“Have you ever taken a bus trip before?”
“I'd been to Traverse City, MI, in High School.”
“This bus doesn't go straight to Tampa, Miss. It can take between thirty and as many as fifty hours. I only ask because you remind me of my daughter, who took the bus to Florida for spring break with her sister, and the week was nearly over by the time they got there. She was so very disappointed and still complains about it three years later. It can take up to fifty hours. I just thought you should know. It depends on traffic construction, the weather, and sometimes the bus breaks down.”
“Oh! That's nearly two days!”
He shrugged his shoulders and raised his eyebrows. “I know, it's sad. But if you're still going by bus, I'll tell you what I tell people traveling alone, especially young people. “Keep your money in your jean's pocket or somewhere that's hard to get to, you know? Choose a seat only a few rows behind the driver, and pick a window seat if you can. It's much more comfortable if you want to lean against the window and take a nap.”
“That sounds like a good idea.” I thought about the money inside my purse.
“If you stay near the front, you won't be near the bathroom.” He scrunched up his face that told me to consider that choice.
“There's a bathroom?”
He nodded, “Yes. Sitting near it can be most unpleasant. And be careful, my dear.”He smiled and nodded. I took my suitcase with my mind swimming.”
“I'd packed two pb&j sandwiches, a bottle of Verners, and two candy bars, Zagnut or Payday, to avoid a chocolate mess. I had a used paperback collection and chose “The Poisonwood Bible” by Barbara Kingsolver, which a co-worker said was a 'must-read.” And “The Stand” by Stephen King was probably not the best choice while traveling alone, but both books were thick, so they guaranteed plenty of reading time.
After making sure no one was looking, I removed my cash from my wallet, divided it in two, and put it into my bra. It was uncomfortable but did improve my bustline.
There were many empty seats on the first leg of the trip, and I had two all to myself. I felt a sense of adventure and a bit nervous but I enjoyed the scenery. Fields and hills covered in snow were more pleasant when all you had to do was look at it. This was in the early 1990s, so no cell phones or devices existed. Some of the passengers talked among themselves, but it was pleasantly quiet.
However, I felt antsy and tired by the time we reached Chicago and bummed that I was pretty far in the opposite direction from my Mom. But that's how trains and buses went from Detroit. I had a choice of getting off and using the bus terminal bathroom or staying put and keeping my spot. I was young and bathroom breaks weren't a great concern. I stayed put,
Some of my fellow passengers got off, and a line of new ones formed, waiting to come aboard. I gazed at them, surprised by the varied number of cultures and races. People in turbans, and saris, an Amish family, and some in colorful African garb. It was like a visit to the UN!
I was relieved when a very large black woman in traditional dress sat beside me, not a man. I didn't know what to call her dress and turban or head cover, which were my favorite colors of yellow, orange, and green. This comforted me in a way.
She sat down, or rather kind of sank into the seat, and I wondered how long she'd had to stand in line. We smiled at each other. I wasn't sure what kind of social rules played out on buses, so I said, “Hello, my name is Sandy, but people call me Sands.”
Her dark, middle-aged face lit up in a smile, and she responded in an accent I'd never heard before, which I later learned was Afrikan.“Nice to meet you,” she offered her hand and said, “My name is Ronica, which means strong council, but people call me Nika (Neeka).”
“Hello, Nika. that's a cool name. I don't know what Sandra means, but maybe it is related to the beach?” We laughed.
We didn't talk much, I pulled out “The Poisonwood Bible” and began reading.
Nika said, “That's a very interesting book!”
“I just started it and wish I'd thought of wearing several layers of clothes like the preacher's family in here. That's pretty clever.”
Nika laughed and agreed. “I don't want to spoil it for you, but there's a passage in which the preacher, who is not a wise man, keeps trying to take the native people to the water to baptize them, and they are terrified because of all the poisonous snakes and other dangers in that water.”
“Oh no! That's terrible!”
It made me laugh to think about it, but it also was kind of annoying that such a person would try to inflict things on others against their wishes.”
I started taking communication more seriously after that.
“You're right. You didn't spoil it for me; I'll make sure to look for that bit. I tend to skip a paragraph or two when I'm tired.”
“Me too.” Nika took a cloth from her purse, which was larger than mine by a mile, and put it on the floor between her feet, then set it on the floor and sighed. “I'm so happy to finally be on my way!”
I nodded, thinking of the long journey, my worries about the rent raise, and my job in accounting, which I was good at, but was wearing me down. The harder and faster I worked, the more the bosses piled on and rarely offer a raise.
I couldn't settle into reading my book, choosing to continue my mental pity party. I must have groaned or sighed because Nika asked, “Are you okay?”
I nodded, tempted to share my worries, but decided against it. “I'm fine, just worried about my Mom, who hurt herself. I'm going to take care of her.”
“That is most admirable. I'm on my way to Washington D.C! I'm so excited to attend a conference there!”
“Oh, that does sound great. What kind of conference?”
“It's a bit difficult to explain. It's mostly about water and batteries.”
“Yes. Many villages in my country have to carry water for miles. The conference is addressing these issues. Also, a group of volunteers is installing solar panels on villagers' huts. People use car batteries for electricity, and this is very unhealthy. Sometimes they haul the batteries to a town and turn them in for new ones or have them recharged. But it's a difficult journey for many, so the batteries just pile up there.”
Nika nodded, “Yes, and they need water to keep their food plants alive, like yams. They often use their wash water for the plants, but it's never enough, and sometimes people don't drink enough and develop kidney problems.”
I was beginning to feel like a spoiled brat. I had a roof over my head, plenty of water at hand at all times, and even my sparse diet was more than yams.
“Have you heard of Miss Judd? Miss Ashley.?”
“Oh yes, I love her films. She is quite talented.”
“Yes, she is, but she also is very active in many helpful causes. She's worked with a company that makes a sort of drinking straw that is a filter, which helps so much where people have water nearby, but it's not so safe to drink. She is speaking at the conference I'm attending, and I'll get to meet her!”
“That's great getting to meet her in person!” That remark sounded so lame when I said it. “ I never thought about not having water!”
“I know. Most of us don't have such worries. Many spend much of their time just trying to carry enough to survive. And often what they have nearby becomes polluted by the old car batteries. Fixing these two problems will relieve much suffering.”
That bus trip helped me grow up and appreciate what I had, and I became more aware of the world and people around me. Volunteering is wonderful therapy.