Alone in Anchorage
Coming out of the Alaska Center for Performing Arts after watching a slide show on the aurora borealis, I am surprised to find it is still bright outside. It is past eight o’clock in the evening, and the sun has not set. I have read in guidebooks how the sun remains in the sky at the peak of summer in Alaska. The midnight sun, they call it. The locals organize all sorts of activities to celebrate the long daylights – like baseball games at midnight.
It is the tail end of summer here now. Fall is setting in. In a few weeks winter will come, bringing endless darkness and bitter cold. I will be gone from this place by then. I will be home where the sun scorches and cirrus clouds lace the blue sky, where clear days make one imagine angels might fly.
I feel a slight thrill at being bathed by my first midnight sun. There are a few cars about this time of night, but I wait for the light to change to cross the street to the People Mover Bus depot. I am tempted to hail a cab, which is what I did coming downtown from my inn, after giving up on the bus that the girl at the reception assured me would pass by. But the urge to participate in the daily life of this town, to do as the locals do, is just as great. This is one of the reasons why I travel, I remind myself.
I look at the route maps and schedules of the buses printed on sheets of bond paper and stuck in no apparent order to the glass walls inside the depot. I estimate there are more than a dozen buses plying the streets of Anchorage. I try to look for the street where my inn is. I am usually good with maps, but these make me unsure. I get the feeling my inn is in a minor section of town, and nowhere near any important landmark. Then I recognize some of the major roads I saw earlier on my way downtown. Finally, I see my street.
Three buses pass various portions of it. A few more cross it. I still cannot decide where my inn actually is on the maps, and which bus will take me right in front of it or at least near it enough for me to walk. I choose one. It is not due to stop by the depot until an hour and forty-five minutes later. And it will be the last one for the day.
What will I do? I decide to sit on one of the benches outside and just watch pedestrians. It is cold. I take out my gloves from my pocket and wear them. I feel slightly self-conscious when I notice I am the only one wearing gloves. Some people are hunched on their seats from the cold, but their hands are bare. So I take my gloves off and put my hands inside my pockets.
A brown-skinned man with shoulder-length hair, wearing a plaid shirt and jeans stands in a corner. I wonder if he is an Alaskan native and how he keeps warm. Maybe his shirt is a jacket, I decide, it looks a bit loose.
Buses stop in front of me. Some people board. I read the names on top – Tudor, Northern Lights, Lake Otis. I try to remember where these places are. I start to feel restless from waiting and try to will the next bus that comes along to be my bus. But my watch says it is not due for another hour.
Dusk comes, and with it, a nippy breeze. The cold is making me shiver, so I decide to wait inside the depot. I observe my reflection on the glass. This is what all these people here see when they look at me, sitting on this bench, in my white water-proof jacket and jeans. What do they think when they realize my skin is brown and my hair black? A tourist, they will rightly conclude. One of the thousands who come to Alaska every year. Except this one is here a bit late in the season. And then their thoughts will turn to something else, something about the homes they are waiting to get to, perhaps.
I think about all the waiting I have done this day alone. I remained in the long line to get past the immigration counters at the Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage this morning. Some of the passengers in my plane were just transiting, and would fly onward to New York and other cities in the U.S. I stuck around at one of the toilet stalls at the airport, worrying about my baggage that I left unattended in a cart outside the washroom. I stayed for the van from the inn where I would lodge to pick me up. I waited to register at the inn, waited at the phone to get connected to my mother to tell her I arrived safely, waited for the water in the shower to turn hot, and waited (not long) to fall into blessed sleep.
At ten minutes to the time my bus is due to arrive, I get up and go out to stand in front of the stop. It is finally nightfall. A man is sitting on the bench. Without looking at him directly, I sit next to him. A well-dressed lady comes, looks at her watch and asks me if Bus No. 7 has come by yet. I tell her no, and that I am waiting for it too.
Our bus arrives. The door opens and I am surprised to see a woman driving. The man beside me gets up and half-staggers to the door. I am more surprised to realize he is drunk. He asks the driver, “Number 7?” The driver says yes, then adds courteously, “Sir, are you alright? Do you know where you are going?” The man mumbles “Yeah, Yeah,” and starts to board. The driver repeats more firmly, “Sir, do you know where you are going? Where are you getting off?” The man ignores her, drops coins in the slot, and sits down on the front seat by the door.
The well-dressed lady and I climb up to board. The driver has not taken her eyes off the man, and asks a little louder though still politely, “Sir, are you sure you know where you are going?” The man waves at her with another “Yeah,” and finally she turns away.
The lady sits down across the aisle from the man and asks the driver if the bus would pass through her street. The driver tells her yes. I then ask the driver if it would pass through mine, specifically in front of my inn. She also tells me yes. I feel relieved and happy that I figured out the right bus.
The lady then turns to me with a smile and says, “Are you still figuring out how these new routes work too?”
I hesitate, thinking how I have just crossed the Pacific and arrived that morning, and then I smile back and say, “Yeah.”
I settle on my seat, elated and look forward to my next two weeks in Alaska.