Straddling the Dog

A Pom tours the states on the cheap

“How much did you pay?” I had condescendingly asked many people who had travelled across America by plane, “But I am doing it for far less and I get so much more freedom,” was my response to whatever price they told me.

The only experience I had of America until three months ago was the token two week holiday in Florida, so loved by English tourists, when I was young. I decided that the time had come to see some more of this huge movie set of a country and when I found out I could travel across country for two months for less than $500, I jumped at the chance.

Friends of mine who had been to Australia assured me that travelling by Greyhound buses would be both safe and fun as this is how they had traversed the country. “Thoroughly enjoyable,” said one, “A wonderful way to see the country,” said another. Well I thought that the American version would be similar if not better. After all, this is the country where Greyhound originated so logic told me that they would do it in the most superlative manner.

Having negotiated the plethora of levels and terminals that is the Port Authority bus terminal in New York, I finally managed to get my Americapass. Port Authority gave me the first inkling that bus travel in the U.S may not be the same as that in Europe.

Generally speaking, English public transport consists of passengers of an elderly persuasion, youngsters unable to drive cars and those people intending on a weekend away where alcohol consumption is high on the agenda. These people are almost always unintimidating and jovial. Having spent what seemed like an eternity in the bus depot it rapidly dawned on me that this clearly wasn’t going to be the case in America.

The first people I met seemed to assume that I was a walking bank, insisting on me giving them money for no reason whatsoever and then becoming extremely irate when I refused. At first I tried to reason with them, explaining that I was actually a traveller as opposed to a rich European tourist. When appealing to their better nature (do these people have one, I wonder?) didn’t work, I employed the method used by most New Yorkers which was to ignore them and hope that they would go away. Often they didn’t.

The people with varying levels of insanity were next to cross my path. These were the types that seemed happy with their own company, especially as three or four different personas usually occupied the same brain space. Alcoholics, perennial drug takers and yet more panhandlers crossed my path before I even boarded the first bus.

I boarded what was the first of many buses journeys I was to take over the following months, intent on having some wonderful conversations with a multitude of people and at this point still confident that Greyhound was the way to go. Looking around the bus I was not greeted with the smiles and warmth I had expected. Instead I was treated to looks which ranged from the slightly disturbed to the downright insane. Most people gave a look, which I came to learn and use myself, that said “sit near me and you will feel my wrath…for the entire 12 hour journey.”

I decided to sit next to an innocuous looking gentleman of around 60, sure that a vivid conversation would arise. Him interested in my English tales, me eager to learn about America. The conversation went thus:

“Hi there, my name’s Paul. Where are you off to then?”
“D.C, same as everyone else on this bus…why?”

And that was really it. The harshness of his tone stunned me into a mute state and I spent the next five hours fidgeting uncomfortably next to him and trying to enjoy the industrial scenery that went by past the window.

Many of the journeys I undertook continued this way although they were intermingled with the types of conversations you have only in your most dour and uneventful dreams. I would sit down in a free seat, place my headphones on and try to make the time pass as quickly as possible. Somebody would sit next to me, grin inanely at me as if to suggest a conversation would be a good idea and then engage in one anyway. Having felt obliged to at least remove my headphones I would be treated, for the next 10 hours, or however excruciatingly long the journey was, to conversations about such delights as professional wrestling, the entire family politics of some hick tribe in the darkest depths of Louisiana, or why the American justice system was so wrong.

It transpired that the last conversation mentioned arose more than once, this being due to the fact that every convicted felon, when released from jail was given a Greyhound ticket home. This was not something mentioned in the promotional brochure, strangely enough, and did little to aid my rapidly depleting confidence in the safety and comfort of my journeys.

Another unexpected and cumbersome task I encountered was that of negotiating the Greyhound staff. I watched my bag being loaded and transferred on every bus journey I took in the first couple of weeks. On one journey down to Florida we had to change buses at Fayetteville which we arrived at around 2 am. I watched to see my bag progress safely from bus to bus and noticed that it didn’t come off with everybody else’s luggage. I pointed this out to the handler who proceeded to tell me that if the bag was labelled correctly then it would have been transferred. I told him that it was labelled correctly and that somehow it must have been overlooked. He said this was impossible. I disputed that it clearly wasn’t and if he could just open the undercarriage I would retrieve my bag and be on my way. He then said it wasn’t his jurisdiction to do so. I asked who could, He said he would go and get someone. Eventually after 10 minutes of waiting another Greyhound operative appeared and we went through he same conversation, where are you going, was it labelled correctly etc. Ultimately I managed to convince them to open the compartment, at which point I retrieved my bag, showed them the correct labelling and left to hurriedly catch my connecting bus. All I could hear as I ran irately down the terminal was two of Greyhound’s finest muttering about how the system should have been fool proof.

There is also the minor detail of the actual drivers who refuse to be helpful in any way, constantly referring you to the information desk even if you are enquiring where the bus they are driving stops. They are also well known for giving you a time limit when stopping for food. If that time limit is expended by yourself don’t expect them to wait. Three times on my journey passengers had to tell the driver to stop as there were passengers trundling behind the bus. There is no body count to see whether everyone is back or not. If you are not on the bus by the time the driver leaves then tough, that’s the bottom line. Bearing this in mind you can appreciate how annoying the whole baggage farce was.

Eventually I learned some tricks that would aid me travelling. Firstly, if I managed to gain two seats to myself I would abhor the idea of giving one up, especially as many of my journeys were overnight. Whenever the bus stopped I would always pretend I was asleep, sprawled across both seats. Most people, even those who travel Greyhound regularly, prefer to occupy a seat which doesn’t involve waking somebody up.

Secondly, I speak a spattering of French so when another of those frightening conversations seem to be looming, I would mutter a few foreign words (normally along the lines of “where is the nearest hotel” or some such irrelevant nonsense) and this would bring an abrupt halt to the proceedings.

Thirdly, whenever somebody got on the bus that looked to be a traveller I would instantly attempt conversation. More often than not their feeling toward bus travel would be the same as mine and we would cohere together for the duration of the journey, safe in the knowledge that neither of us were newly released convicts.

To be perfectly honest no real trouble came to me whilst travelling but I heard an awful lot of horror stories from other travellers ranging from threats by drunkards and stolen wallets, to baggage being lost and ending up on the other side of the continent. I did get to see some of the fantastic scenery I was hoping for, sun rises over the deserts of Texas, dolphins alongside the bus to Key West and other wildlife (both on and off the bus).

I just get the feeling that next time somebody tells me how much he or she paid to fly across the States, instead of laughing I will be enquiring where I can purchase a ticket.


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