Sunday, June 17, 2012
On the Road with Guda the Penguin
The journey began here.
It may not look like much, but this is the Greyhound bus depot in Las Cruces. Yet you are right: it isn’t much. A patch of dirt next to a gas station in the town of Doña Ana, north of Cruces. The strange odyssey of my first international flight begins here.
Finding the station – if “station” is what we call a few graffiti-spattered plastic bucket seats flung to the side of Chucky’s convenience store – was elusive and frustrating, entailing a long drive through the farms north on Valley interspersed with cell phone conversations with the convenience store -- because no one answers the Greyhound line during business hours. It just rings forever, as I found consistently in trying to reach them over two business days.
Having purchased my ticket online, I handed the driver my printed copy – which he took and then refused to stow my bag. “Do you have a baggage claim ticket like this?” No, I had bought my ticket at home online. “You gotta keep it with you.” My suitcase sat on my lap on the crowded bus ride to Tucson, Arizona, until a seat became available where I could stow it. He also kept all my paperwork, and gave me a “reboarding pass” that he told me I would use to get on the connecting bus.
At the Las Cruces border patrol checkpoint, a BP officer got on board and questioned every single passenger about their citizenship and place of birth. This took a long time.
In Phoenix at 2:30 in the morning, everybody got off the bus and I discovered I would need the paperwork my driver took in addition to the reboarding pass. The Greyhound terminal in Phoenix impressed me as first as rather dirty and grim, a place of grey and deep mauve tile, with sullen and unfriendly staff who address travelers as “hey you” and “stop!” When I went to ticketing and explained my situation, an inexplicably angry woman cut me off and said, “You gotta buy another ticket.”
I explained that I had bought a ticket, and she actually was able to look me up and see the ticket and itinerary I had purchased, but would not assist me in getting on the bus. “You gotta buy another ticket.” In vain, I appealed to her. They had me over the barrel. If I was going to Los Angeles, I would have to buy a whole new ticket -- which I did, surrendering another fifty bucks in extortion.
In two hours waiting at that terminal, I observed the staff – security, ticketing, baggage handlers, drivers – and did not observe a single one of them smile at a traveler or say “How can I help you?” Quite the contrary, there was an attitude that these damned people were nothing but troublemakers, animals to be herded into a controlled space and interacted with as little as possible.
Forty-five minutes after our scheduled departure, we stood in line staring at our bus, parked a few feet away from us. At 4:30 AM, we were seated and we met the man who would dominate our lives for the next several hours: Guda the Penguin.
“Guda,” he said, “Just like the cheese. If you call me Buddha, I will be upset.” He was a handsome bald man with dark sunglasses, dressed in a white shirt and black trousers. “I’m still a penguin,” he explained. He is new to Greyhound, and during their probation period this is their uniform. Guda is from Egypt. He wanted us to know at the outset that he was not “Indian, or Afghan, or any of those guys – including countries I won’t say because I don’t want to offend you.” He joked about having six wives and, addressing the women on board the bus, announced that he was looking for a seventh and would like the ladies’ cell phone numbers.
Guda’s job was to announce the rules. I can state these rules very simply: No weapons. No alcohol. No drugs. Producing any of these three ends the passenger’s right to be on the bus. Guda added a new rule on the spot: “No bad language. If I hear bad language, your ride ends here.”
Guda then spent several minutes reiterating that he could throw anyone off at any time, that there was no appeal, and implied that he would do it by force if there was any question. This also applied to people who were late getting back from the occasional rest stops. “I will leave you.” He then spent several minutes complaining about passenger behavior and reiterating his threats. The monologue played out to about twenty minutes, and it pretty much went threat, threat, threat, complaint, complaint, small joke, complaint, threat threat and threat. Then he encouraged us to go to sleep so we wouldn’t bother him.
At one point during the long ride on the I-10 through the California desert, Guda pulled the bus over to the side. The entire coach became tense as he stood up to address us once again. Was he about to kick someone off the bus here in the desert? Imperious behind his sunglasses, he said, “Do you smell that?”
Collectively, silently, we sniffed. A mild whiff of cologne, not too strong. I hadn’t noticed it.
“When I smell that, you know what that means?” You can’t be too sure whether Guda’s questions are rhetorical. “That smell says to me you are trying to cover something.”
“Like body odor?” (Was that me? Damn it. Shut up.)
“Like drugs!” Guda responded. “Don’t let me smell that again.”
Apparently he had now added another rule. Breath spray, deodorant, ointment – too risky. You could end up dying of thirst in Needles.
I have been in many transit situations. I’ve ridden buses, taxis, ferries, trolleys, trains, and flights all over the United States. Some of these trips were more pleasant than others. What they all had in common, until today, was some notion, however strained, of hospitality and customer service. Greyhound broke with that completely. They somehow managed to be less friendly than the TSA, which is quite a feat. We were subjects of a dictatorship, entitled to shut up and follow orders, and then maybe, if we were well behaved, we would actually reach our destination.
Is there something about the population of people on the bus that merits this degree of hostility and coercion? A passenger on Guda’s bus told me that he was five hours behind schedule because, earlier in his journey, the bus had to stop not once but twice to eject passengers – and one of these stops had led to an arrest. Looking around, I just saw people – students, families, guys in work boots, people traveling on a budget. If anyone on the bus had contraband, it was not clear to any eye but Guda’s (hidden behind his dark glasses). The only potential weapon I saw was the putter used as a walking stick by a guy who looked like he did a lot of manual labor.
It looked like a busload of people to me, but I don’t think that’s what Guda saw when he looked at us – and the company he works for doesn’t view us that way, either. It felt like I was under arrest. I’ve never felt this way during domestic transit, not even going through airport security. Guda’s driving, at least, was competent and safe. In no other sense did I feel that I was in good professional hands.
In contrast, a day later I was in the care of Lufthansa, flying first to München--a ten-hour flight across the United States, Canada, the ocean, and then over Ireland, the UK, and Denmark). The contrast in how we passengers were treated, even in economy class, is remarkable. It was cramped and uncomfortable, of course, and yet we were treated as welcome guests and customers. Even the TSA and the German passport control were courteous, if a bit hurried.
My plane landed at Vespucci airport (aka the Peretola) at about 9:30 PM. It had been a long, cramped twenty-four hours on buses and airplanes. My cell phone was useless – it has no international roaming, and it will not take a SIM card for use overseas. The wifi service on board Lufthansa and at the Munich airport are not free, and I discovered that my bank had blocked my ATM card despite my telling them about my trip.
At every point during the trip where I would present my passport or put a bag through an x-ray machine, I was waiting to be turned back – waiting for the opportunity to be snatched away. Maybe I’d learn I was on the no-fly list, or wanted for an unpaid parking ticket somewhere, or there would be some problem with the air fare. At which point Guda would show up in his black and white outfit and dark sunglasses and say, “Your ride ends here.”
Yet all was well, and even the ten-hour flight München was not so terrible in the end. Eventually I landed at Peretola and was greeted with kisses on both cheeks by my director, and her filmmaker boyfriend. And so it begins.