Monday, November 14, 2011

Trials of the Bus

On a recent trip to Spain, I had an excruciating long bus ride from Madrid to Gijon, which is about a 250 mile journey to the central northern coast. I traveled with my fellow Team USA members who were racing in the World Duathlon Championships. I wanted to venture to an exotic venue to race, but I was apprehensive about the amount of travel time it would take. The organizers told us that the ride would be about five hours. Five hours in U.S. time is more like eight hours in Spain time.. The driver was not in a hurry.

I thought that taking a bus ride would be a good choice because traveling with a bike is a major pain. The airlines pretend that the bike is like a another passenger and think you should be charged as such. I had to pack it in a box and lug the bulky forty pound box around the airport. I dreaded the attempt to take it in a small European taxi to the train station, where they may or may not take it on the train. I couldn’t even imagine driving in Spain. I would get lost in god knows where because the roads are marked all well and I couldn’t read the signs. The bus would take us from the airport directly to our hotels. What I didn’t know is that it would be a torturously long ride averaging 31 miles per hour. The bus interior was fairly nice, with plush, comfortable seats, but we were crammed in together and there wasn’t much extra room for our bags.

The Madrid airport is spread out and it took the bus twenty minutes to get to another terminal to pick up other people. I was starting to wonder if Madrid had two airports. The bus that was supposed to leave about 7:30 a.m. finally started at 9:00 a.m. I felt excited to be in another country once we got out of the airport. The country side looked a little like Arizona with bare rocky hills and stunted trees. Unfortunately, that was the most interesting scenery for two hundred miles.

Once the route left the city, the area looked like desolate eastern Washington, in which I had gotten horribly lost this summer. It was vast stretches of parched wheat fields and dead sunflower plants, with the occasional ruined building. All the moisture seemed to have been sucked out of the earth, the people and animals had vanished and only the skeletons of crops remained. The sun blazed in a clear blue sky. The emptiness and lack of green was oppressive and tedious. I had a weird sense of warped time because it was midnight Phoenix time and mid morning here.

We passed the time chatting with one another trying to pass the time. It helped to be in a community of fellow travelers. It kept my anxiety at being in a foreign country at bay. Somehow nothing bad could happen as long as I was with a group of people in the same situation.

After two hours we stopped at Spain’s version of a truck stop. It seemed fairly clean and had a lunch counter with meat filled pastries. It looked good, but when I tried one I regretted it. I was hungry, but this pastry had a nasty sour greasy aftertaste like fatty meat. The store had an assortment of Spanish junk food. I couldn’t read the labels, but the plastic wrapped donuts, cookies and potato chips looked just as nutritious as the American versions. There was a large scary looking hunk of preserved, unwrapped pork with hoofed leg sticking out. It had an unreal grayish plastic appearance that didn’t look like real meat. Maybe it was a Spanish version of beef jerky? I was not so far impressed with Spanish cuisine.

We made our slow crawl onward. After another two hours we were forced to have a sit down lunch at a twenty four hour restaurant. Few of us could read the menus, so a passenger who could read Spanish translated for us. I thought chicken would be safe, but I was wrong. I wasn’t real hungry after the nasty pastry, but I didn’t know how long I would have until I got a real meal. The chicken was greasy dark meat. The person I was sitting with had a grisly version of beef. It looked horrible, but he claimed it was edible. It certainly didn’t look like it. Good food kept me going when I was tired, but I hadn’t managed to get any yet and it was depressing.

This ride was a test. A test to see how much continuous traveling I could do without losing my mind. Racing an ironman is difficult, but it was easy compared to this trip. I had already been traveling for fifteen hours. The journey took patience and endurance. It was like entering the Twilight Zone where I am forced be a passenger forever and never get anywhere.

The bus experience was out of my control, like many things. As a passenger, I was supposed to go to a certain place, but I couldn’t make the ride any faster. I had to stop at places where I didn’t want to be. Weird places with strange meat. Time was filled with monotony. All of us had succumbed to the tedious slow passage of time and no one spoke much. I wanted to be in Gijon lying on a soft hotel bed. I knew that I would get to the end of this trip eventually, but it seemed to take forever. It’s supposed to be about the journey, not the destination, but in this case, the destination was far preferable to the journey.

I knew I would survive this trial. After an eternity, the view changed to actual green hills . We were nearing the coast. Mist hung in layers in the air around the mountains, reminding me of California, where the searing blasted desert and arid grassy rolling land gives way to the greenery of the beach areas.

The bus wound through twisting roads through the hills. It seemed to lose even more speed. I cheered when I saw a sign for Gijon. At least it exists. I was beginning to wonder.

Ultimately, it turned out that Gijon was worth the trials of the twenty three hours to get there. It was a nice civilized town on a beautiful beach with restaurants, parks and interesting old buildings. I had the privilege of riding my bike on a pretty, winding picturesque road. I got to meet people from around the country and the world. It was a totally new fascinating environment. I felt ill at ease in a foreign country, but it was fun observing a different culture. But the process of getting there was awful.

That seems to be common in the human situation, with great experiences intermingled with horrible ones. You find the love of your life and they run off with someone else. You have a child, but your parents die. You travel to a nice place, but have the plane ride from hell. You can forge on anyway. After this trip I had more faith in myself to endure anxiety, tedium and exhaustion to get to where I wanted to go. Fear did not keep me in my comfort zone and away from adventure. Next time, though, I am going somewhere closer to a major airport.