So where were you last Tuesday night?
Seven years after the definitive where-were-you-when moment for Americans under sixty, it is with great relief that there is now a new moment to talk about. For the past week, conversations have turned to the election, which has unleashed a giddy elation in myself and countless others.
As for me, I was at a house party in a high-rise on West 42nd Street, where I stayed to watch first McCain’s and then Obama’s speech. At around 12:30, I headed out, planning to walk back to Times Square and take the subway home, but soon it was clear that something extraordinary was happening. Packs of people streamed by, chanting and waving Obama signs. Strangers were smiling and talking to each other, even embracing. A black woman threw her arms out and howled, “I’m goin’ ta work naked tomorrow!”
Times Square was still packed when I got there. The big screens around the square were all showing the results still coming in, and Obama’s picture kept drifting by on the giant LEDs. I called my sister, then my parents, then some friends, to let them hear what was going on. “YES! WE CAN! YES! WE CAN!” “O! BA! MA! O! BA! MA!” “YES! WE! DID! YES! WE! DID!” Fire trucks drove by and honked in rhythm. I talked to a man from Guinea who was texting his friends back home. They were still celebrating, though it was nearly morning there.
I bought a T-shirt that said President Barack Obama. I cheered and I chanted with strangers. I stared at the monitors and talked shop with strangers about Senate races. At last I headed home, by cab, sharing my joy with my Senegalese driver. It was a beautiful night.
The next day, I bought my ticket for Thailand. I’ll be going on December 20, returning on January 4. At first I agonized over how I would book internal flights for when I arrived, but yesterday I decided to let that go. I’ll just show up in Bangkok and figure it out. There’s always a bus to somewhere.
Bus travel, of course, is unpredictable. I have been battered and bruised on buses, ridden on the roof over mountain roads, crossed the United States with Euro-hippies, been awakened by snapping fingers in my face and a man barking, “Tea, toilet!” But what comes to mind most viscerally for me are two experiences. In one, I am riding through Bridgeport, Connecticut, gazing out the window at a bombed-out husk of a city, and listening to “Whiskeyclone, Hotel City 1997,” by Beck:
I was born in this hotel, washing dishes in the sink
Magazines and free soda, trying hard not to think
The other memory is of India, staring out the window of a night bus — god knows where — listening to Dig Your Own Hole by the Chemical Brothers and watching these islands of fluorescent light drift by, illuminated roadside bhatis with walls of turquoise and pink, hand-painted Pepsi logos, and skinny, mustachioed men with bushy hair, bushy mustaches and dhotis.
In each case, the memory mixes music, bus travel and alienation. Buses, it seems to me, are an ideal environment for feeling alienated, with none of the romance of trains or the sense of occasion that still clings to air travel even in the age of the flying cattle car. Buses rattle and bump, stop unpredictably, go off course, get stuck in traffic. And music is ideal for creating a contrast, or an emotional frame, for absorbing images that are somehow surreal and out of context.
And so I’m sorting through my music, trying to figure out what goes on my iPod for my trip to Thailand, and contemplating a bus trip up the country, from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, with stops in Ayuthaya and Sukhothai and who knows where else. What will settle into my memory this time?
My first little taste of adventure travel was on a Green Tortoise bus down from Oregon, and it sold me on the notion. I soon spent ten days crossing the Northern US with the Green Tortoise, and then another fourteen days heading back across the South. After college, when I leaped blind into India, I experienced bus travel in whole new ways: riding the roof with a couple of cackling old men on the road that winds over the mountains back into Pokhara; wrapped in a shawl, trying to sleep as the cold desert wind whips through the empty window frame of a night bus to Jaisalmer; pressed up against a man smelling of sandalwood and sweat, trying to tune out the high-pitched warble of distorted Hindipop. I have been bounced and battered in a sleeping compartment with no seats. I have been awakened early in the morning by snapping fingers in my face and a man barking, “Tea, toilet!” I have
Bus travel is unpredictable. Some of the best and worst travel experiences of my life have involved buses. My first trip, down from Eugene, Oregon to San Francisco, was a revelation: my first time jumping into a travel experience with no clear idea what it would entail. I sat on the back, on the mattress platform, while an impromptu bluegrass band struck up, and then sat by a river at the Oregon campsite stopover and shared stories with probably the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met.
Over the next couple of years, I twice crossed the United States in Green Tortoise buses. Then, after college, I made a grand, blind leap into India, where