"I need to know a bus schedule."
"Where do you want to go?"
"Which place in Parsippanny?"
"The intersection of Route 46 and Route 202."
"Oh dear! Not on a Saturday!"
"I beg your pardon..?"
I was talking to the lady at the NJTransit information counter at the Newark Penn Station. After getting up early on a holiday and leaving home when the mercury showed 15 degrees below zero, naturally I was not in the mood for jokes. I was visiting a friend in Parsippanny. I couldn't go on a weekday obviously, and both of us had some work on Sunday. Now this lady was advising me what day I was supposed to travel on. One has to be tactful at time like this, however, and although I wanted to scream "Keno sokkal sokkal iyarki marchhen didi?" on her face, I just uttered a polite, "I beg your pardon..?"
"You can't go there on Saturdays." Her reply was also polite.
"None on Saturdays."
"Maybe I could change a bus somewhere and make a break journey?"
"Give me the exact house address of where you want to go."
Again, I wanted to ask "Ato khabore tomar dorkaar ki baapu?" That would have been an appropriate reaction back in Kolkata. Here, I just called my friend and found the address. She entered the address into her computer. The computer said something. She printed it out and gave it to me.
"Take the light rail to Newark Broad Street Station. From there take the Dover train to Morristown. From there take a bus to Parsippany Rd on Landix Plaza East. Then walk a block." She said. I saw all the timings were written on that paper. I thanked her and left.
The light rail came on time. It reached Broad Street on time. After a 15 minute wait in the deathly cold, the Dover train came on time too. I settled down with an Agatha Christie and dozed on and off throughout the nearly one hour journey. As I got down at Morristown, I realised I had a problem. The train was supposed to arrive at 12:24 but it was a few minutes late. Now my bus was due to leave at 12:33 and I had to find the bus stop before that. There were no signs, and nobody whom I could ask as nobody around seemed to understand English. Eventually a man very confidently showed me the way to the bus stop. I ran to that place only to understand that it was a different bus stop. I found the correct bus stop at about 12:35. Needless to say, my bus had already left.
I had no option but to wait for the next bus whose timing I did not know. I settled down on the little wooden bench sheltered from the wind on three sides and submerged myself into the book again.
It started with a slow burning sensation at my fingertips. My gloved fingertips felt as if I had eaten a very hot spicy curry with my hands. Soon there was that same feeling in my toes. I understood it was due to the cold. My body was under five layers of insulation, but my hands and feet seemed vulnurable. I slipped my fingers out of their slots and folded them back to touch my palm making a fist inside the glove, and was immediately shocked by how cold they felt. I removed my gloves to investigate and was surprised to see my palms a bright red. I unzipped my down jacket a bit and put my hand inside to warm it. My toes were in a dull throbbing pain by now.
A few minutes of warming the hands like this and occasionally rubbing them together seemed to warm them a bit. It was 1:00 pm and no bus had come to the stop yet. My face was the only exposed part of my body and it was starting to burn now. I was shivering a little. The pain in my toes... my toes...
Then I realised I couldn't feel my toes.
I got up in a hurry, wondering what frostbite looked and felt like. I clenched and unclenched my toes for some time and started pacing on the snow-covered pavement. Slowly, the dull pain came back to them, only ten times worse than before. The time was 1:35. I was already outside in this temperature for an hour. I wondered if there were any more buses on Saturday.
I called my friend and told him to find out. I found my words slurring as my jaw would not move properly. He said the next bus was due at 2:03 which meant I would have to wait another half hour. That half-hour was probably the longest half-hour of my life. Though it seemed impossible, the pain in my toes increased steadily. Similar pain started in my fingertips. My face grew numb, my lips became dry and blistered and I started feeling cold in my body too. It seemed the cold was increasing though I knew it was unlikely on such a sunny day - the temperature was probably around -9 degrees by the time. I felt colder probably because my body was growing tired. Yet, I was scared to sit down lest I lost my toes again.
As Murphy's Law would predict, the 2:03 bus came ten minutes late. The inside was refreshingly warm and the handles were a delight to hold (in hindsight I realise the inside of the bus was stifling hot). However, my relief was short lived as I saw that the driver and I did not understand each other's accents. Soon the inevitable happened: I passed my stop and had to get off at the next one. After several more adventures like crossing a highway, walking through
ten six four inches of snow for quarter of a mile and crossing a small frozen river (over a culvert, of course) I met my friend and accompanied him to his house. When I saw myself in the mirror, I found the complexion of my face like that of the "white" people here: very pale with patches of pink. Everything was nearly back to normal soon, although my fingernails and toenails still feel sensitive twelve hours after the ordeal.
Of course, the wonderful lunch that followed deserves a mention, but my post is not about that. As I sat nursing my painful digits, it gave me a smug feeling and intense satisfaction to know that as far as public transport was concerned, India was probably not years but decades ahead of the so called "most powerful nation on earth." The automobile companies here are the biggest culprits --- they influenced the government and people for decades to systematically ruin the public transport system. The oil companies helped them. India may be a poor third world country, but I cannot imagine being told that I cannot travel to a particular place because it was a Saturday. Also, I have never waited an hour and a half for a bus in India. Ironically, now the auto companies are ruined themselves.
Contrary to what most people believe, USA is not the best place in the world. Certainly not when it comes to public transport. And if you are
travelling traveling on a holiday without your own car, you better say your prayers before you leave; for you may not be able to reach your destination at all.