Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Traveling with PACS - the Night Bus to PEK

The most recent time I chanted the shechechiyanu prayer, it nearly turned out to be my last. If you are not familiar with it, the shechechiyanu is a Hebrew prayer that you can say pretty much any time the spirit moves you, as it is not specific to any one occasion, but rather. simply designed to thank God for sustaining you to reach a special moment you wish to make even more holy or celebratory by reciting a blessing.

On the last night of Hannukah 5772, I decided to tack this blessing onto the tail end of two other holiday specific blessings. It just felt right. For many of us on the PACS/NYS China tour, it was the first and only time we could celebrate Hannukah this year, so busy had we been during the past week what with packing and performing and racing back and forth all over China.
Our tour's advance team had earlier examined the sleeper buses upon which we were supposed to spend the night curled up and resting on our way to the Beijing airport; they were pronounced unacceptable for our purposes. Instead, the orchestra members were being distributed among three traditional coaches, where we would each have two adjacent seats in which to spend the next 6 hours or so traveling to catch a flight to our next concert venue. Even though many of us knew it was unlikely we would get a good night's sleep on any sort of bus, we were in fairly good spirits.

Crazy as it was, day to day, we appreciated that we were in the middle of a unique adventure, giving 9 concerts all across China in the space of two weeks with an orchestra many of us had just joined days before. We were, for the most part, doing a pretty great job of staying positive and in good humor despite general exhaustion and scattered illness. Some of us had dressed for camping in the frozen tundra, wearing pajamas, warm blankets and coats, eye shields and ear plugs, and were determined to sleep on the road, while others of us were resigned to the fact that we were unlikely to sleep very much until we got to the airport and/or boarded the airplane, later in the day. I was among the latter group, as I'd already had enough experience folding myself into similar bus seats on this tour as to know with almost complete certainly that it would be too tight a squeeze to be conducive to sleeping. Additionally, we soon realized that, on our particular vehicle at least, the rear half of the interior space was entirely without heat. Consequently, if a person in the back were small enough to curl up and find either a horizontal or diagonal position in which to rest, they would soon find that they were freezing their ass off.

Before we reached that point of the evening however, it was time for a very short hannukah party. Once we reached the highway, I crept down the aisle toward the back of the bus, set the brass hannukiah on the floor and being as careful as I could not to set off a smoke alarm in the process, used a match to melt eight candles into the little brass cups at the top of the menorah's eight arms, then passed the shammas candle among the several Jewish orchestra members who had come to huddle together at the back of the bus for this occasion.

We chanted the two candle lighting blessings and then I added the shechechiyanu and some others sang along. Once the candles were all lit, some people took pictures, we smiled at each other briefly in the candle light and then the candles were promptly extinguished. Surely it was the shortest hannukah celebration any of us had ever had, but still, it seemed to make people happy. Next, we passed around a bag of hannukah gelt, milk chocolate coins wrapped in golden foil. With that little bit of sweetness melting in our mouths, we got back to the business of getting comfortable for the ride to PEK, the Beijing airport.

A kind and chivalrous trombone player and gentleman, realizing that his seats had heat and mine had none, invited me to share the pair that had been allotted to him. After a few repetitions of me refusing and him insisting, I found myself awkwardly settled beside him, uncomfortably aware that I was surely making him less comfortable by my presence. I knew it was less likely, when next he turned back to the folded blanket that was serving as both pillow and insulation and curled to face the window, that he would be able to sleep, whereas I was pretty sure I wasn't going to sleep under any circumstances.

Very soon, I became deliriously tired, so that I began to imagine I was on the verge of perceiving at a very profound level the true nature of life, humanity and our role in the universe. I decided that the best way to receive such a valuable insight would be in a position involving more ample leg room. Accordingly, I stood up and tiptoed to the front of the bus and took a seat on the floor, with my legs dangling freely down toward the driver's seat and the top of the stairs. I rested my left cheek on my left arm, which in turn lay across my legs and then gazed up through the wide windshield into the night sky.

At first, I thought perhaps it was an optical illusion, but before long I realized that not only was our bus really traveling right down the center line between the two lanes of highway, but also swerving from one side of that line to the other and back again.

Alarmed, I glanced at the driver and observed him massaging the entire circumference of his head. At first I felt sheepish for watching him, the way I sometimes do when my cat is lying in the sun, licking his entire self clean and thinking he is alone. But in the next moment I realized that rather than indulging in a private pleasure, the driver was trying to create enough friction by rubbing his face and scalp so as to wake himself up. His head was nodding toward his chest, his eyelids drooping like two lead curtains over his eyes.

With a rush of adrenalin, I imagined us one big swerve away from crashing over the guardrail to a fiery death. I'm not afraid to die, but I had promised my inlaws when I left that they would only have to keep our children for two and a half weeks, and besides, there were another 30 passengers to consider, in addition to the driver himself. I decided that I was sleepless in precisely the right place at the right time, and so I stepped down next to the driver and lacking any Chinese vocabulary, waved hello. He in turn gestured to the folded jump seat commonly used by tour guides, clearly inviting me to sit in it. I accepted his invitation, telling myself that I would somehow find a way to keep him awake for the next 4 hours and we would all be fine. When, in the next moment, he reached for a cigarette, our brief friendship came to an abrupt end.

I signaled to him that smoking was NOT OKAY, and then I poked Paul, who was sleeping right behind the driver's seat, trying in vain to wake him up.

Next, I poked David Bernard, our music director and mastermind of this crazy tour, somewhat more vigorously than I had poked Paul, and when he opened one eye, I said something like "Help! the bus driver is falling asleep and I don't know what to do!" David woke up fast and immediately roused Jong, our translator, urging him to have the driver extinguish his cigarette, open the window and, failing that, to pull over and do jumping jacks, or drink some coffee. According to David's GPS we were about 3 1/2 hours from reaching our destination, the largest airport in all of China. Soon the driver did pull off to the shoulder of the highway, but rather than exercise or find a cup of joe, he lit up another cigarette for what would be the first of several face to face, roadside conferences held among the drivers to discuss the route to the airport. Evidently, this team of bus driving professionals had neither a clear idea how to get to the largest airport in China, nor any communication technology to enable them to confer with each other while operating their respective vehicles. Somehow I got wind of the fact that there were 4 drivers in the team and I requested through Jong that a better rested one of them be sent to our bus to relieve our exhausted driver, but the translated and untrue response we got back was that we had four vehicles in our entourage, so that was not possible. We were so tired and confused that for the moment we accepted the lie and returned to the matter of helping them find the route to the airport. It was absurd to be sure, and of course David found it baffling and infuriating that they had taken the wrong route and were now further away from the airport than they had been at least half an hour earlier when he had had first consulted the map on his iPhone, but I was frankly relieved because the sun was coming up and it seemed we were no longer on the verge of perishing. All of which seemed more important at that moment - shechechiyanu - than whether we would get to the airport in time to make a flight that would take us to play a concert on little to no sleep. Which we did anyway, and did well - yet another Hannukah miracle.


  1. Yikes! I was one of the shivering non-sleepers in the back of the bus, listening to my ipod with my eyes closed, and I had no idea that anything like that was going on up front. Thanks for staying alert and on top of the situation. I think I will toast to your alertness by eating my chocolate coin right this minute!

  2. I am searching for a prayer of gratitude that you made it PAST that moment. I had not heard this story. . . the first of many I hope you post here.