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The lady on the bus

I prefer window seats on most occasions. I love to look out and observe. I enjoy reading billboards and license plates and taking in the views. The only downside to taking the window seat on a bus is that it leaves the aisle seat wide open for any rando to take. It isn’t always a downside, but more often than not, it is.

I fight the urge to place my bag on the seat next to me, pretending to reserve it so that I can have the row to myself. As every man passes by me, I hold my breath, hoping that they keep walking. I don’t want to spend the next three hours trying to make myself as small as possible, pressed up against the window, afraid that any leg contact would give him permission to try to insert himself into my life.

I stare out the window as passengers continue to load. If I make eye contact, they might think it’s an invitation to sit with me. Moments pass and the seat beside me is still empty. I feel as if I’m winning some sort of competition. Will I have the row to myself, all the way from Raleigh to Asheville?

“May I sit here?” The silence is broken.

I turn my head, half-smile intact. “Yes, of course,” I say, without fully knowing who is asking.

The tension in my body releases as I turn back to the window—a woman chose to sit next to me. She eases herself into her seat, nearly dropping her 70’s-style glasses in the process. She brushes off her lap and pats down her short, curly, white hair, settling in, while I fall deep into my thoughts. The safety brief echoes throughout the bus.

Soon the Raleigh bus station is nothing but a collection of memories and Greensboro is in our sites. First stop of many on our way to Asheville. Almost every passenger disembarks when we arrive, either to smoke or change buses. The lady and I are the only two waiting in our seats.

“The bus system here is terrible,” she says.

I’m pulled out of my day dream.

“Is it? Why is it terrible?” I ask, not fully wanting to engage but wanting to be polite.

“Yeah,” she says. “People are moving here from other states and keep complaining about the bus system. They don’t understand that only the poor people take the bus. The rich people don’t take the bus, so no money goes into the system. Nobody cares about the buses because it’s only for poor people.”

We talk about the cities we’ve been to and our travels throughout the United States. We talk about the places we’ve seen good public transportation and places where it was bad. I find that I am surprised at how extensively she’s traveled, though I don’t know why.

The scent of stale cigarettes fills the bus, and we pull out of Greensboro. The safety brief plays again, followed by a loud silence. As soon as we hit the freeway, my neighbor reignites our conversation.

She tells me all about her family and shares stories about her 70-year-old. “He’s good to me,” she says. I’m shocked that she has a son that age--she doesn’t look a day over 70 and must be closer to 90.

I mention that I am feeling nervous about traveling in North Carolina because of the recent violence being sensationalized in the news. I didn’t know much about North Carolina beyond the happenings of the Civil War over 150 years ago.

“This is where true Southern hospitality comes from,” she says. Out of all the places she has been, she tells me, the people in North Carolina are the friendliest. She mentions that she hasn’t personally experienced much racism as a black woman in North Carolina and she is glad to call it home. Most people want to help you and are kind, she said.

I thank her for sharing her stories and for calming my nerves. I do feel better.

We roll into Asheville and the conversation lulls. I thank her again as I escape the stale-aired bus and wish her a good rest of her journey. She does the same.

It’s lunch time now, so I shuffle a few blocks to the nearest grocery store, weighed down by my duffel bag. As I walk, I think about how amazing this woman is and how she has broken down fears and preconceived notions I had about the people of North Carolina. Her words will stick with me forever, though at the time, I’m unaware of the impact.

Food and coffee in hand, I toss my duffel bag and backpack on the ground to wait for my ride. Squatting on the ground, rifling through my bag, I hear a voice.

“Are you doing okay, honey? Do you need anything?” My body tensed, and the hairs stood up on my arms. Why is this man talking to me? Why is he offering me help? Do I look like I need help? Am I in danger? I feel like I’m in danger. Strangers don’t randomly talk to other strangers outside of a grocery store.

“I’m fine,” I reply curtly, forgetting that I am no longer in a big city where anonymity runs ramped.

“Alrighty then,” the man says. “I just wanted to check because I have a daughter your age and wanted to make sure you’re okay.”

The tension releases, my voice softens, and I look at the man.

“Oh, no, I’m fine, thank you. I’m just waiting for my ride. Thank you, though.” I crack an apologetic half-smile.

“Alright, have a good day,” he says before turning to walk away. I hang my head and reprimand myself for forgetting everything that I had learned from the woman on the bus not an hour earlier.

Southern hospitality. He just wanted to help. I was overly rude and defensive. I jumped to the assumption that he wanted something from me. I can’t believe how quickly I assumed that I was in danger, that my body went into flight mode. One of the “perks” of being a solo woman traveling, I suppose.

My ride arrives and takes me to my friend’s house. I have lots of time to reflect while she’s at work. I reflect on who I am as a traveler and why I travel. It’s time to use my experience for personal growth so that I can travel better next time.

I realize that when embarking on my trip to North Carolina, I forgot that the United States is full of different cultures and identities and that not everyone was raised the way I was. Traveling in the States is comparable to traveling abroad, yet I have always treated it differently, letting preconceived notions guide my actions instead of observing those around me, trying to blend in, and shifting how I act so not to disrupt the everyday lives of the people around me.

By working to blend into where I am, my comfort zone expands and allows me to enjoy what is around me. Trying to manipulate my surroundings to fit into my comfort zone only brings me stress and anxiety; it causes me to miss out on adventures and opportunities for learning about the local culture.

It isn’t too late to do this in Asheville, so I relinquish my standoffish behavior. I chat with shopkeepers and servers. A barista recommends a bakery, so I go. The bakery serves some of the most luscious-looking breads and pastries I have seen outside of France. The employees suggest that I go to the local French restaurant for lunch, and I do. I sip coffee, enjoy a savory crêpe, and learn more about Asheville by interacting with those around me.

This week, I begin my two-month-long road trip around the United States. I am working to not let my preconceived notions and biases about the places I’m going hide in the shadows of my mind; I’m trying to be conscious of them so that I can break and overcome them.

I know that this approach is all thanks to the lady on the bus. Her willingness to share her story and answer my questions has left a permanent mark on me. I want to try to talk to the people beside me now because they might help me learn, grow, and expand my understanding of the places I travel. And maybe our conversation will have an impact on them, too.