Part one: Is this Amtrak? - Heidi Ho - CycleBlaze

July 14, 2012

Part one: Is this Amtrak?

Part 1: Bastille Day - 6:00am to 1:40pm

Imagine playing musical chairs with 103 people and 50 chairs, and 3 of those people are touring cyclists. But before the touring cyclists can sit down in one of the 50 chairs they have to roll their bike to a box, unload everything in the box, and then go find an empty chair. I couldn’t have imagined it either, but that is how I spent my morning.

My train to Toulouse was scheduled to leave 11:00 and I would change trains in Narbonne. I got up early. I still don’t feel well, and I just wanted to get to the station, get some vittles and rest. I arrived at 9:00 and checked the board for the correct platform, but instead of a track number for my train, the board said something like, “Gare de something, SNCF”. I asked a man in the office about it. He spoke enough English to get the point across…

“There is something wrong between here and Rimes,” he said. “The trains can’t get to Rimes. Wait at the front of the station, where you will board a bus. From Rimes you will get on the train to Narbonne.”

“What about my bike?” I asked.

“That’s no problem. They will take you and your bike.”

Okay I thought. Busses are not ideal but Rimes can’t be that far. Besides, it didn’t seem that I had much choice. Today is Bastille Bay. I had been at the station for an hour and only one train had come and gone. The usually bustling station of Avignon was seemingly at a standstill because of the holiday.

A half hour before our bus was scheduled to arrive I went to the appointed area outside the station and waited, and chatted with a man, about 30 years old, a Frenchman with Algerian roots, who I’ll call Pierre, though I don’t know his name.

“I don’t think we will all fit on one bus.” I told him as the crowd swelled in numbers.

The closer it got to 11:00 the more people arrived. And they were mildly annoyed. I was surprised when no one went inside to ask for more information. I asked Pierre about it.

“I doubt anyone in the station knows what’s going on,” He said. “There is no point in asking.” Apparently that was everyone’s conclusion? It was simply implied that no one knew what was going on. So why ask?

People got more restless. I stressed. Would I make my connection in Narbonne? If I didn't would I have any options to get to Toulouse, with so few trains on the holiday, or would I be sleeping in the Narbonne train station?

Finally, 30-minutes late, a bus drove up and stopped. The driver got out, locked the door and vanished into the station. It was clear to everyone that one bus was not nearly enough. After 20 more minutes the driver came out and opened the door. There was a rush to get on. It wasn’t unruly, but there was a definite urgency. The traditional French politeness was tested. Having a bike made it impossible.

“I was the first one here,” I told Pierre. “And I probably won’t get on.”

Still, I tried. I threw my bike and bags into the luggage compartment on the side and tried to squeeze my way through the mass of bodies to the door. I wasn’t even close.

“That’s all!” The driver said in French. “Finished.”

People started complaining. “They are going to send another bus,” he added. He got in the bus to drive away.

“WAIT!” Those of us with now packed luggage yelled. We ran over to the luggage hold and pulled off our things. I wasn’t the only touring cyclist trying to get on the bus. There were two Spanish riders also on their way to Toulouse and we all unloaded our bikes and panniers.

A while later a second bus showed up and it was pretty much a repeat of before, except there was only enough space for my bags below, not the bike. I stood there with the unloaded Trucker towards the middle of the bus, at the end of the line, again, counting heads ahead of me. I had no chance.

By this time I was really tired. I had a hotel reservation in Toulouse that I might not make now. If I camp again I felt I would get sicker? Like everyone else there, I was cranky.

The middle doors were open. I picked up The Trucker, went up the steps, found one empty seat near the doors and sat down. The bike was in the middle isle. The bus was now full. The stragglers headed to the back of the bus, to the 2 or 3 empty seats, slithering passed the bike as if nothing were unusual about that.

We sat, and we sat. The bus got hotter. I fought my tendency towards claustrophobia. I really wanted to get to that hotel room.

The driver came in and said something to me in French, then walked away. “He said you can’t take the bike,” Pierre said, who managed to get a seat behind me.

“Tough.” I said and stayed put.

This happened a couple of times. But I didn’t move. The people next to me seemed somewhat amused by my defiance, and were even sympathetic. They made gestures that seemed to say, “just stay put, maybe the driver will get tired of asking and just drive away.”

Finally, the man from the station came out, the one who originally told me I would be able to board the bus with my bike.

“You can’t take the bike inside the bus,” he said, while the driver and another man stood behind him for back up. I also saw the Spanish cyclists in the background, they had stopped walking back the station to watch the drama that was now unfolding inside the bus. “Put it below,” the man added.

“There is no room below,” I said.

“You can’t take it inside the bus,” he repeated.

“How am I supposed to get to Toulouse?” I asked, frustrated, no longer caring that I was making zero attempt to speak French.

“You are going to Toulouse?” he said. “Get off, I’ll work something out for you.”

By now the claustrophobia, heat, and my cold were finally winning the battle with my mind.

“Fine! Open the door,” I said, referring to the middle door, which was now closed. Nothing happened. I waited. I stood there longer, waiting. Still nothing happened. The driver said something in French.

“He can’t get the door to open,” Pierre translated.

“You know, “ I said, partly under my breath, partly out loud, not caring if I sounded like a smart ass American. “I think not being able to open the door is a bigger safety hazard than me having my bike in the isle.” The woman next to me suppressed a smile.

I tried to push the bike towards the front of the bus, but it was too narrow to maneuver, plus the bike was backwards. The bus was getting hotter. I felt exasperated.

I looked back at the middle door. I’m pretty sure I didn’t say, “Just open the fucking door!” but honestly, I can’t be sure. I know I was thinking it. Probably, though, I said, “just open the door!”

The driver finally gave up his attempts to open the door and came back through the isle, picked up the back of my bike by the rack, and together, he and I lifted it to the front, and out the door. Pierre helped me get my bags, which was nice, and wished me good luck.

I immediately felt better, being off that bus! But there was still the problem of getting to Toulouse.

“Come with me,” the station man said. And as I followed him to the station, the bus rolled away, with everyone but the three touring cyclists aboard.

Once inside, the man punched the keys of his computer, and a few minutes later, walked over to where I was standing.

“Here is a new ticket to Toulouse,” he said. “You will get on the 13:40 (1:40pm) train to Rimes, and change there for...”

“Wait.” I said, holding up my hand. “Rimes?!”

“Yes. Then get off…”

“Rimes? On a train. Not a bus?”


I only half heard the rest of the instructions. My mind filled with questions…

-- I thought the only way to get to Rimes was on a bus?
-- Isn’t that route closed, and why were we all being jammed on a bus like sardines?
-- When did the route open? If you had offered the 1:40 train to people as an alternative to the bus, you might have gotten volunteers and it might not have been chaos outside the station.

There were other questions, but my limited French and his limited English wouldn’t allow for such trivia, and the questions will forever go unasked.

Since my mind lost all concentration for those moments I asked him to repeat the instructions. He did, patiently, and then wrote it down on a little piece of paper and stapled it to the ticket. He was nice. I think he saw I got a raw deal.

When he finished I took the ticket and said, with sincerity, “Thank you for your help. I know it wasn’t your fault.” It wasn’t after all. He shook my hand and said goodbye.

I can’t tell you how glad I was that I would be getting on a train, and not a bus. My final thought was to wonder if I would make it to Rimes before the bus?

“I heard of this happening before,” I overheard a woman say earlier, while we were waiting for the bus. “The driver got lost and they spent an hour driving around the city, they were hours late getting to their destination.”

Yes. Maybe in the end I lucked out.


Part 2: Bastille Day - 1:41pm to Midnight

Today's ride: 14 km (9 miles)
Total: 3,117 km (1,936 miles)

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