Close encounters

Laid Bear

abhishek-roy_online

I looked out of the bus and saw a woman walking with five pugs scurrying ahead of her on leashes. The man sitting beside me noticed me curiously observing the legion of canines.

“Did you know that 68 percent of all American households have pets?” he asked me as the bus stopped at a red light. He must have read my mind.

“Really?” I asked him. “I see so many pets in San Francisco. I’m sure the percentage must be greater here.”

“It sure is! But do you know why?”

That started an enjoyably informative conversation with a veterinarian, which made the 40-minute bus ride from San Francisco to Berkeley feel like a short one. Over the course of the three months I’ve been in Berkeley, I have met people from walks of life I never had the chance to interact with before, from meeting a lawyer and a person who invests in rising businesses in Africa to a man who had some insightful philosophical ideas to share about life. All of them had unique stories and opinions. I am sure I wouldn’t have been able to meet such people if it hadn’t been for the public transport here.

Experiences such as these, coupled with the overall convenience and accessibility of public transport, have contributed to a great quarter of a year at UC Berkeley for me. I have never had to wait more than 15 minutes for a bus. Whether it’s Shattuck, El Cerrito or Oakland I need to travel to, AC transit buses are always available. Live locations and timings can also be checked, which I find very useful. Public transit prices are relatively affordable, although I know this isn’t necessarily true for everyone in the Bay Area — but the BART does offer discounts in certain scenarios, such as students with Clipper cards. Bear Transit, the shuttle system running throughout the campus, is also convenient, since walking from one end of campus to the other can easily take 17-20 minutes.

I am also impressed by how BART stations are never too far away and how BART allows us to travel to any city or town around the Bay Area in less than 40 minutes. But if on a certain day, all the forces of nature and the planets of the solar system align incorrectly and nothing is available, I can rest assured knowing I’ll find an Uber waiting within 10 minutes of me.

In Mumbai, I hardly ever used public transport. The economically privileged had private cars and private chauffeurs to drive us around. If my chauffeur wasn’t present and I had to go somewhere far, I’d generally call an Uber. I was privileged enough to travel in the comfort of my own car, protected from debilitating heat or torrential rain, and I had grown used to that. My only experience with public transport was using rickshaws — three-wheeled motor vehicles. Rickshaws were great for travelling short distances, and the vast number of rickshaws swarming the city made them unimaginably easy to find. But I never really used the buses or the traditional “black and yellow taxis” or the local train, simply because my family had its own car and a chauffeur to drive us around. Having led a rather sheltered life, I was somewhat apprehensive about the prospect of living on my own and commuting on my own.

I took some time to acclimate to Berkeley and get to know the campus better. With a little help from seniors and the company of my peers, I was quickly able to master the art of using public transport. Choosing the right bus number, jumping onto the BART, changing lines at a particular station and then taking a cab down to the city just to make my journey as cheap and as fast as possible is something I now find thrilling.

But, you might ask me, why am I writing on this topic? Given my sheltered background, I am the least qualified to analyze public transport. Living alone for an extended period after having lived with people around me all my life taught me some important lessons pretty fast. After spending a quarter of a year halfway around the world from my home, I have come to understand how important public transport is. I knew this merely in theory when I was in Mumbai, but have had the chance to truly experience it after coming to Berkeley. Not only is it the lifeline of any city, it’s a common meeting ground for different individuals in a vast and complex ecosystem.

Hop onto a bus or the BART, and there you can see the suited business person reading the Wall Street Journal on their phone. Near the door is a human rights activist and journalist, carrying a protest sign or two. And sitting primly at the back is definitely a professor with a leather bag full of papers. All on the same vessel to get from point A to point B, crossing paths every day at this very moment. And of course, the college student who awkwardly drops his phone at one of their feet, locks eyes, and begins a discussion he will remember for his whole life.

Abhishek writes the Friday blog on the financial and economic aspects of being an international student. Contact him at [email protected] .