El Camino de Belem: Stories from the PVTA
Seasoned PVTA rider, Belem Oseguera Duran ’24E recounts 60 hours of interviews, revelations, and relationships onboard the B43. In navigating the frustrating bus schedule and uncomfortable seats, Oseguera Duran arrives at a destination well worth the travel.
I remember the first day I traveled to Smith using the PVTA. I sat on the somewhat itchy, cushioned seat on the left side of the bus. I put my headphones in and stared out the window as the bus moved through Amherst town, and UMass, and Hadley, and finally into Northampton. My sense of direction was completely jumbled. Everything felt so new and so familiar and so vibrant. For example — did you know there is an Urban Outfitters in Northampton? Their entrance sits on Gothic Street. There’s an almost cathartic feeling to riding the PVTA from first stop to last, from beginning to end. I was always the first person on the bus, and the last one out. The more I rode the bus, the more I got adjusted to the routine. I would watch the swarm of people getting on at Haigis Mall after a long day of classes. Many were students, a few were professors. There was one man who I never got around to talking to. He would place his bike on the front of the bus, come in, sit down in the front row, and get on his phone. I would see him Monday through Thursday when he got on the B43 express at Haigis Mall at 6:00pm, and got off at Northampton. Our interactions consisted of head nods, slight smiles, and silent stares when something out of routine would happen on the bus. I enjoyed his company. One time, he tried to help a woman pay the bus fare on an app. She ignored him and walked away. He looked at me and shrugged. That was one of my favorite moments with him. I wonder if he could see in my eyes how much I wanted to talk to him. I wonder if that’s why he was always hidden behind the comfort of his phone.
This semester, I auditioned for a play at Smith College. I did it on a whim. I placed no thought on how I would transport myself from one campus to the other without a car. I was only driven by my desire for a change of scenery and my it-will-all-work-out-in-the-end attitude. And things did work out in the end, despite the many bumps in the road. Rehearsals for La Ruta started on February 26 and ran through April 30, the daywe finally tore down and put away all the props and sets used to bring the story to life. I was called from Sunday to Thursday — Sundays from 1-10 p.m., Monday to Thursday from 7- 10 p.m. I assumed transportation would be easy, since during the auditions my friend drove me and it only took 21 minutes to get there.
But my assumptions were proven wrong. As I kept toying around with the Transit app on my phone, I noticed the various kinks in my plan.
If you want to get to Northampton from Amherst using public transport, you have two options. The first and most efficient is the B43E bus — the express — which runs from 10:20 a.m.- 5:45 p.m., Monday through Friday. It’s only a 45-minute bus ride, since it does not make any stops in Hadley after Haigis Mall (located in UMass). This semester, I would take that bus route to rehearsal Monday through Thursday at 5:45 p.m. Sometimes it would arrive early, other times it would come very late. It all depended on the traffic and how many people were boarding.
During the weekend, I only had the second option: the regular B43. The B43 bus runs more regularly, but it takes an hour to get from Amherst to Northampton. On the B43, you make stops all along the drive to Hampshire Mall. From Hampshire Mall, you ride along Russell Street which has about 9 stops, and then you finally arrive in Northampton. The first stop in Northampton is Sheldon Field, and the last one is Smith College.
This was my weekly trip. It consisted of spending roughly 9 hours each week on the PVTA, totaling about 60 hours of my life on that bus for the semester. Most of it feels like a fever dream. For five days a week I would run from class, to Valentine Dining Hall, and finally to the bus stop, where I would sit and stare at cars pass by, waiting for the B43 to arrive. When I boarded, I would take out my ID, say hello to the bus driver, and head to the left seats of the bus. While the bus was in motion, I would sit and stare out the window as the scenery meshed into a blur of colors and shapes. I would like to say that it was meditative, but the rough streets made the PVTA feel like a janky roller coaster for 90 percent of the time.
At the start of April this year, I decided to write this article about the PVTA. It was the day after I had fallen asleep on the bus and missed my stop. I woke up en route back to Northampton, where I would be stranded with no hope of getting back to Amherst. Luckily, I got off at the nearest stop and waited for the bus that was going to Amherst, the last bus of the day. Because of my incident, and because our schedules aligned, I rode the bus back to Amherst with a fellow castmate: Emilia Tamayo, a Smith student in the class of ’23. Her favorite place to sit on the bus was the seat right by the exit door, the ones that are elevated give her room to swing her legs without worrying about whether she’s going to hit someone sitting near her. These coveted seats can only be found on the smaller buses, because their large-bus counterparts ones usually don’t leave enough space to swing your legs.
Emilia grew up in the area, so riding the PVTA was second nature, so intertwined with her upbringing that she couldn’t even recall her first ride. But she did note that the first time she began to use the PVTA regularly was when she started her job at Mi Tierra, a restaurant in Hadley. Emilia recalled what it was like to ride the PVTA before the Transit app.
“You would have to go online and find the PDF schedule, which I still use sometimes because of habit. But it only gives the times for the major stops. So if you're at [Mi Tierra], or a random place in the middle [of the major stops], you kind of have to guess [what time the bus will arrive]. The in-Transit [app] was a big development,” she said. For the rest of my time in La Ruta, Emilia and I would randomly bump into each other on the PVTA. Sometimes we’d sit in silence. Sometimes, we shared with each other deep intimate moments of our personal lives that we didn’t get much time to talk about in the rush of rehearsals.
On April 5, 2023 I met another student from the Five College Consortium on the PVTA. We met at the bus stop waiting in front of Converse Hall. The B43E bus was taking longer than usual to arrive and she turned to me to ask whether I was waiting for the same bus she was (I was). Zukiswa Mblenhle Mhlongo, also known as Zuki, is a first-year international student at Hampshire College. A fellow theater kid like me, Zuki was waiting for the B43 because she was headed to rehearsal for “Twelfth Night” at Smith College. Earlier in the year, a modern production of “Much Ado About Nothing” was put on at Hampshire College. After seeing the show, she knew that she wanted to do a Shakespeare play, and soon, through talking to the cast members of “Much Ado,” Zuki discovered the Smith Shakespeare Company and knew that’s where she needed to be.
Zuki told me that her favorite buses are the long ones that look like an accordion because they have her favorite seat. These long buses have a pivoting joint at their center. Zuki likes to sit in the seats facing the rotating center. She also likes the buses of the 38 line, which have a retro look thanks to their neon glow at night. Her trips on the PVTA usually consisted of a combination of these buses, and the B43 or the 39.
“[I’d] taken the bus system before. I just hadn’t tried taking the bus all the way to Smith from Hampshire. It was definitely an interesting challenge at first,” she said.“First of all, I didn't know that the 39 existed for a long time. And I was waking up extra early […] to leave campus at 8:30 a.m. to make it to my 10 o’clock class at Smith. [I would use] the 38 and the B43 … [The 39] works really well in the mornings, but [it’s] not on the bus app. So if [it’s] late or if there is a delay, it becomes a lot more difficult …Now I have to organize my time so that I have preferably an hour and a half before I have to be at rehearsal to use that time to travel on the bus.”
We talked for the rest of the 45 minutes on the bus about theater, being international, the supply and demand market for Ubers, and our share of funny stories from the bus. However, my phone stopped recording after four minutes. Maybe some conversations are better left as the fragments you can remember without a recording device.
Each week, Zuki was averaging 10-12 hours on the bus. Some nights, she had to wait 45-50 minutes in Amherst College before the bus she needed to get to Hampshire arrived. After our first conversation, I left the bus with Zuki’s email and our recorded conversation of 4 minutes. I had forgotten to get her number or her socials, but I figured I would bump into her again. And I did, only five days later. That night I got onto the bus and noticed it was Zuki’s favorite, so I went and took a seat in the center. As more people settled in, I noticed someone sitting in the seats across the aisle from me. It was Zuki with her bag and more pizza boxes than she could carry.
“I was really hungry and didn’t know how big the slices would be. Do you want one?” she asked me. And so I grabbed a pizza slice from Pizza Amore and we chatted the whole bus ride. It was nice to have someone else on the bus who was going through an experience like mine. When we got to Amherst I was able to show her how to get to Val so she could wait there instead of the uncomfortable and dark bus stop. She gave me her number that night, and texted me when she got to Hampshire. She also texted me a picture of the retro neon bus she had told me about.
Throughout my time on the PVTA, meeting Zuki was one of the highlights. Zuki inspired me with her curiosity and excitement to get the most out of the Five College Consortium. She was ready to take as many bus rides on as many buses as long as she was able to fully explore the area. And as we came to the last stop at Amherst College, I realized how much the PVTA had allowed me to connect with the local community. Amherst no longer felt like just 2,000 students on a campus. Through the PVTA, I was able to meet many more lovely people, sometimes some very interesting people. And after each ride, I always had a story to tell my friends.
The first time I ever rode the PVTA was the day after I had flown into Massachusetts. I stayed the night in Econo-Lodge in Hadley and had slept cozied up under the sheets, comforted by the thought that the next day I would be able to order an Uber. I was wrong. I never thought I’d see the day when I would open the Uber app and get a message that their services were not provided in my area. I frantically opened the Lyft app. Nothing. I resorted to Google and that’s how I found the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority website. The man at the front desk of the lodge answered my questions about the various colors and numbers and schedules. He told me about the two stops I could take. One at Walmart, a five-minute walk, or right in front of the lodge, where I could stand and hope the bus would see me.
“The first one usually comes at 8 a.m. so you can try your luck. Actually, another student just left. You can try and catch up with him,” the man at the front desk said. And so I dragged my luggage with me, past the parking lot and into a small section of grass on the sides of Russell Street. I saw the student standing there with his luggage. I waited with him and discovered that he was also trying to catch the bus to Amherst. He was an international student from London, who also thought it was crazy that there were no Ubers.
“Is all of America like this?” I remember him asking.
When the bus arrived, he paid for my bus fare because I did not have cash on me. However, we soon discovered that he was going to UMass and I was going to Amherst College. A few more stops further than him. To this day I owe him the dollar and fifty cents he lent me for the fare. Maybe one day I’ll bump into him on the PVTA again.
There’s one point along the ride, where Russell Street becomes Bridge Street, which I think is called Bridge Street because it starts on a bridge. But if you look out the bus to your right, you will see one of my favorite landscapes that the PVTA passes through. It’s quick, you can miss it if you’re not paying attention. It is a simple view of an array of trees and hills and the Connecticut River. The sun shines perfectly through around 6:30 p.m. during the early springtime. During the many times I rode the PVTA this semester, I noticed how the other PVTA-riders were captivated by this scene as well. It was always my favorite moment during the long bus ride.
I remember how scared I was riding the bus the first time I arrived at Amherst College — I remember how scared I was the second, and third, and fourth time I rode the PVTA. But the sudden way in which I was forced to assimilate into the public transportation system has made me feel much more prepared. And it makes me feel like I deserve an “I survived the PVTA and all I got was this stupid T-shirt,” that I can wear around like a badge of honor, because the trip wasn’t just rainbows and sunshine. My legs and knees would hurt after each ride, and I had to see a physical therapist to learn how to take care of myself on the uncomfortable rides. The drive through the construction on Russell Street always made me feel like the bus would give out at any moment. And I would always get stressed when the bus was not on time, paranoid at the thought that it had left without me, even though I was always 15 minutes early.
As I reflect on the countless hours I spent on the PVTA this semester, I can’t help but feel grateful for the memories and bonds I made on a transit system that connects the vibrant and brilliant people residing in our towns. In fact, I’m looking forward to my next PVTA adventure: Perhaps a trip to Hampshire College, to pay my new friend, Zuki, a visit.