The Ordinary Bus

I think there’s something weird hardwired in us that although we live in one, actually quite mundane, familiar, safe and comfortable place, the concept of travel (and especially travel to places that are markedly different from our home-place) is this kind of magical, mystical, otherworldly thing. Not when we’re actually undertaking it, of course, but when we hear stories of it, read about it, reminisce about it, dream about it.

I work on Bolivia. I currently work in Bolivia. This mostly involves digging through an overstuffed rucksack for the clean pair of socks I’m sure I have in there somewhere, and wearing those socks under my sandals as I stand shivering in a dodgy part of a city at the wrong side of dawn, wondering whether the bus or the sun will appear first.

I must admit I started this bus odyssey with a rather safe option: Coroico-La Paz. Coroico is that kind of small rural town near a sprawling city that the inhabitants of that city use as their getaway place at weekends. I was trying to think of a British example (it’s not Blackpool – no beaches (but yes donkeys), no casinos, no fish and chips – but the origins are probably not that dissimilar), and failed, maybe because the British examples may have applied a couple of centuries ago, and now everyone goes to the Costa del Sol instead. Essentially it has a decent climate, lots of trees, plenty of hotels, restaurants and cafes, and now that they’ve finally finished the road, good transport access to La Paz. So I ambled onto a minibus with my snacks and settled into my seat, with only the minor hiccup of an argument with a woman about which of us was taking the seat by the door (aisles?! Waste of space – if a seat will fit in it and a body will go on that seat, you can bet there’ll be a body on the seat in the space. I did once flag down a taxi and then realise there was no space inside. No worries, said the driver, opening the (actually quite spacious) boot – you’ll fit in here!) and which was clambering over someone’s shopping and someone else’s lap to wedge in the middle. I won. And we hurtled up the middle of this winding road (why slow down to follow the curve of the blind corners when you can just ignore them and take the most direct route?), out of the trees and past the llamas and over the top past the people drying potatoes and down into the city. And other than the bit where someone insisted on getting out and forcing everyone else to get out randomly by the side of the road so they could change seats, it was all pretty boring.

Minibuses, though, don’t count. I could spend hours telling stories of people piling onto city public transport minibuses – like any city in the world, it’s the quirky types who are determined not to confine their chaos-causing talents to their own private vehicle, and instead insist on sharing them with the widest-possible public.

But where it gets really interesting is not the minibuses, and not the inter-city buses that ply the double lane, newly asphalted, straight, flat, long roads, leaving from bus terminals that if not exactly salubrious are at least easy to find (read: actually marked on maps). I suppose public transport has tiers – express trains are perhaps the equivalent of the super-fancy buses that don’t stop to be flagged down by random people on the roadside, have working toilets and heating/ air-conditioning and food and, rumour has it, WiFi. Then there’s those funny trains that stop everywhere, but at least they’re more or less on the right track, sort of move at a reasonably steady speed, in the rightish direction, and are generally filled with people whose aim is to get to a place with as little fuss as possible. That would be the normal buses – slower and less clean and with more of a tendency to make odd creaking and whirring noises and stop in strange places, but you know they’ll probably get to the right place at roughly the right time.

And then you get the local buses, the odd buses, the ones that ply strange routes from offices with mysterious addresses, which don’t obey timetables but go when the driver (usually a member of some ‘sindicato’ – apparently this means he owns the bus and does the route with his own bus on certain days, and probably charges whatever fare he feels like, and the cleanliness of the vehicle depends entirely on his and his wife’s commitment to scrubbing it out after it has been tramped through by muddy campesino feet) feels like it, are flagged down by all and sundry in the most abandoned and desolate of places, and may or may not end up going where you were expecting. I thought of them for a while as the equivalent of British coaches: a kind of second tier of transport, used by the very young and the very old, those with no money but time, subject to the whims of traffic and weather and fate in a way that those with money but no time would rather avoid. But that’s not exactly the case, because while coaches and trains often serve the same places, these Ordinary Buses (remarkable, in my eyes at least, because they are extraordinary and unfamiliar because of this very plain ordinariness) go to places where there is no normal, regular, professional (in the sense of doing it for a job, with no other commitment than a regular wage) bus service.

In a sense, this means it’s a broader spectrum of people who get these buses. Unless you own your own vehicle, you’ve got very little choice: you have the 3am or the 4am to the city, or if you’re lucky there might be a mid-afternoon departure, but then you’ll arrive at 1am and be no better off than if you’d just braved the stars and the dawn and the sunrise over the misty mountains. (I was briefly roused from sleeping on a bus one morning – I blame the small child who had been wedged in between me and his not-inconsiderably-sized mother on two normal-sized bus seats, and who, despite my best attempts to discourage him, appeared to adopt me as another person onto whom he could spread out to ensure optimum sleeping comfort – and saw the most beautiful pink and orange spreading across the slightly hazy sky over the still-shadowy mountains in the distance. Then I went back to sleep.) But if it’s a broader spectrum of the inhabitants of the towns on these not-the-major roads, that might be as much because the composition of the town itself fits a narrower framework. The various times I have shuttled between the north and south of England by bus, supposedly out of choice but actually because well, have you seen non-so-super-advance-you-actually-bought-the-ticket-before-you-even-considered-making-the-journey tickets cost?, are not really a choice but a reflection of economic reality: if it comes to travelling without much notice, the train might as well not exist for a certain sector of the population, since its prices are so impossibly out of their spending capacity. I am not making judgements of the Bolivian government’s attitude to its transport network, or of how this reflects its attitude towards its population, but I cannot help but draw parallels between the pricing-out of undesirables from British trains and the failure to include certain places on any mainstream Bolivian bus route. If British coaches are full of students, old people and young families, Bolivian Ordinary Buses serve the inhabitants of isolated rural areas; the people who have been legally and actually discriminated against for, well, since Columbus was a sailor.

The other factor to include in this consideration is tourism. It’s not my area of expertise, but one of many examples is my journey to the small town where I’m currently staying. Said town is located on the ‘old road’ between Cochabamba and Santa Cruz – there is, of course, a better, newer, fancier, faster, flatter, cleaner, more desirable new road, plied by the kind of nice buses mentioned above. The logical option for my journey is supposedly to travel along said nice, sanitised, tourist-friendly new road and then, once in Santa Cruz, take one of the minibus/ taxi/ tourist-oriented transport options to a town that gets more than its fair share of foreign visitors. The infrastructure for tourists is there. And yet wherever I asked if there was a more direct option, a bus that plied the old route, I was told no.

There is, of course. Just because the road ceased to be the most frequently travelled, doesn’t mean it ceased to have a population, a series of agricultural communities with networks of family and friends and markets and produce to sell and buy and trade and barter. Doesn’t mean that the people who live along that old route cease to exist, or cease to move. And so I found the old road bus company and I boarded a bus with four people on (despite the chaos of around twenty times that many trying to press into the bus office at 6am, with or without sacks of potatoes balanced on their heads), which acquired more and lost some and picked up others and served so many unique individual journeys and requirements, and stopped in the most random of places (my favourite was the man who flagged the bus down from his moving motorbike, abandoning the two-wheeled option in some desolate outcrop to leap onto the bus instead), and was so evidently part of community life that in one place we stopped for the bus driver’s wife (the wife always comes along to collect the fares – you wouldn’t trust a man with money now, would you?) to hop off and pick up a dish of what was obviously driver-family’s lunch. And eventually, when I knocked on the hijacker-proof door that can only be opened from one side and politely said ‘I’ll get off here, please’, it dropped me off at the roadside by the town I was aiming for.

This kind of bus journey is perhaps a snapshot of a society in the midst of some Big Changes. The little girl behind me who kept kicking my seat (universal and eternal is that one) was called Britney, and when she and her mother got off the bus she was hoisted into the traditional cloth-on-mother’s-back; the woman in front of me was competing with one across the aisle to play wailing ballad music on portable speakers; the boys a few rows back, all spiky hair and swaggering walk and lounging in FC Barça tracksuits, glued to their phones, nonetheless interspersed their conversation with exclamations in Quechua. The luggage was a mixture of sacks of crops and smart wheeled suitcases – last week I shared another rural bus with a couple with a baby and a lamb (wrapped up in identical fleecy blankets: I hope they sold the right one). And when a woman got up and decided to share the Word of God with us (about an hour of Apocalypse, and a long ramble about the conversion of St Paul, who was then lucky enough to be killed for his faith: not necessarily what you want when the bus is bouncing over a road that was either only part-finished or falling apart – ‘diversion’ in Bolivia means ‘there’s stuff blocking the road, do your best to get over or round it’ – I’d rather my driver didn’t have scales on his eyes, imminently falling off or otherwise), those proudly raising their hands to declare that they too were believers and nodding in agreement with her experience of miracles were, just about, outnumbered by those awkwardly staring out of the window. But only just. And some of the awkward starers did give her money to pray for their lost heathen souls anyway.

I don’t know what comes next, whether the priority granted to urban centres and places of touristic interest will become so dominant that these small rural routes will cease to exist, whether the younger, city-oriented, urbanised and modernised people will opt-out of travelling by these old buses and old roads, or whether they will drag the route with them into a modernised, country-wide system. I must admit I’m not a fan of the awkward sales pitch on a bus, whether it be for God, a wonder supplement that will cure anything and everything from cancer to arthritis to indigestion, or hand cream. But they make the journey a bit like Bolivia itself is: full of vibrancy and informalism, with a culture of improvisation that allows for risks and spontaneity and unexpectedness.

And yes everyone is disorganised and I don’t know how many times I’ve been driven mad by the habit of gathering around chatting outside the bus until, say, 6:58, when you’re meant to be leaving at 7, and then suddenly it’s all rush and action and chaos and invariably someone running after the departing bus frantically waving their hat. But stuff gets on the bus. People get on the bus. It’s never too full, there’s never not wanting to stop and pick up a passenger (capitalism and financial incentive, of course, but also perhaps the knowledge that you may be the only bus for some time and they have no other choice, and to drive these routes on these roads means bringing wife and small children along too and it’s nearer a vocation than a job to safely steer your passengers over and round and through the typical obstacles, demise of the Death Road notwithstanding), and everyone’s foibles, loud and infuriating or quietly quirky are treated with the quiet indulgence that comes from the knowledge that everyone’s just trying to make a living and get along.

When your bus is always on time, you become scared of the unknown. When the journey time could be halved or doubled, and you’re more than comfortably aware of the skill of your driver as he guides you through impossibly narrow gaps and across and around all kinds of obstacles, and you’ll stop for toilet and meal breaks with the same people and one of them is liable to leap up at any time and share details of their religious conversion, terrible childhood or life-threatening disease from which they may or may not have miraculously recovered, you’re perhaps less likely to view everyone else as a threat. The only time people engage on buses or trains back at home is in the face of the unexpected: a troublesome passenger causing an argument with the driver, a burning tree on the line, an electrical failure, a homeless drunk. That is, when we are thrown out of our comfort zones, we are forced to communicate, to acknowledge one another. Our habit is to embrace anonymity, be afraid of curiosity, suspicious of one another. If the norm is the unexpected, however, the standard mode of behaviour is different.

I’m not saying I’d like all my bus journeys to have a 100% journey time margin of error, for them to always be crowded and muddy and noisy and smelly, to stop for an excessive amount of time when you know you’re only ten minutes away from your destination, to require you to remind the conductor halfway through the day that you’re still there and you’d rather your seat wasn’t sold to someone else, or to demand that you bring enough emergency snacks that anyone would think you were climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. (Yes, I am aware that all of these apply to anyone trying to take a bus down Manchester’s Oxford Road. But I see many parallels between South Manchester and South America.) But I am grateful for the Ordinary Buses, for the glimpse into other lives that they offer, for the incurable curiosity they allow me to indulge, for the opportunity to gawp and stare and shoot funny looks and be aware that I’m receiving them in equal measure, to see towns remarkable for their utterly normal unremarkableness and landscapes that I can never photograph but are stamped so firmly in my brain that when I close my eyes I still see the dusty hills. And for the relief the day after a journey, when I can sleep through the dawn.

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