Why boarding a bus invites introspective reflections and pleasures of the everyday. Next stop which loosely translates to prochain arrêt in French revolves around the countless bus rides and why there’s more to it than getting on and getting off.
Among all the things that we do but don’t really pay much attention to or those that we see as drudgery, rather than a form of comfort, a few occasionally stand out with an impact that lifts the spirit and with certainty, consoles our conflicting human nature.
The idea of flossing one’s teeth or popping a zit is one thing. Sorting a messy forgotten cupboard or pushing a supermarket trolley brimming of toilet paper rolls is another. But when feeling sad at home, I find hopping on a bus and giving it free reign to take me anywhere for a day, embodies a certain quality that ushers in a sense of cheer.
Why write about bus rides and not trains like most travels writers do? There were no trains in the island of tangled dreams where I grew up. Buses were the practical choice of transport of which I felt personally involved. Not everyone would agree with me and the way I feel about bus rides. While the rest of us can complain about how slow a bus moves, how much time is wasted and how certain things can bewilder the senses and above all, assault the nostrils, I say that there’s dreaminess on every journey. I sit and stay idle and briefly detach myself from the false comfort of home.
In the moments of idleness, I indulge myself looking at the world beyond the glass-paneled windows and in silence become the greatest voyeur to the universe that prevails inside the four-wheeled metal contraption. Well, look at the man with his big ears and why is he carrying a lady’s bag? Are sweatpants really the new trousers now? I bet these kids don’t have any idea what corduroys are. Will this lady on my right attend to her squealing baby instead of her phone? I hope these crazy punks would leave the snoring drunk alone. Great God! I ain’t having that pink hair of yours grandma. And why does the bus driver keep on playing the same ‘I shot the sheriff’ tune? Oh wait, look at those lovebirds over there, don’t they remind me of something. The outside world whizzes by fast. The one that exists within is in slow motion. Just as the bus makes its matronly progress towards its anticipated stop and then halt, so too are my internal conversations. The engine starts again and I’m plunged right back into my private reverie as well as contemplation.
We were fairly young when my brother and I started traveling by bus with our parents. Then came the many occasions where it was just the two of us siblings embarking on a childhood expedition between our former hometown in the north and to our new home in the south. A journey that took us half a day of travel. I relied on my brother to decisively read transit tickets and signs as I shuffled behind, navigating our way through crowded terminals. Board the right bus and squeeze ourselves into any available space already crammed with passengers, chickens stowed in woven baskets, chickens placed inside cardboard boxes, a baby goat in a knapsack and all sorts of garish human accoutrements. My brother constantly agonized about our safety while my thoughts were on the pesos neatly folded and tucked away in my socks.
“And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end”. – Pico Iyer
By the time I turned ten, already familiar with bus travel, yet still short on height (and still stashing the money in my socks, the safest place for any kid to hide bills when traveling so I was told), I had my very first solo commute. Public developments on the Island of Mindanao were minimal and slow. The Philippines was still coming out from the lingering years of the Marcos regime, yet the country believed in its vision that roads and highways could be a way to rally and reignite the people’s confidence in the early part of the 90’s.
Roads were rough then. Passengers had to pin their muscular buttocks to their seats that shake like malfunctioning massage chairs enough to leave anyone a bruised arm, a sore bottom and a dented pride. As the bouncing bus continued to thrust and career maniacally to where it is supposed to travel to, every rivet would vibrate so loudly drowning the sound of any farting passenger until you finally catch a whiff of something rotten that the culprit probably gobbled for breakfast. Just when you are about to alight and grab your belongings, you noticed only too late that you’re already stepping on someone else’s foamy vomit.
My journeys to the highlands and deep countryside had always amused me. On rainy days, thick fog would envelope the landscape making it hard to navigate the treacherous roads. The bus had to slowly claw its way up a hill. A false maneuver can mean falling off the cliff straight into the gurgling ravine awaiting below. This was the quietest time of the entire journey. This was also the time where spirituality is at its finest. ‘Jesusmariasep!’ someone from the back would call breaking the heavy silence. Not before long, the crowd, my mother included joined in the epiclesis hushed chorus, earnestly pleading and exalting ‘Jesus-Maria-Joseph!’
Descending down into the valleys, a quaint town comes into view every once in awhile. Wooden humble abode stood next to towering trees that prick the sky. In every checkpoint of the journey, before entering a major town, all passengers except with their familiars were expected to alight the bus and dipped ones toes into spring water. At first, I thought it had something to do with provincial mumbo-jumbo, spirits and safe passage. I was only to find out later on that it was a measure haphazardly placed to limit the spread of foot and mouth disease around that time.
When I no longer thought that it was necessary for me to keep a stash of bills in my socks and after getting one of those kitschy teenage cat wallets, my bus travels had become more frequent. The times were also changing. During a trip to my late grandmother’s house, just as the bus was approaching the station, a suspected package was spotted at the back of the bus. These were the controversial days when bombs would go off on in some parts of the Mindanao region orchestrated by Abu Sayaff and terrorist militants. A wave of sheer panic struck everyone. In an instant, some of the more athletic passengers hastily jumped out of the windows. Mothers with their babies and the rest of us grabbed on to our seats as the driver swerved the bus away as far as possible from the crowd. It was one of the hair-raising experiences I had during my bus ride saga. Thankfully no bomb exploded that day.
If you ask me, bus travel is part comedy and part high drama yet sentimental all the same. It is riddled with elemental philosophy and prosaic mysticism set ablaze to reflect upon the lives of those who get on board from a different perspective. Sometimes along these countless rides, you may even find yourself embroiled in an encounter that will always leave you wondering, an incident of a fevered fancy. I sat once with a stranger of whom I was about to learn that he’s on his way to prison that same day. What were the chances that he would grip me by the jugular and hold me hostage? Or throw me out of the window? Will I be headlines on tomorrow’s front page? The oddity of the experience had never felt more real when he kept on slipping Proustian remarks and witticisms about life in our conversation that to me, sounded like a tide of confessions. To him, I was an indulgent audience that didn’t bother to notice the police officers in civilian clothes sitting on both sides of the isle clasping their pistols and the handcuffs he was wearing for I only realized albeit late, when he raised his hands to bid me goodbye.
My dear readers, you probably are thinking by now that I am contradicting myself when I say bus rides inspire comfort and uplift one’s mood while getting away from the mundane. Perhaps I wasn’t too clear that these bus trips are also conduits to memories long forgotten that still sound tender in the heart of bus rider like myself. The more I get on the bus and the more I spend time idling on my seat, the more I become aware of myself as a person, a wanderer and as a traveler in the sense of the word. My sentiment is perhaps best described in the words of Pico Iyer when he said, “And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end”.
Any bus ride will always have something to offer to any person on board – an experience, a form of escape, enlightenment, empowerment (the likes of Rosa Parks), something endearing or perhaps even elevating. Nevertheless, we take the emotion with us, as we alight somewhat entirely a different person in an interval or on a designated stop. Yet even though buses have evolved over the years and become more robust, equipped with the trappings of convenience and modernity, I still think the ride is the same as well as the feelings it offers. Aboard this lumbering machine of motion – a transient place to a wanderer – is a token of worldliness that takes within itself, a trace of all the roads and lands and borders it has crossed and traveled to. This humble bus that roars constantly, groans with excitement leaving nothing but dust and fumes and memories on its wake. Along with it is where my earliest travels began.