April 2018

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Riding the Bus

When I was in sixth grade, I loved riding the school bus to our sixth center, where all of Raleigh's thirteen year olds, went to school. My friends Cybil and Susan and our boyfriends Jeff, David and John, liked to ride at the back of the bus. When the bus driver turned a corner, we all yelled, "Bad turn!" and leapt into a seat on the side of the bus that leaned with the turn.

In high school, I hated riding the school bus, but Dad had seen all of those cars parked beside buses in the school parking lot and declared the waste. I would not squander the opportunity the ride the bus. I was shy, tall, awkward and cautious. The bus made me feel my loneliness and made me feel afraid.

Other kids  smoked pot to and from school, so even though I didn't smoke, my thick red hair always smelled like pot. Our bus drivers were high school kids themselves. My last bus driver had curly brown hair, a face covered in acne, and a very pretty girlfirend. She sat in the front seat, and he twisted around for much of the ride so that the two could make-out much of the way home. Usually, they waited until we were at a stoplight. Once, to impress his pretty girlfriend, the driver sped up and raced towards a parked car, swerving just in time.

Now I love riding the public bus--in any country. I get to be a witness to unfamiliar cultures as I listen to the conversations and watch the interactions.

When Ann and I took the six-hour ride from Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, to Awasa, a university town further south, an elderly woman nodded and smiled at us from her seat just in front of us. "Gwabez!" she commended us. "Gwabez" was on the short list of my Amharic vocabulary. She was lauding us as clever and brave.

A Guatemalan bus dumped me and the rest of the passengers onto the side of a dusty roadway when it started breaking down. When the next bus came, I was pushed aside as travellers forced their way onto the bus. When the second bus came, I was again polite, but when the third bus slowed down (I'm not sure it stopped), I forced my gigantic American self onto the bus with my backpack. I don't think I knocked anyone down. I didn't want to be pushy. I was just following the rules of this place, and I didn't want to spend the night by the road.

On another Ethiopian bus, this one in Nazret, we took a bus down a long street of red dust from a small town that reminded me of movie towns in the Wild West: men drank beers in the morning sun. Teenagers played ping pong on public tables. Two men got into a fight, one wielding a machete and the other a pistol. With lots of ruckus,  peacemakers, drunk themselves, separted the two fighters and wrested the pistol from the one.

We  had help getting onto the bus, which was overfull with hot, sweaty passengers. On the way down the road, one man who had paid full fare complained loudly that another man was in his space. A lively argument among many of the passengers broke out. When we saw policemen on the side of the road, the bus driver pulled over, and everyone except Ann and me got off the bus. The group formed a circle around the fighting men and the policeman. The policeman seemed to facilitate, hearing everyone's complaint. Since I don't speak Amharic, I don't know what they were saying, but at the end, the policeman had the two men hug and everyone got happily back on the bus.

I like riding the bus in my neighborhood, too. Before I had disabilities, I rode the bus when riding my bike was impractical. Now, riding my bike is always impractical, so I often ride the bus to get around town. Today, returning home from my massage on the number eight, I sat up front with three friends who seemed to be in the early twenties. One, an African-American woman named Tanisha with two small children, rode across from me. Next to me sat another African-American woman, Sondra, with her child, and a hispanic-looking man, Gerardo, with the stroller.

Tanisha and her children were on their way to pick up Tanisha's older daughter from her first day of school, and Sondra and Gerardo were accompanying her. Tanisha's youngest son started to cry, and she threatened him with the whip. The three adults talked about their beatings as children. Tanisha said, "I had to kneel in dry beans and rice. When I stood up, the indentations hurt." Sonda said her dad had used a whip.

Gerardo said, "My dad used electrical cords and wires."
"Oooo," said Tanisha, "You had a mean daddy. My daddy hardly ever used the cords."
By way of explanation, Sondra said, "His daddy was white."
Tanisha, "I didn't know that."
Gerardo, "He was a red neck."

Then they all piled off the bus and I rode home, thinking of how different our lives can be.

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