Thursday, February 14, 2008

02/14/08 Three Deaths You’re Out: A City Bus Experience

Can I tell you about the buses? Everybody’s got a good bus story. Mine is this, maybe you had to be there…in Chennai 1999, an overcrowded city bus…
You should know the buses are huge, absolutely gargantuan. Wide and thick and swaying and precarious, despite their grandeur. Rules of the road: the big guy always wins. So look the hell out for the Indian bus. Two buses coming opposite directions play chicken. Whoever spots the other guy first starts with the horn, one long, unrelenting wail. The other bus joins in. Two horns, unbelievably loud, blare until the buses pass, six inches between them. I have learned, as a rider, not to look. You may be reassured by this urban myth: a bus driver is fired after only three counts of manslaughter while driving. Three deaths you’re out. Assuming he is not beaten to death on the scene, as drunken bus drivers often are. Instant justice prevails.
School kids erupt from the windows with ruck-sacks. Imagine jasmine flowers, braids, a twenty-pound bag of onions, armpits, pomade, and tiny naked babies, all cascading in a careening cacophony of India. Mysore buses are quite nice, actually; new and colorful and not so crowded. But Chennai: The bus is old, older than Arunachala, and looking it. Paint half gone, tires a bit squishy and bulging out like the upper arm out a South Indian sari blouse. I mean you could SEE the weight bearing down on the rubber. Ten or more men dangle from the side bar of the back door entrance all bellbottoms and buttons- if one leg makes a stair, you’re in. The bus rolls up to a stand (bus stops are bus stands here), more crush at the stairs. Pushing. Steadily, patiently, pushing. Same thing goes for the front door. As both the doors are on one side of the bus, that makes for about twenty more people on one side. The bus lists. Something about the shocks around here? All the buses bounce incredibly over bumps, spouting fumes in blasts, dipping almost in slow motion due to their bigness. Boing. And there are always so many bumps.
But this bus is something else. The heavy side of the bus is a visible two feet closer to the ground. With every bump I cringe (riding behind on a motor bike) for sure it would bottom out. Bump! The bus rolls like an ocean wave, defying all the rules of engineering to make it over another pothole. Limbs flap like prayer flags around the side doors. I want to change lanes, badly.
Ah, India. No one falls. The back corner of the bus, three inches from the ground, clears it every time. She pulls up to the city bus stand and twenty men hop down, straighten sweaty collars, link arms, and head off down the street.

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