The Wheels on the Bus

The wheels on the bus go round and round
Round and round
Round and round
The wheels on the bus go round and round
All! Day! LONG!

I used to have a job describing how computer applications that didn’t exist yet would work. I wrote long documents in the subjunctive tense: “If the user presses this button, show the following message…” I drew crude pictures of the screens that didn’t exist. To amuse myself and the engineers, I chose a theme poem for each project:
    “In a minute there is time for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse”.

These days my job is simpler. I take buses. The pay is lousy but the shiftwork hours are slightly better. This week, so far:

Hué to Hanoi: 13 hours
Hanoi to Halong Bay: 4 hours (followed by 5 hours on a boat )
Back to Hanoi: 4 hours
Hanoi to Hoi An: 17 hours
Hoi An to Na Trang: 14 hours
Na Trang to Dalat: 7 hours

In Vietnam, it’s easy. Clean buses shuttle up and down Highway One, serving tourists and upmarket Vietnamese. They pick you up from your hotel and drop you in the center of town. Usually the seats recline a little. Once I even had a reading light.

In Thailand, the government buses have a swinging, Braniff Airlines feel. On the night bus from Bangkok to the Lao border, a cross-dressing conductor led me upstairs to my assigned seat. His lurid makeup and beehive were essential elements of the Sixties jet-set atmosphere, and I was excited when he brought a bottle of mineral water and a pink cardboard box containing an apple, a sandwich, and a pastry. He gave me a fuzzy blanket before turning out the lights, and woke me at 6 with a beaker of Nescafé. I slept through most of the speed-fuelled Thai stunt driving.

Burma is different. Roads are maintained by forced labor, often child labor. Not surprisingly, ten-year-old girls don’t keep road surfaces in a condition that’s suitable for a Landrover, let alone a rusted-out fifty-year-old bus with the steering wheel on the wrong side and completely bald tires. The on-board mechanics never showed frustration at the constant breakdowns, even though on one 26-hour journey we stopped five times for them to crawl under the bus on dark, flooded roads. At one point they splashed out and bought a “new” tire, which was almost as ancient and smooth as the one it replaced. Nothing can be wasted in Burma. It is considered a dreadful faux pas to ask the expected arrival time; the nats (spirits) get annoyed at your presumption and you might never get there. When you don’t have capital investment, you must rely on good vibrations.

In Laos, there was a baby gibbon on the first public bus I took. He swung around the bus chattering at the passengers and he ate pack after pack of chewing gum, unwrapping each stick carefully, chewing for a minute, then it spitting out. Meanwhile, his owner vomited cheerfully and copiously every half-hour or so. The Lao are mysteriously prone to travel-sickness, and each bus has little plastic carrier bags hanging from the luggage racks. Other passengers give encouraging shoulder pats, but the buses never make puke-stops.

The best part of chicken bus travel is what I’ve come to call Bus Dim Sum. At every stop (and there are always several) local vendors screech at the windows, hawking their goods. You never know what will be thrust into your lap. Plastic bags full of iced coffee, songbirds on a stick, dumplings. On the way to Paxse in Southern Laos, I sat opposite a woman who bought two large skewers of grilled grasshoppers. She crunched, and spat the legs on the floor of the bus. Then she smacked her lips over a duck fetus that had been cooked in its shell. She ate it whole, rubbery beak, feet, and all. Finally, she bought three wild honeycombs for the bee larvae, another delicacy. I was morbidly fascinated, but not put off my own grilled chicken, spatchcocked flat between two bamboo skewers tied with straw. With sticky rice, of course.

More to my taste were the eggs on a stick. I thought these were plain cooked eggs, but each shell had a quarter-inch hole at the narrow end, from which the flesh had been drained, beaten with scallions, garlic, and coriander, and poured carefully back in. A bamboo skewer sealed the hole and pierced the other end, and they were then barbecued over charcoal, four to a stick. When peeled, they were firm, egg-shaped savory custards, with a slightly smoky flavor. I pictured Delia Smith introducing them as an hors d’oeuvres recipe, forcing thousands of sweating, swearing English women to chip at slippery eggshells on a Friday after work.

Bus Dim Sum is a welcome distraction from the endless waits of the chicken bus circuit. In Laos and Burma, loading up never took less than an hour. No one (but me) ever complained as sack after sack of rice was loaded on the roof, and fighting cocks, piglets, ducks, and VCRs were battened down inside. My record was the three hour loading process before setting off from Paxse to Savannakhet, which would have reduced me to tears if I hadn’t kept busy eating my own body weight in snacks.

Other delays are as predictable as loading. For some reason, every single bus stops for gas only after all the passengers, rice, and chicken are loaded. This was especially odd in Burma, where all the local passengers had to get off outside the gas station for fear that shortages might cause them to storm the pumps. (I was usually left alone on the bus.)

Over the months I’ve learned tricks for long journeys. I keep a comfort kit packed: shawl, blow-up pillow (smelly now), Virgin Atlantic eye mask, sleeping pills (which I haven’t used yet), aspirin, travel sickness tablets, toothbrush, soap, toilet paper, two books, water, sweets. A plastic bag to put my daypack in, in case there are chickens next to me. I check before I sit down that I’m not on the wheel-well, and that the seat isn’t broken. I figure out on which side the sun will shine and sit opposite. Once this brainwork is done, I grow slack-jawed and passive, like the livestock I travel with. When it grows dark at 6 o’clock, I doze obediently. During the day, I read until I feel sick, then I look out the window, thinking about my next Bus Dim Sum. I do stiff-legged yoga stretches at the rest stops while the locals stare.

I always fantasized about having a warm-body job. This isn’t a bad gig, as they go.