Sunday, April 3, 2011

the bus: waiting

Seven hours. It's the amount of time I (and my friend Gwynlyn along with a few other Rhodents, i.e. Rhodes Students) spent on a pavement on the shady side of Grahamstown, waiting for our first bus in first year. We had packed everything in our wheeled suitcases, Gwynlyn had been told to buy enough sweets to feed an army by the Livingston (her res) girls so thus arrayed, and gigglingly happy to be going home and having an adventure, we walked down high street to the bus. We met a few other happy first years also waiting for the bus and we all sat on the pavement and got started on our bus food (and on Gwynlyn's bus food which became our treasure trove in the hours to come).

7.30pm (the departure time) came and went, and my paranoid mother got very worried about her poor darling sitting down on the street opposite the Frontier Hotel in all its decayed, seedy glory. The street is also frequented by truckers, buses, drunks from "The Copper Kettle" (the dodgiest bar in Grahamstown) and street kids who try their luck for some money every now and again. She phoned every hour to see what had happened, and it had broken down in Port Elizabeth. We were told it would be coming in the next hour every time so - not wanting to be left behind - we stayed on that pavement, wrapped ourselves in blankets, ate yet more food and chatted about absolutely everything. When the bus eventually did arrive, it was close on 1.30 am.

Translux eventually shortened their arrival time over the years. The next time I caught a bus it was only five hours late. I have also had to wait three hours, two hours...when it got down to one hour I was really impressed. These days, the Translux bus comes exactly on time and they even have a kind of bus host or hostess like they do on Greyhound, rather than leaving the eccentric range of driving teams (there are always two drivers on the bus for those who don't know) who man the buses to handle the frequently irate and edgy passengers.

Waiting in small towns is always interesting because there is never a station, just a landmark that frequently ceases to exist. So in Grahamstown, you are told you have to catch the bus at the "Conference Centre" (which is actually the worn-down Frontier Hotel), and in Port Shepstone, you have to catch the bus at the "Spur" which closed down and has been half-way demolished for the past two years. I was fascinated the first time I took a bus from a city (Greenacres Mall in Port Elizabeth) and there was a little room with chairs. Even more fascinating is the bigger cities where they weigh your suitcases before you get on. I really appreciate travelling by bus because you can have super-heavy suitcases and you never have to pay extra. Useful knowledge for avid readers who like to take an extra few books "just in case" and come back with a few more they managed to find wherever they were visiting (I don't know why I'm even talking in the third person. The person who carries and then acquires an additional library wherever she goes is me).

Park Station was my most pleasant surprise. I was nervous because one always hears terrible stories about that side of Johannesburg. But the scariest person there was a gaunt white man wearing baggies and slops (in the middle of town!) and smoking a cigerette ominously. The scariest bus was Roadlink, which we could hear squealing from miles away as it pulled into the station. It was leaning to one side. This was several months after they were pulled off the road and then allowed back on again after all the accidents. Hmmm... I caught the bus at 8pm, and the station was clean, quiet and relatively empty. Everything worked really efficiently and it felt a little like an airport. It is when you get outside to where the buses stop that it feels like chaos. There are lanes stretching almost as far as my eye can see and you have to find where your bus is when you walk out. There is a thin, coloured woman with a loud, activist's voice who gets on every bus before it leaves with shiny pamplets and AIDS ribbons who makes requests for donations for the shelter she is involved in.

Most of the time (these days) I take the bus from Pretoria station. The first time I caught the bus there, I had to catch a cab and then wait a few hours by myself for the bus to arrive. My friend at TopCD (a Venda prankster called Shevon who is contually astonished by the fact that I am a white person who doesn't hate black people. Pretoria: it'll do that to you). She looked at me and said, "Ooh, Pretoria Station is not a nice place for a little white girl like you".

When I got out of the cab, I was clutching all my possessions to me and looking as forbidding and streetwise as I could. Actually, Pretoria Station is like a particularly fascinating market. For a start, it is outdoors with a few extended rooves, and some benches. You can wait for the bus whilst savouring the sun on your face. There are hawkers lined up waiting for buses to take them back to Zimbabwe or Zambia with the largest hessian bags you have ever seen filled with necessities to take home. There are chip and sweet sellers who sell those ones that - urban legend has it - make your intestines expand they are so unhealthy. Enterprising teenagers and men in the early twenties have shopping-trolley like vehicles on which they load bags to help over-burdened passengers. I can perch myself on my suitcase and lose myself in the book I have brought along, conscious of the chatty, industrious movement of people bustling around me.

My favourite moment however is always the moment when the bus has arrivied and I can get on. Soon - I know - familiar landscapes will be flashing past me and I will be on a journey that will contain both the solid sense of the ground I cover from place to place that is so sadly absent on a plane flight and sights of the vastly different environments we travel through. The adventure will begin.

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