In a break from our regular programming, may I direct you over to the SEAWL home-page where you’ll find my recent contribution discussing the pathological need Expat Aid Workers have to one-up each other on exotic travel tales…
In true Global Nomad style, friend Mads, who is currently spending 9 months travelling around Latin America, managed to show up in Antigua the same week I was there, so we took a little time to wander round the town with our cameras. Random meandering brought us through the local market and to the bus depot. While hardly a premier tourist destination in itself (save for those entering and exiting the town via public bus), the combination of dark skies, shoddy foreground, and bright colours on the bodies of the buses themselves, all made for a creative and alternative photographic diversion.
It’s fun to see how buses get treated in different parts of the world. Highly functional in the west, in poorer countries they are a capital investment of the highest order for middle-sized businessmen, and can be highly lucrative once a service and line can be well established. They are both a source of blessing (income), and a magnet for all kinds of superstition and fear given their propensity to crash in many of these places, with high fatality rates associated.
My first real exposure to the world of colourful buses was in Nairobi in 2001. Their minibuses are called ‘Matatus’ (a derivative of the kiswahili word for ‘three’- ‘tatu’- after the original cost of a fare, three shillings. Tatu itself has its roots in the Arabic word for three, ‘thalaatha’, Kiswahili being a trade language derived from a mix of Arabic and the traditional Bantu group of languages spoken along the east African coastline). Matatus were a gloriously offensive expression of Kenyan street culture- painted in gaudy hues, airbrushed densely enough that the chassis could rust away and the thing would still hold together, and with a sound-system that ensured you didn’t just hear the Matatus coming, you actually felt them.
As in most places in the developing world, the fact that the Matatus were primarily Nissan and Toyota minivans didn’t stop their conductors cramming sixteen or eighteen people inside as a matter of course- four to a row, hips jammed together in the dense, sweaty interior, produce and babies and all, while the subwoofer vibrated your ribcage with an intensity that could pop a chicken’s skull. Competition for routes was severe- at times leading to violent confrontation- and negotiating the roads near a bus-stop was always a gauntlet to run. Driving was horrendous, however. The drivers were ramped on miraa (the local variant of the herbal chew khat, that comes over by the truckload from Somalia), helping them stay awake despite fatigue, and creating a false sense of invincibility that would have them overtaking at high speed on blind corners, with routinely predictable results.
With soaring fatalities, the new Kenyan government under Kibaki pushed through a set of gutsy reforms a few years after I was there, forcing the industry to be regulated. Routes were formalized, paint-jobs were replaced with a ubiquitous yellow stripe, sound-systems were limited to certain decibels, and speed-governors were installed on motors. This was, ultimately, a good thing, as the number of lives lost to reckless driving fell substantially. However I have to say that in my opinion, a little of the soul of Nairobi was also stripped away in the process, and in a city that needs all the help it can get to present a positive face, I felt it lost a little.
Kenya’s not alone in the colourful bus stakes however. Juddering through Colombo’s steamy streets during last year’s monsoon in two-stroke tuk-tuks, I can vividly recall the searing stench of diesel exhaust from the oversized, windowless Lanka Ashok Leyland buses, with hyper-real murals airbrushed front, back and sides. Sitting in the passenger seat of the rickshaw, my head would barely reach the top of the rear tyre of the beasts while the enourmous engine rattled behind its panels just inches from my ear in the claustrophobic rush-hour. Peering up at rows of resigned brown faces peering back down at me, I occasionally wondered whether the driver even knew we were down there, worrying at what was keeping us from being turned into a thin slick sheet of crushed aluminium.
For an altogether different approach to public buses, the Jeepneys of the Philippines are hard to go past. Like the bastard child of a 1940s army jeep and a decrepit stretched limo, these ply the streets of Manila in airbrushed hordes. Images of Hollywood starlets, soaring eagles, or religious montages cry out for attention off the sides of the awkward vehicles, rows of people crammed inside in the dense heat. The windowless sides provide what little circulation can be created in the crawling metropolis traffic, a mixed blessing in air so polluted you can pretty much see it.
Almost certainly my favourite to look at, however, are the trucks and, specifically, buses of Pakistan. Taking frivolous decoration to new heights of sheer gaudiness, the transports are wrapped in fabrics, mirrors, tassles and shiny things in all manner of colours and styles. Fringes hang from windshields until they seem to obscure the view. Swirling hues scream from the chassis to be noticed. Airhorns, seeming ripped from oil supertankers, announce the arrival and imminent departure of services. Loud Sindhi music blares from speakers while Urdu variants of Bollywood cinema flashes across a tiny television screen mounted at the front of the aisle. They are truly marvellous creatures to watch coming down the road- and if I ever make it back to Pakistan with my camera I’ll do my best to capture some.
For now, however, this series of photos are all from the jaunt through the Antigua bus depot, and I’ll have to leave your imagination to fill in the images that I can only suggest with words. But I thoroughly enjoyed this shoot, and a chance to explore a little of another nation’s culture, as expressed through the medium of public transport.
*So this clearly isn’t a bus. But it kind of fit into the vehicular category I’ve been exploring. And I liked the angle and curves on this old VW Beetle that was parked at an Antigua roadside. The Spanish word for car, ‘coche’ is actually from the same place we get for the English ‘coach’, synonymous with bus, so it kind of works. A hark back to the day when the word ‘coach’ refered to a range of horse-drawn carriages which early automobiles mirrored in form and function.
**Mads in Antigua, with a colourful fairground stall as a backdrop. The fairground backed right onto the bus depot (see the ferris wheel in one of the earlier shots above) and was colourful and in use, but very run down.