“Okay. I’m the only foreigner again.” (also noticing there is only one other female on board) “Where are the other travellers? Why am I the only one? Is this the right bus?” Ten minutes later when some other travellers started boarding.. “Yeah, this should be the right one”. Then off goes the bus after another ten.
Open-windows ride, warm weather, greasy and sweaty face. By the time I arrived in Colombo Fort Station, my face was powdered with dusk, uncomfortable like an egg & flour combination – and that’s my first bus ride in Sri Lanka, from Bandaranaike International Airport to Colombo City.
Almost every bus drivers here seems to be on high 24/7, driving crazily fast no matter if it is on winding roads, slopes or busy lanes, honking like some maniac even when cutting through lane of opposite direction. If I was standing, my arms would feel like they are going to snap anytime with each pull during a turn. On one of those bus rides, four ladies (a family of three generations) tried making space for me or offered me their seats as I was dozing off while standing, awakened shocked at each tug of the hand while the driver drove in and out of the lanes. With window plates vibrating and hitting violently against metal bars, sound of roof shattering like they are going to break apart, it kind of brought me back to my grandparents’ place in Malaysia where we had similar bus rides. But not the speed, I had to hold on to my dear life.
When I had to move on to another town one day, I took a bus during morning commute hours which was packed with working adults and students. Unsure if I was lucky or unlucky, I found a seat for myself at the first row by the aisle. The aisle itself is narrow, yet they managed to squeeze into two or even three lanes. Soon, I had people leaning against me, unavoidable but disgusted – men rubbing their you-know-what against my shoulder, boobs on my face, elbowed right in the middle on my forehead etc., that I could only wish at best, no one will take a dump on me.
On another day, which I decided to travel some two and a half hours to surf, I caught myself having to ride back to where I stayed, during the after-work peak commute hours. It was drizzling that evening and I was walking along the side of the road waving to every bus that passed by me while trying to find the bus stop which the locals directed me to, but none stopped. As the sky turned darker and darker, I started to worry a little if I will miss the last bus back to town. Reaching the foot of one convenience store, I checked with the man attending the store if it was possible to wait for the bus there and he said yes. Moving slightly forward to hide under an umbrella of a coconut stand, which was also in front of a house. The kids cycling around came over, trying to converse in English, and giggled when I spoke to them. Another adult came out at this time and asked the man who was attending the store what is going on, and learnt that I was not able to flag down the bus. He then came over and joined me by the road, trying to help. When he left to get some things done, his father came to join me instead. As the rain was getting heavier, I urged them to get back inside and convinced them that I can flag down the bus on my own. But the father insisted on staying, saying that the bus will not stop for me (which I couldn’t understand why).
The bus came and finally stopped for me after some time, which I hurried up the steps, standing by it with the door opened, somewhat drenched from the rain and swimsuit which I did not had enough time to dry off. Just like this, I finally boarded the bus with the help of this kind-hearted family. And as more people are trying to board the already crammed bus, the bus conductor instructed me to move to the center, where I became one of those sardines in-between two lanes on a narrow aisle. With almost everyone on board headed to the terminal, I stood like this for 2hrs before I was blessed with a seat, volunteering to hold the bags on my lap for others who was standing (a practice I observed from the locals).
All these speed and crammed bus rides reminds me of my trip through Central America, having the wind in my face, smelling the fresh air, listening to the blasting stereo, which was also one of the reasons why I yearned for this trip to Sri Lanka. So despite all the discomfort and whatnots, I learned to embrace them as they are part of this whole travelling thing, for I sensed freedom and received warmth of the locals while travelling slow on public transport.