Bus Ride

I wrote this in January 2012. I wonder if anything has changed now….

Ibrahim Waheed “Kalaavehi”

A light drizzle fell out of a still sky the color of pencil lead. Drops of water fell in the odd patches of gray water lapping the sidewalk, attempting without success to perhaps clean them up. Perhaps a little bit like the half-wet, half-bowing pedestrian on the way to an activity that he would call a life. Perhaps like the young man on the scooter, wet T-shirt clinging to under-defined muscles, hopeful that he would pick up his fiancée not too late after work. Perhaps like the ill-assorted handful of passengers on the white Male city bus which looked like a loaf of bread from the outside, and felt like an oven on the inside. Despite the drizzle.

Despite the fact that the Maldives had a tradition of its people traveling in very small boats with great camaraderie, caring good spirit, and love for company, the passengers on the bus did not speak to each other. They did not even look at each other. They sat in fear of each other. No one knew any longer who his neighbor was. They did not know who belonged to or supported what powerful color in what passed for politics on the small island. Icy expressions and frozen postures complemented a sweaty atmosphere of fear, mistrust and uncertainty. Suspicion swirled around the inside of the bus.

The bus suddenly swayed left with purpose, brakes squealing and gears grinding. It eventually shuddered to a halt at the corner stop. A lone man came on board. A brown cotton shirt and a pair of old Levis could have made him anything from a laborer to a city councilor. An old umbrella and a pair of wet canvas shoes remained unhelpfully silent on narrowing down the field for anyone wanting to make a better guess at his profession. But the man did have something that no one else had on the bus: Despite the unfriendly and unwelcoming looks on the faces of the passengers already on the bus, the new passenger had a smile on his face!

“Peace be unto you!” the new passenger said to the poker-face conductor. A long-established and almost-forgotten greeting from a man who looked too much like a man of the world to be a die-hard traditionalist. “Please take this. My fare.”

An assortment of coins lay in the man’s right hand, making up the required five Rufiyaa for the journey: one shiny two-Rufiyaa coin, heavy and ponderous with a turtle on one side, one chrome-shiny one-Rufiyaa coin, and an assortment of aluminum coins of older issue. Despite the smile and the disarming tone, the conductor made no move to take the money. When the new passenger made no move to withdraw the proffered coins, the conductor finally said, “I don’t take small coins.”

“I am sorry!” said the new passenger, “Perhaps you could then give me change for this?” The hand that had held the offending coins recently now clasped a crisp, new five hundred Rufiyaa note. The owner of the hand still had a smile in his eyes.

“I don’t have change for large notes.” The conductor was beginning to look annoyed. He rolled his eyes as he had seen foreign teen stars do on television. He shrugged his shoulders, and tried to look like a person who was urbane and modern. He said to himself, “Just what I need on this terrible, rainy, lousy day! A trouble-maker! I’d better accept his coins and be done with him.”

The virtue of avoiding trouble won the day. The inglorious coins soon changed places with that little piece of numbered white paper called a ticket. The bus swayed right into the stream of traffic with purpose, ground its gears, and went on its way, carrying its complement of passengers, most with icy expressions and frozen postures, save one with a hopeful but slowly diminishing smile on his face. Whether he was indeed a laborer or a city councilor we would never know, for he got off at the next stop and walked away, leaving behind him an unchanged atmosphere of fear, mistrust and uncertainty.

As the bus trundled on, one of the passengers, a woman with a dark buruga shawl and a world-weary expression on her face, thought to herself, “What a big show-off! He’s got to show that he can conjure up a five hundred any time and anywhere he wants! Must be one of those resort-owner rich folk out to make fun of poor folk like us and the conductor here! We must get rid of these parasitic creatures before we can have democracy in this country! I must talk to my party chief about this.”

If anyone bothered to follow her train of thought one could have caught an explanation like, “Back in the 70’s, when tourism started as an industry in this country, an uneducated, uncivilized bunch of buffoons got hold of some prime islands and the opportunity to develop them as tourist resorts simply because they happened to be in favor with the ruling elite. Now these upstarts and their arrogant offspring think of us as vermin and want to even become rulers over us. The gentle, caring, civilized Maldives means nothing to them.”

Another, a man with a sun-darkened sailor’s face, was thinking, “That poor and foolish man! Counting every little coin to make ends meet, being forced to dig out his one and only five hundred to save face. What is our world coming to? He should know that even lowly bus conductors disdain the small change that people like us toil very hard for! The idiot must learn to live today’s style where the rich will have to bribe him with handsome money for doing whatever he does in the name of serving our democratic society.”

He might have continued, “We used to have something called dignity. Today, the smart and the clever are defined as those who could cut a fast deal, appropriate some prime asset by cheating the lawful owner out of it, or even intimidate the less daring and more pious out of old wealth!”

No one could have read the mind of that young teenager huddled in the back, earphones plugged tight into deafened ears, eyes vacant behind dark plastic shades, his mind asking itself how one could emigrate to a better country.

The city bus continued on its way, riding its endless circle around the island. The light drizzle silently wept its way down out of the silent gray sky. The little drops of water still hoped in vain to make perfect circles in patches of gray water. The passengers soon forgot the man with the coins. Perhaps he was now slowly wending his way to his dismal hovel, half-wet and hungry. Or perhaps he is not that, but a rich and bored resort-owner out for a walk in the rain as just another form of entertainment. Either way, maybe he himself had forgotten all about the white Male city bus that looks like a clean loaf of bread from the outside, and feels like the dark inside of a disused oven on the inside!

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