Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Ghost on the Bus

MYANMAR (BURMA): Consumer complacency appalls me. Because it is commonplace in Southeast Asia, I was surprised and thankful to discover on my bus journey to Keng Tong that among my fellow passengers was a most assertive – not to mention outspoken -- Burmese woman.

Our driver served as mechanic for the forward bus in our little two-bus convoy. My bus didn’t break down, but the one ahead of ours did – over and over again. The first time he got off the bus to make repairs, our driver abandoned us to the thickening heat (because docile passengers occupied seats situated in the isle, nobody could not get off). Had we not sat there sweating for an hour? Suddenly, a woman seated in the back row started hollering something; next other passengers giggled and began to cheer her on. Before too long the driver -- in apparent compliance with the lady’s request – was telling us to get off the bus.

A few minutes later, near to where I stood, the assertive woman walked off the road and picked a giant round leaf. Folding the leaf into a cup-shape, she pointed at my water bottle, which I gave to her. She poured some water into the leaf-cup and gave this to her friend, who, sipping from the leaf-cup, popped some pills.

Now I should point out that -- officially -- I was on the “Air Con Bus.” The name was deceptive. Previously, the ticket agent had explained: “Actually there isn’t any air con on the air con bus because the passengers keep the windows open.” I had to restrain myself from laughing: Actually there isn’t any air con on the air con bus… I mention this because our driver exhibited an annoying tendency which was to tailgate the first bus, exposing his passengers to its smelly black diesel exhaust. Just as the air was getting unbearably noxious, familiar shouting came from the back of our bus; cries of support from other passengers followed. At this, the driver put some distance between the buses. Thanks to the outspoken woman we could breathe.

Before we had boarded the bus, local passengers had submitted state-issued identity cards; station clerks then hand-printed passenger information onto a roster that got faxed somewhere. (In my case, before boarding, a messenger actually had to be dispatched to immigration to get travel documents copied and my passbook stamped). Before arriving in Keng Tong, the bus attendant handed the ID cards back to passengers. As he called out names, he made up jokes – taking care to mock especially funny-sounding names. Most passengers thought his routine hilarious, though a few victims did not look amused.

Nine hours after our departure (the journey that was supposed to take 3 hours) we arrived at Keng Tong, but not before passing the wreck of a bus that had crashed the day before. Passengers leaned out the window and gasped at the sight of an Air Con Bus sticking out of a ditch.

A couple days later, on my return journey, when my bus again passed this wreck -- in daylight this time – like many other passengers I leaned to my window to take another look. I should mention that it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere; we were transiting through jungle; perhaps thirty kilometers out of town. Examining the bus-wreck, I spotted a man seated by an open window towards the elevated back-end of the bus. At first glace I thought I might be looking at a corpse – for he did not turn his head. But upon closer inspection, the man appeared very much alive; he had thick black hair; he was seated upright. Might he be the driver who had returned to meditate on his recklessness? Perhaps he was a friend or relative of a victim? In any case, I would hardly have faulted anyone on my bus for claiming to have just seen a ghost.

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