It had been months since I’d been on a bus. Somehow the color of the interaction tends to fade with time. What remains with you is the angst of making the journey, and I have always been the one quietly protesting about the overcrowding, the heat and the lack of a schedule. Get past those issues and the color comes back in sharp focus, and you realize that a bus ride in Jamaica is as much a cultural experience as going to Reggae Sumfest, eating some ackee and saltfish, or watching Usain Bolt’s antics on TV.
Today’s journey was to take me from Santa Cruz in St. Elizabeth back into the nation’s capital on a dark, wet afternoon. Those conditions didn’t make for an ideal backdrop, as I was convinced it was going to be miserable, so the three-hour journey in front of me seemed daunting at best. Upon getting dropped off, I quickly attempted to find an available bus. This process, unlike with other transportation systems, is left up to premonition, acute attention to the bellows of “bus boys” or assertively answering one of the many conductors trying to usher you into their vehicle. Luckily, I didn’t have the luxury of luggage and so I didn’t have to worry about the other little caveat when travelling on Jamaican transportation: which is, make sure you and your bags make it onto the same bus. As I settled in my seat, I heard instructions being shouted by a vendor:
“Turn on the air c, nuh! Di passenger dem want breeze out.”
The driver grudgingly obliged as an elderly woman beside me grumbled:
“Dat nah last long. As we move off so, dat dun.”
Yet another person discontentedly voiced:
“Mi hope dem nuh take whole day fi load.”
This sour mood, seemingly spurred on by the weather, was so religiously exercised by each and every embarking passenger, it began to seem comical to me. Everyone was apparently in their own version of hell that was all the result of the actions of the bus driver and the conductor. I began to wonder how much money bus drivers and conductors would spend on occupational psychotherapy, which would have been a must in any other country. This was tantamount to abuse!
Thankfully, for whatever reason, we left the terminus in short order and without exceeding the seating capacity of the unit. That, my good friends, is a rarity on these types of buses. Issuing a small prayer, I allowed myself to be drawn into the moods and attitudes around me instead of focusing on the journey itself.
The first conversation to grab my attention was a strong debate about herbal medicines happening in the front of the bus. Over 20 years of academic experience and I could not identify 90% of what was being spoken about — and the rest, based on personal experience, I didn’t think was palatable. I must say that I learned a thing or two though, one of them being that Jamaicans can rarely extricate their sexuality from any topic. The bus ride was akin to a mobile Kinsey Study/Dr. Ruth extravaganza. For anyone uncomfortable with public conversations of that nature, a Jamaican bus ride is not for you.
Just as easily, though, we can code switch and become deeply religious. Such was the nature of the second conversation that overtook the banter on the bus. People who initially were testifiers of sexual dysfunction and misdeeds quickly changed uniforms and became deacons and protestors of the faith. Were you not just the one who proclaimed yourself Ms. Kill and Bury (a term for a woman with certain sexual proclivities and abilities)? Somehow I am not sure that resonates well with your current message, replete with passages of scripture, but who am I to judge? The older folk allowed themselves to be drawn into the discussion as well, and it became a bus-wide evangelistic crusade. The testimonies came thick and fast, chorused by the grunts of endorsements and loud proclamations of shock.
But it wasn’t long before the testimonies turned to hearsay and the hearsay turned to gossip; that was to be the common denominator for the rest of the ride. To date, I doubt I heard the radio, and that was not from failure on the driver’s part, because it is apparently standard operating procedure post-purchase of the vehicle to install the biggest sound system you can find in the bus. Loud radio or no, suss (gossip) trumps music 80% of the time in Jamaica. Even the driver was throwing in his 5 cents every now and then.
Before you knew it, the conductor was collecting fares and making requests as to who wanted to stop where. I was to arrive at my destination reluctant to leave before getting the last juicy tidbits from my newfound friend. You can’t help but make friends and assume new identities on some of these journeys, and so at the end of mine, Brown Man exited the bus, made his parting hails to his newfound friends and hopped in a cab to his final destination — intent on reliving that entire experience sometime soon.