Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Art of Chinese Mini-Bussing

The Arcane Art of Mini-Bussing

Adapted from Amoy Magic -- Guide to Xiamen and Fujian

Our first long distance bus trip, to neighboring Zhangzhou and back, was supposed to take 1½ to 2 hours, but that obviously didn’t include the hour they spent packing us on the mini-bus. If only we could have figured out which bus was leaving first.

One would think the fullest bus would pull out first, but not so. Sometimes a half empty bus will race off, the strategy being to pick up more victims down the highway, while a bus that is packed to the gills like a sardine tin might wait another half hour to find some soul willing to fry their fanny on the blistering engine cover. On a 30 seat bus, they can cram 50 victims, who sit on laps, or stand, or squat on tiny bamboo stools in the aisles.

The ticket hawkers all squawk in unison, “Hurry up! We’re leaving right now!” And drivers inch forward a few feet to prove time is of the essence. “Aiyah!” they scream. “Kuai Lai!”

I asked one lady, “Do you have A/C?”

“Of course! See the sign? Get on quick! We’re leaving!”
Sue and I scrambled aboard and squeezed into a tiny seat in the back, between two farmers and their baskets of carrots, cabbage and Chinese celery. The ticket seller snatched my money and the driver switched off the engine.

“I thought you were leaving right now?”

“As soon as the bus is full,” she said.

“It’s packed now,” I argued. But she ignored me like yesterday’s news, and stuck her head out the window like a turtle straining from its shell for a feeble-minded fly, and she screamed at all and sundry, “Hurry up! Get on board. We’re leaving now!”

Several passengers snickered, and I knew I had been had.

A youth who was obviously wiser than I eyed the bus suspiciously and said, “You’ve not filled up the aisle yet.”

The ticket lady rolled her eyes. “Of course we haven’t. We’ll pick up more people down the road. The driver started his engine and inched forward. The youth puffed his chest and led his girl onto the bus, sat on a bamboo stool in the aisle, forked over his 20 Yuan, and the driver switched the ignition off.

“Hey, you said we’re leaving now!” But the agent was again deaf, dumb and blind. I could barely keep from joining the snickers.

Twain’s Duke and Dauphin would have been proud.

Fully 45 minutes after we had been told, “Hurry, we’re leaving!” the van lurched off down the road. I asked the ticket lady, “Why haven’t you turned on the air conditioning?”

“Open windows are cool enough when we’re moving.”

“But you said the bus has A/C!”

“It does!” she said, “But we don’t use it when we’re moving.”

Snicker, snicker, all around me.

The bus slowed every few minutes as the ticket hawker poked her head from her yellow shell and screamed, “Get on board. Plenty of seats! Hurry!” One wily peasant dubiously eyed the collage of faces peering dolefully from the windows like nonAryans on the cattle car to Auschwitz. He timorously put one foot, clad in Playboy socks and plastic flip flops, onto the rusted bus step. The lady grabbed him by the collar, yanked him inside, slammed the door, and said, “Ten Yuan!”

“You said there was plenty of room!”

“There is room,” she said, and pointed to the battery box, which was coated in greenish gray cottony corrosion and grease, and squeezed between the hot engine cover and the wheel well.

Those of us with enough room to expand our rib cages snickered softly.
There was no order to her people packing, so every time the bus stopped to disgorge a victim, we reshuffled the deck of dog-eared bodies; parents lost children, husbands lost wives; one lost a wallet. But we made it to Zhangzhou in one piece, more or less.

After a pleasant afternoon in Zhangzhou, we returned to the bus stop, where we saw a bus inching forward. The sweetest little granny shouted, “Hurry, we’re leaving.”

“Susan, this old granny can’t be like the rogue on the last bus. They really are leaving.” We boarded the bus, paid our pesos, and the driver cut the engine. We sweltered for 20 minutes until sweet old granny had packed her bus.

Susan snickered.
When we reached home that night we discovered that we had been gallivanting about the countryside on Friday the 13th.

Someday I’ll write about China's Saturday the 14th....

Bill Brown
Xiamen University

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