We-my German wife Kay, my fourteen-year old daughter and I- were waiting at Colombo Airport in Sri Lanka for the taxi to arrive. It was really our first experience with the way things worked there, and let’s just say that after two hours of waiting we were less than impressed.
While waiting we mingled with a swarm of Sri Lankan children who were apparently waiting for their mother to get off work there. There were one or two small boys, somewhere between five to eight young girls between the ages of seven and fourteen who all looked alike, and a young man of about sixteen who was sure he was in charge. All of the girls were very interested in my wife and daughter; specifically, their sandy blond hair. Each of them made it clear with hand signals that they needed to take 14 pictures at least with both of them, separately and both together. This took a while.
To kill the time while killing time, the boy informed me in very poor English that if I liked one of the girls, I could just take her with me.
Knowing what I know now, after six weeks on the island, away from the cozy safe arms of a starred resort, I should have led my family back into the airport to board a plane for anywhere.
For those pitifully few of you who haven’t yet read “Sri Lanka: Bus Ride to Hell”, it might be prudent to take a break from these musings and immerse yourself there for a bit, as the background information there contributes directly to the material for this article. Well, for the title, anyway.
We recently took two ten-hour bus trips from Bangkok up North to Chiang Mai and back. It provided us with a number of interesting and mirthful experiences which I certainly would like to share.
The buses in Thailand are not as magnificently adorned as their counterparts in Sri Lanka, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Many have simple color schemes, without bats, or explosions, or tanks, or flying tigeroctopi. If that is even a thing.
The insides are relatively neat and do not crush their passengers with, first and foremost, the odor of curry, which is also a plus. Traveling by bus is a popular method of getting about in Thailand, but there is fortunately none of the stupefyingly irresponsible overcrowding one witnesses in Sri Lanka.
In fact, the buses themselves aren’t all that disagreeable, which made us all the more ready, as well as the low low prices, to utilize this mode of transport again.
The first thing I noticed this time on the bus was that, sitting in the front row, there was a heck of lot of leg room. For someone who was three and a half feet tall. There are overhead bins on these buses but they are only about as tall and wide as a mail slot, and my rucksack was certainly not going to fit up there, which meant it went under my feet. Also under my legs were my shoes-since I was planning on sleeping I wanted to maximize my Comfortabilty Quotient (CQ)-and my Trader Joe’s bag full o’ goodies for the trip. With my legs jammed into the small space between seat and wall, and above my necessities for the trip, I felt like one of those poor traditional Chinese women who had their feet broken to fit into ever smaller pairs of shoes.
Tiny feet are cool.
Within the first half hour of our trip a smartly dressed female steward person-yes, that’s a thing here on buses-moved through the aisle and passed out cardboard and plastic boxes o’ yum-yums. Like for example cold mini pizzas with croissants (as a dessert) or, for breakfast, a “chocolate”-filled bun with some very wretched Thai cookies (as a…dessert?).
I’m guessing the main ingredient here is paste. Yes, I tried them. Because they were free. And regretted it terribly. Until my next bowel movement. which brings me to my next wonderful experience:
Before nodding off into a gently-rocked sleep, I made sure to visit the toilet in the back of the bus, which was an unusually high amount of no fun due to the overflowing trough around the porcelain gullet. I’m going to give the bus company the benefit of the doubt-primarily because I don’t want to think of the alternative-and say the three-inch deep liquid covering the floor was water. I was not going in there.
Thankfully, I’m pretty spry for my age and leaned into the bathroom from its ‘mini-foyer’ far enough toilet-wards to pour my bladder juice mostly in the toilet.
Going wee-wee in this manner may sound disgusting and inconsiderate to the other passengers but I don’t care and I also knew, in my defense, that we were headed for a rest area and would be ‘put out’ there later. That is also one of the interesting facets of these long distance bus trips in Thailand: after five or six hours the bus stops at a rest area and everyone is tenderly screamed at in Thai to wake up and get off the bus. We were not told in any language, unfortunately, that we were to bring our bus ticket into the restaurant. A free meal awaited all of the passengers with one. Oh, well.
The cafeteria-styled restaurant served up a choice of maybe meat or fish or feet with maybe noodles or rice-we couldn’t tell and no one spoke English. It cost us, being without tickets, about $0.37.
In our Alpha-wave state of half slumber we relaxed and enjoyed the hearty mystery meal, which was produced on a conveyer belt and glowed with the nuclear energy of some of the spiciest…spices ever to garnish a meal, for upwards of eight minutes before hopefully everyone was herded back onto the bus for the next leg of our journey.
A word about the ‘gentle sleep’ mentioned above. On the way up North, we had a normal-heighted (?) bus, while on the way back we rode in a double decker. The double deckers are a little more comfortable but, and I cannot emphasize this enough, avoid them if you plan to close your eyes at all. Any background in physics will tell you that the higher and more top-heavy a bus is, the more it will swing and sway like the S.S. Minnow when the weather starts to get rough, until, and this is true, I felt like the Hulk had a hold of one of my legs and was whomping me around like he did to Thor or Loki in one of the million Avengers movies. Please watch these scenes again somehow and consider it your homework.
Speaking of movies, on the way back to Bangkok we had the afore-mentioned woman as a stewardess person, but on the way up we had a guy who performed his stewardship competently and well. There was something about him, however, that made me think he took the job only because his girlfriend got pregnant and was, at heart, a tried and true headbanger. Maybe I’m only saying that because of the DVD he slipped in for us passengers to enjoy-and boy did we.
I’ll also mention here that we noticed that when trying to watch “Grace and Frankie” on Netflix, a safety code appears on the screen to make sure no immature elements are viewing that highly immoral, sex- and violence-ridden merriment.
Our steward seemed to have no such qualms about improper content when he slipped in a zombie movie. Not just any zombie-a Thai zombie movie. And not just any Thai zombie movie-one of the goriest, bloodiest zombie movies ever. As special effects go, it was not as bad as Plan 9 From Outer Space, which, admittedly, set the bar pretty low, but not as high as the first Star Wars movie-I think it was called ‘War in the Stars’.
My daughter’s favorite scene was when the heroine, played by someone never heard from again, exchanged her fully capable, zombie-slashin’ short sword for a pair of hammers she could barely lift. Presumably because she was not worthy.
My favorite scene was when this heroine-who apparently nailed the role because of her ability to sweat and moan in battle (with zombies)-sitting in the background, chops a zombie approaching her from the foreground in half. We’re left viewing her framed by two slimy, mucal halves of a zombie. I’m guessing zombie insides are much more slimy and mucinous than their human counterparts.
On a side note here-and this is true-did you know that the mucin from snail slime trails is a beauty trend now?
I’d rather stay ugly.
Moving, Bus-themed Moral
I guess it would be easy to say ‘The important thing is that you got where you wanted to go’, but I don’t like thinking this way. It allows you to continue believing you somehow don’t deserve to travel comfortably. I’d rather consider bus rides like this one a challenge. I want to enjoy things like this, though it seems impossible, because of the many terrible circumstances and because there’s a wretched Thai zombie movie on that’s difficult to watch because it’s in Thai with no subtitles, because it truly sucks, and because there’s so much blood spurting everywhere it’s hard to find the characters. If you can enjoy things like this despite everything working against you, then it becomes easier to manage the more difficult challenges that life throws at you.
Like dealing with the 6 million people on Fitbit that don’t know the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’. That is, however, another story.
If you’re ever down Sri Lankan way, there’s one displeasure you’re not going to want to make, and that’s riding a bus. Anyone who shuts themselves off to these wonderful, sublime moments of nausea and terror has not fully lived, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
The Sri Lankan buses are models of conservative, sober methods of trans-portation. Each is drearily garbed in fluorescent greens and blues, highlighted with light, almost timid strokes which gracefully form images of demons driving monster trucks over what might be unhinged chickens. Or sand castles. Or winged Nazis. Whatever. Apparently, not all buses are decorated in this fashion, only the “special” ones. I’m guessing at least fifty percent of the fleet is special.
We visitors from the West, who are used to buses clad in sober, find it difficult to adjust to these eyesores, whose colors and artwork are hardly ever seen outside of certain poorer sections of larger cities, like Bridgeport, Connecticut, of Monster Trucks trampling other cars or roaming the highways with eighteen wheels of gruesome mobile disagreeability. On the positive side, it’s good to see that the need for expression and the desire for works of art still exist; on the other hand, I feel bad for the sort of people who consider a hugely breasted, skimpily clad woman riding a mechanized dragon into a battle against spidery tigeroctopi as the ultimate heigth of art. Seething flames aside, I haven’t seen infantile storyboards like that since the Beetle Bailey cartoon strips.
I remember the flames from just about any of my visits to any Catholic Church.
I suppose “to each his own” is a positive, up-with-people motto to follow passing through his or her life; I try to follow it in a general sense. Unfortunately, living by this rule opens the door to this visual carnage, and one has still not set foot inside the bus. On non-market days the bus is relatively full, but the chances of getting a seat are relatively high. If that is what one really, really wants to do. The smells are omnipotent, and drive through any barriers you might have erected, such as thick cloths wrapped around the face and over mouth and nose, or the ability to not notice scents. Oh, how I yearned to be anosmic on a Sri Lankan bus! Even this, however, is not the worst thing about riding this moving jukebox. The bright colors outside extend to the innards of the vehicle, as bright greens and blues intertwine and reconnect to form spirals and thorn bushes, and all connect up front to pay homage to the driver or bus company’s god of choice: usually either Buddha or Vishnu (?) – the woman with ten or so arms and maybe three heads. I had trouble counting because the bus hurtled faster than sound and the shock absorbers were not…like, shocking. Most of the buses had shrines to said deities at the front somewhere, usually above the windshield, that hopefully did not hamper the driver’s view of the road. And most of these shrines were made from authentic plastic, or tin, and were covered in the same probably poisonous colors and paints that adorned the rest of the bus, as well as having the added bonus of one or thousands of colored, blinking lights around, over, under, and through them which also spread out like mutant pseudopods to every corner of the bus. These lights never stopped blinking or changing colors, even when the bus was stopped, and the key was removed, strongly suggesting an independent existence with ominous intentions, like tapeworms.
But this was still not the worst experience on a Sri Lankan bus. On market days the entire population of, like, 40 zillion Singhalese flock eagerly to those shops and vegetable stands located eighteen stops ahead of where we got on. On certain days we watched these “market buses” from afar, as they swung and swayed with arms, legs, and 95% of bodies hanging out of every opening of the bus, which left precious little room for things like air, and we rejoiced in the fact that we were not able to experience the same joys those passengers were.
Which was also not the worst experience on a Sri Lankan bus.
The main streets in Sri Lanka are ridiculously full, especially on Saturday evenings around 5 or 6, which is also when the electricity goes off because it is rationed here. So picture if you will a small city’s streets with pedestrians scurrying up and down both sides of the street like hordes of ants, as well as all of the bike riders, Tuk-Tuk drivers, stray dogs, cars, motorcycles, and small trucks, and now introduce these rainbow monoliths into the equation. Remember, there are no street lights because of the electricity being rationed. Also, there were no speed limits, at least none I could see, even in daytime. Also also, the bus drivers seemed determined to keep to their schedules, wherever they might have been-I never saw any- at all costs, and drove with a near maniacal aggression. I always wondered if any of them were able to keep to their schedules; despite their teeth- and gear-grinding driving styles never once did one of these buses arrive at the time we guessed it was probably supposed to arrive at, since there no schedules anywhere. In short, I found it nearly miraculous that dozens of these poor pedestrians weren’t mowed down by the buses every day.
There was one instance where I was standing on the bus up near the front-it was a market day and there was nowhere to sit-and I happened to glance at the ol’ speed-o-meter. The driver was really hurtling at over 90 Km/H (56mph). For comparison, the absolute highest speed a truck can comfortably travel on a German autobahn and feel relatively safe that he or she won’t get a speeding ticket is 90. And these maniacs are plowing through these crowded city streets faster than that.
That was definitely the second worst experience I had on a Sri Lankan bus.
The worst experience I had on one of these buses occurred daily, when the bus was either full or empty. It may have been morning or afternoon. It may have been 120 degrees out or, well OK it was always 120 degrees out. In every one of these buses a TV hung from the ceiling way up front there, and every day all day the same channel blared a never ending stream of Sri Lankan boy band videos. Remember DeBarge. Like, sing DeBarge. I think his first name was El. Seriously. Well, I can’t tell you what happened to him and his familyslashbandmates after America woke up and realized that they definitely and without a doubt absolutely sucked and they would never fall for anything that trashy ever again…
(Thanks to Josh Morrisey and The Strut for the image and quote)
…sending Debarge hurtling faster than a Bobby Hull slapshot into the Great and Bottomless Chasm where Americans throw all of their wastes of time. But I think I can tell you what happened to the family’s/bandmate’s nauseatingly trendy collection of 80’s and 80’s only synthesizers and electric drum kits. See, after the interest in this truly awful form of musical expression waned, presumably after two weeks of listening to nothing but “Straight Up” by Paula Abdul, something must have happened to these dinosaurs of musical accompaniment. I’m convinced America’s supply of synthesizers and electric drum kits were sent to underprivileged persons in poorer regions of the world, like the Super Bowl losers’ hats and T-shirts that say Champs on them-they were printed beforehand, are now useless, and must go somewhere.
Apparently, an entire industry exists in many Third World countries where mildly talented teenage boys and girls channel their inner Debarges (God what a horrifying thought!) and make synthesizer music that real people actually listen to! Like me on the bus in Sri Lanka because I have no other choice and would probably be stoned to death if I did what I wanted to do and what should be done-namely toss that accursed boob tube out into the grimy street where a different rainbow monolith, trailing ours by a barely measurable distance, can crush the thing into the Chasm, where it belongs.
It is our choice what we feed our mouths, eyes, and ears with. Perhaps a slight improvement in everything we ingest would help make our lives a little better-you are, as we all know, what you eat. At the very least it would make my life a little less painful-I’m eating your DeBarge too.
Did I mention that we were there for three weeks or so, rode the bus almost every day, had the same bus driver for almost all of those days, but never once saw him in a different set of clothes? Remember the smells I was talking about? All in all riding a bus in Sri Lanka is a wonderful experience for the whole family. I would definitely recommend it to a friend, especially my best friends Donald Trump and any New York Jets fans.