The cockroaches crawling over the seats only marked the beginning of the twenty-plus hour hell about to commence. By the time the other students noticed the insects slowly emerging from the plush, reclining seats, it was too late to turn back. It was the summer after my freshman year of college, and I was in Indonesia with a professor and about fifteen students to interview government officials and NGO leaders about development of democracy and natural disaster response. We were taking a bus from Java to Bali to finish the last leg of the one-month experience.
When we boarded the coach bus, it looked and felt like heaven. More legroom than on a plane? Air conditioning? Reclining seats? I remember collapsing gratefully into a seat. Like the dumb freshman I was, I had gone to the club with some of the older students and suffered the consequences of my first hangover. I was absolutely mortified by this and slid down in my seat. Fortunately, the appearance of the cockroaches distracted from my own embarrassment.
But, as I alluded to earlier, the cockroaches were just the beginning of the bus ride from hell. During Hour 8, the smell of shit wafted from the bathroom at the back of the bus and permeated just about everything. At Hour 12, we noticed the bus driver periodically dozing off as he hurtled around another corner in the dark. I clutched the armrest and felt the bile rise in the back of my throat. (I wasn’t the only one.) By Hour 15, I could no longer feel my feet and discovered that there was such a thing as too much air conditioning.
At one point, I regained consciousness long enough to realize that the bus was in a room. Actually, we were in the belly of a ferry. I asked our professor if we could maybe go out for a breath of fresh air. The negative response was immediate, and we groaned. We were in a freezing, smelly, cockroach-infested bus in a ferry. I couldn’t help but consider the awful possibility that if the ferry sank, we would be inside a ferry inside a freezing, smelly, cockroach-infested bus. I flicked an insect off of my armrest. This was not exactly how I wanted to go.
And then, somehow, the twenty-hour ordeal was finally over. We reached our home stays in Bali. One by one we tumbled out of the bus on our jelly legs, squinting into the harsh sunlight and rubbing the crusty bits from our eyes. We survived.
Was it really that bad, though? Not at all, not even with the cockroaches. We all had our comfortable seats. There was air-conditioning. Replaying the memory now, I cringe at eighteen-year-old Nina, who was afraid of enjoying Indonesia too much because it would be “uncool.” She was simultaneously anxious to fit in but considered herself “politically aware.” That Nina didn’t consider the people who didn’t have the luxury of riding in a fancy bus with lots of amenities. She didn’t think about how communities and organizations shifted their schedules and lives to accommodate this boisterous group of students. Instead, she recounted this one memory of an actually not-so-terrible bus ride over and over again to her friends for a laugh. It was only after returning from Indonesia that realization of my American privilege sank in. At the time, the bus ride seemed like a good story. Now it seems irrelevant and ignorant, even whiny.
I am very glad I’m not that Nina anymore.
I was once an intern in Washington, D.C., joining the perennial ranks of bright-eyed college students paying lots of money to work long hours in the nation’s capitol. My best friend and I were sharing a room in an old hotel that had been converted into a college dorm. (I guess if you had to write a Craigslist ad for it, you could say it had “character.”) It was an interesting place with a pool no one could use.
It was the first time I was living in a city with a real public transportation system that could replace the need for a car. Coming from the Midwest, it felt exhilarating and adult-like. I had been taking the Metro to work, until I realized that the bus would be less expensive for the distance and simultaneously take me closer to where I was interning.
“Privilege” and “gentrification” were definitely words I understood in theory, but it didn’t crystallize into actual understanding until I started riding the bus. Mostly people of color and elderly rode this particular route. Many of the passengers knew the bus driver — and each other. It was a far cry from the packed metro cars of serious young professionals.
Raised in a middle-class household in suburban Michigan, it didn’t occur to me to think about the subtle ways race and racism shaped even daily, mundane activities like going to work. Although I was aware how my identity as an Indian-American set me apart from many of my peers in high school, I didn’t start questioning how my race shaped my own life until college. Riding the bus in D.C. was one of the first experiences that nudged me toward thinking critically about what it meant to be a person of color in the United States. My life is richer for it.
This was a big day: I was going to ride the bus to work alone for the first time. Well, for the first time during my two months living in a village in rural Himachal Pradesh. I was interning for a development organization, conducting field interviews with government officials and surveying documents about the financial inflow of state and federal funds to a certain village. My goal was to develop a policy report with my observations and recommendations for how the organization could strengthen its citizen empowerment programs.
On most days, I would take the bus with Sunitaji, my host mother and also an employee for the development organization, to the village I was supposed to study. The ride was a beautiful one; dusty trees sprouting from tan earth, huge flat fields full of farmers hunched over their crops. Sometimes, when the bus rounded a cliff, I’d even get a glimpse of the wide, muddy river snaking through the terrain below. But today, my last day of fieldwork, I was alone. Earlier that morning, Sunitaji — a stocky, smart, and fiercely loving woman — helped me onto the correct bus. I could see the worry in her eyes. After all, I was young and my Hindi was only passable.
The bus conductor was a young guy, always wearing tight pants and shirts that shouted that he was bigger than the small towns where he worked. As the bus back slowly emptied out, we started chatting about our lives. Where is your family from? Do you have any brothers or sisters? The standard trading of life stories and experiences.
“I’m from America, but my parents are from Kolkata,” I said. Fortunately, my background was one topic I could speak about fluently in Hindi.
“Oh! I thought you were visiting from Punjab!” I could see the surprise on his face. This brown girl is from America?
I don’t think the conductor realized how much that small statement meant to me. This was my first time visiting India by myself, without family. While living in a village was great exposure to a kind of life I had never experienced, it was sometimes isolating and emotionally difficult. From the way I struggled to articulate nuanced thoughts in Hindi to how my foreignness created an invisible wall in even my closest relationships in the village, I felt perpetually uncertain in a lot of my interactions.
I was lucky, though. Any difficulties I experience would eventually end when I returned to the States. More than that, patient people surrounded me. They forgave my stumbles and walked me through basic activities, like scrubbing my clothes by hand. I wondered how my mother, who immigrated to the United States after marriage, managed to start a family and navigate a new culture in an environment that was less forgiving to her accent and clothing. This small moment, with the friendly bus conductor, actually made me feel like I belonged where I was. When I got off at my stop, we traded smiles as I hopped onto my host brother’s motorcycles zipped away. Maybe my differences weren’t as glaring as I previously believed. I hoped my mother had one of those moments, too.
Indonesia, Three Years Later
The Indonesian town where I lived, Krian, was like a small Midwestern town. You could find most things there, but simultaneously nothing at all. Krian, however, had the distinction of sitting on the border of a giant highway that was perpetually choked with semi-trucks and busses. I was standing on the side of the highway with an ibu (“Mrs.”) from my school, looking for an air-conditioned bus to take to Madiun, a city on the western edge of East Java. One of the other Fulbright teaching assistants needed judges for an English competition at her school, and I was excited for an opportunity to explore another town.
We tried hailing a few busses down, but the conductors grimly shook their heads. No room. Of course, I somehow managed to pick the busiest part of the day to leave. Finally, Bu Heri looked at me and said, “No A/C busses. Will economy be okay?” Her expression was all concern and regret. I nodded. There really was no other option at that point. The trip to Madiun would take at least six hours, and the competition was the next day. She waved down a bus and pushed me on board quickly before it hurtled away.
Somehow the already full row of people at the back of the bus shifted and there was enough space for me to squeeze in, next to a kindly looking woman in a jilbab (headscarf) and a young child. Over the next few hours, we extracted each other’s life stories. I was a teacher working in Indonesia for a year, teaching English to 300 high school students. Bu Rina was a housewife, whose family was from Madiun. She had come to my town to meet her husband and son, both bus drivers who traveled this route regularly.
It was after dark when we finally reached the dimly-lit Madiun bus station. The other English teachers were on their way to pick me up, but it seemed like I would have to wait by myself. A raucous group of ojek, or motorcycle taxi, drivers called out at me as stepped off the bus. I felt tense and suddenly alone. Bu Rina waved them away and held my arm as she guided me to the gas station next to the bus station. The fluorescent lights of the gas station were flickering on and off periodically, but it was infinitely brighter and better than standing near the ogling ojek drivers.
Bu Rina stood fast next to me, fixing her jilbab and asking me about which schools my friends taught. The gesture was so kind, especially considering we had known each other only for a few hours. She went out of her way to do something she didn’t have to do. It was absolutely selfless. Indonesians love to do things together rather than alone and I had sometimes struggled to reconcile this inclination with my occasional need for solitude. Standing next to the flickering lights of the gas station and the leering ojek drivers, I found myself feeling deeply grateful to not be alone.
After a little while, Bu Rina very apologetically took her leave, exhorting promises that I would SMS her as soon as my friends arrived. “And come visit, stay at my house,” she repeated, waving as she hopped onto a motorcycle and zipped away. We never met again.
She is still in my phone as “Rina From madiun.”
Seth and I were freshly showered, but the sweat was already trickling down our faces with the onset of Thailand’s blazing mid-morning heat. The plan was to tackle the Royal Palace that morning, but my friend we had accidentally slept in longer than intended and missed the few, cool morning hours. Already, Bangkok traffic was spinning in its typical dizzying chaos. We stood at the edge of the traffic circle, waiting for our bus.
Ten minutes passed. Then thirty minutes. Just when we were about to give up, our bus screeched to a stop. It was a brown, rickety shell of metal when compared to the others whizzing around the traffic circle. But it was clean and the pleather seats were in good condition. The ancient heap of a bus was mostly empty, save the bus driver, conductor, and one other passenger.
The bus conductor sidled up to us to collect the fare. I was surprised to see a young woman my age — surprising because most of the bus conductors in Asia tend to be men. Something even more surprising happened at the next intersection. The old bus driver hefted himself out of the driver’s seat and the young girl slipped into the seat, confidently spinning the huge steering wheel. Even after almost a year in Southeast Asia, she was the first woman I saw driving a bus. The sight made me want to stand up and cheer in female solidarity. Girl power!
The old bus driver took the seat in front of us, looking at us curiously from underneath his fraying baseball cap. Seth offered him some of the chocolate crackers we had picked up from 7-11. If there was one thing we learned living in Indonesia, it was that sharing food really opened up doors. The man cracked a broad smile, flashing his gummy, mostly toothless mouth at us, and started chatting with us in Thai. By that, I mean, he was chatting at us in Thai, but it was one of those beautiful, pure moments of mutual understanding. We smiled wordlessly and nodded until it was time to get off at our stop.
When Sara and I first noticed the limping horse, we were sitting at a tiny noodle stand on the corner of a broad, dusty road in Burma. We were waiting for our bus from Inle Lake to Yangon and grabbing a quick bite to eat before the ten-hour ride.
Horse carts are fairly common in Burma, for both livelihood and tourism purposes. Unfortunately, it sometimes that the poor animals are over-worked and often fail to receive they card they need. So while the sight of the tired, limping horse struggling to follow his owner’s commands wasn’t surprising, I was a little stunned when the owner got out of the cart and whipped the horse to the ground. The horse jerked back up to escape, but group of men surrounded the cart to beat the horse into submission. Sara and I looked at each other, stunned into silence and noodles forgotten.
I felt ill, watching the group of men pound this huge animal to the ground with their boots and fists. It was painful to witness the horse struggle to stand and attempt to run away, only to be stopped by the cart’s yoke and another flurry of punches. The other tourists also stood dumbly, shock palpable. But what could we do, as foreigners? We had little grasp of the country’s culture, not to mention language. To do something would have been heavy-handed and intrusive, but inaction felt simultaneously uncomfortable.
The stand’s owner jumped out from the back of the restaurant and pushed us to a bus that seemed to match the description on our ticket. Throwing our backpacks under, we hopped on. I watched the defeated-looking horse drag the cart away.
Soon a Burmese remake of Rihanna’s “Umbrella” soothed us into a fitful sleep.
I waited with bated breath as I swiped my old student ID on the bus. It wasn’t clear that it would still work, a year after graduation. I had just returned from a year of working in Asia, and my nerves felt frazzled and frayed from culture shock. Everything still felt too bright and strange, like photo that had overexposed. I was living in my sister’s apartment for the few months still remaining on her lease. Most of my friends had long abandoned our college town, but staying there while sending out endless cover letters seemed marginally better than returning to my suburban hometown right away. At least I could walk places. Or take the bus!
My ID swiped through with no incident. I slid into a seat, which was covered with fuzzy patterned fabric that seemed right out of an office from the eighties. The bus slowly filled with people. Everyone stared at their phone in rapt concentration, maybe playing Candy Crush or Snapchat or one of those other things I had completely missed while gone. It was strange and silent. I felt dislocated. While I was in Indonesia, I missed quiet bus rides but now I experienced a sudden ache for Indonesia’s too-full busses, where people shared snacks and participated in slight intrusive, rapid-fire small talk. Riding the bus here felt empty, devoid of life. The things that you miss as soon as they are gone.
Nina Bhattacharya is getting ready to move to DC, where she plans to ride the bus to the health policy organization where she works. She is a dancer, Bollywood enthusiast, and collector of statement necklaces. Find her on Twitter!