Somewhere between the jet set and the purist pilgrims who shamble along the Camino de Santiago are those who ride the ‘bus’, a shortened form of the more picturesque 19th cent. French term, ‘omnibus’. It’s that ‘omni’ part that gives pause – omni being Latin for ‘all’. Which explains a great deal about bus travel in the Two-Thirds world.
Growing up in a remote corner of India gave me full acquaintance with what real omnibus travel consists of. When the very first bus service arrived on our uncharted side of the river, it lit up the village. As the bus passed by on its once-a-week run, we would all stream out to the road and give chase to its dust plume, laughing and shouting as lucky passengers waved to us. But the service didn’t last long. The bus owner complained that the route was not sustainable. When villagers got on the bus, he said, they deployed the following rationale for not paying the fare: the bus would be passing that way in any case, they argued, and one rider more imposed no additional cost on the bus operation. Therefore, no one should object to their riding along for free. The economics of public transport had not been in our sylla’bus’. Our village put flesh and blood on the notion hated by public transport mavens the world over: the free-rider. We became the bête noire, the root of all public transport evil. We learned to our disappointment that ‘omnibus’ did not quite mean ‘all’.
But free-riders are everywhere, and sometimes trigger unintended results. Even on the respectable Greyhound. We woke up one winter morning in Baltimore to the story of a terrible snarl on the Washington, DC beltway, just south of us. An intercity bus had left the Baltimore station, destination: Richmond, Virginia. As the bus skirted metro Washington, a passenger got up to use the on-board restroom. The door opened to reveal that a homeless soul, in unkind language, a ‘bum’, had stowed away in the lavatory, bound for the sunny south. Spooked at this discovery, the passenger quickly returned to her place and began whispering to seat mates about her discovery. The whispered news made its way through the bus that the toilet was – well, inoperable. Eventually, the word reached the driver. Who reacted with alarm.
He veered off the interstate on to a shoulder and called 9-1-1. Soon the bus was surrounded with state troopers, and metro canine units. The highway was closed down – all eight lanes – as the bus passengers spilled on to a grassy knoll, the last one off being, of course, a rather unkempt looking gentleman. The special tactics squad crept onto the bus sweeping it for dangerous weapons. They found nothing. It gradually came into focus what had happened. Like the parlor game, as the whispered message had been passed, eventually reaching the driver, a ‘bum’ had become a ‘bomb’. ‘There’s a bomb on the bus!’
Thousands of commuters on the interstate that morning had been derailed from their appointed rounds. Who knows what international crises dangled at a precipice that day? How many trysts went by the boards? How many divorces followed as a result of a last-straw broken promise? What health crises resulted from frustration and cardiac stress? And a sheepish free-rider slunk away with a spellbinder story. The bus arrived late at Richmond.
And for all I know, the driver took time off not to ride, but to walk the Camino in hopes of recovering some serenity. We should all be so lucky.