A collection of stories, photographs, and anecdotes from my time on buses (and public transportation more broadly)- both during the Watson and in the last couple of years. I wrote my thesis on the historical use of buses as a space in social movements in Mexico and the United States, and condensed it into a shorter piece for The Los Angeles Review of Books, but still am hoping to write and think about buses as a critical space of power, and as art in and of themselves. This is a documentation of some of the moments, sayings, colors, and people that have stood out on different journeys.
We couldn’t move because the roads were closed, or more accurately, they were blocked off. Outside of La Paz, people blockaded the roads to resist something of the usual sort: climbs in bus fare, high taxes. “This will pass,” people say. My host mother shakes her head when she sets plates down on the table for cena. This is nothing out of the ordinary. When Bolivians have a problem with the government, they walk outside and do something. “Si a Evo,” “Si a la educación,” “Si a la nacionalización,” “Educación es el arma más poderosa,” “Mi Vota” con un cheque. In a bus from La Paz to Lake Titicaca and back again, these words tumble by on the walls along the highway. Coming through the city center of La Paz, there are encampments with tents and crowds gathered on the sidewalk, protesting to increase the government allotments given to people with disabilities. Instead of traveling on transit or by vehicle, citizens with disabilities and supporters came on foot to La Paz from all over the country. This is how people speak and make themselves heard: by marking physical space with words and inhibiting or creating movement.
The Malecón is a place for walking. A long sidewalk that winds along the sea with a block of cement that runs besides it, you walk on the edges of Habana Vieja, the new City. You will hit a parque with swings, a statue of revolutionary leader Antonio Maceo on horseback, the university end of town, Vedado. Pastel vehicles roll past, no windows, next to the taxicabs from the early 2000s and the new buses—the ones for city routes, the cool air Víazul ones for turistas, moving from city to city. Mid-day, the sun is strong everywhere, shivers off the pavement and licks the surface of the sea when it hits the algae-growing walls of the Malecón.
On one side of the Malecón, far across the harbor, there is an old military fortress from which one cannon is fired quietly every night. On the site to the left of the sidewalk, a parked yellow taxi cab bakes in the sun and in front of it, a bus blooming in disordered color and block letters, paint sprayed by human hands. Its blue is marked with words lined in black that drip splotches of orange, pink, and yellow: “End the blockade against Cuba,” “No Al Bloque de Cuba.” This bus traveled on one of two paths down the east or west coast of the United States, carrying passengers on a month-long “Friendshipment Caravan” to Cuba. Started in 1992 with a group of 100 caravanistas, the annual trip seeks to use nonviolent civil disobedience against the decades long blockade against U.S. Along the way, the group discusses and engages with people in the U.S. about perceptions of Cuba and the blockade itself, and brings a variety of different types of medical, educational, and other forms of aid in the buses to give directly to people in Cuba.
In 1993, one of the two buses traveling through the United States was seized by US customs, but its riders were firmly committed to their mission of moving onward into Cuba without a license. The people on board initiated a 23-day hunger strike that was supported by an emergency response network of calls, protests, and fasts in solidarity in 20 cities across the United States and Cuba. Eventually, the Clinton administration allowed them to move forward.
Since its inception, Friendshipment Caravan Program Coordinator John Waller estimates that over 100 buses — typically yellow school buses — have been donated to organizations in Cuba. The buses are fundraised for by various partner organizations of IFCO each year and are painted in a variety of styles — sometimes in abstract, less-conventional designs, on other occasions in more traditional iterations of IFCO slogans and logos. Starting in the northern United States, the buses typically travel through the country and pick up people as they go to create what Waller describes as a “traveling community.” From the bus’s first of two destinations in Mexico City, caravanistas then continue onward to a week or so of events, dialogues, and meetings with partner organizations and friends of the caravan in and around Havana.
In the wake of the Obama administration’s lifting of certain travel and economic restrictions, some aspects of the annual bus caravan have changed. With the election of Trump, Waller said that the organization felt that they “couldn’t wait until July,” when the caravan typically begins. In April 2017, six vehicles, including one school bus, carried speakers and traveled throughout the United States to talk with people about Cuba relations and policy at a variety of events. In July 2017, the caravanistas will fly directly to Cuba rather than travel through the United States.
The bus that I saw by the Malecón does not have a year or date of arrival painted on it. On the front, there is a green-shaded outline of Cuba with a heart over it; one side of the bus has the telephone number for Pastors for Peace written above the windows. The bus made its way with people through the United States, sharing its message across communities as it moved, and into Cuba, where it carries with it a legacy of crossing borders closed by government regulation.
“Love is sweet poison.”
“No time for love.”
“Buddha was born in Nepal.”
These catch phrases appear in block letters, often bold and embellished, on the front of windows. The buses wear these phrases not like book marked pages of wise word collections, but like everyday wear, easy pants, all weather. They stick around, same as the headlights carving out paths on dark roads you might retreat from if you saw their contours in the day, like a name tag that eventually becomes part of the uniform.
The uniform is removed, so the other is performed, the usual garb. What do you see then, without the marker? What is different from not new eyes, but imaginations more still when others see you?
The sting operation, if you can hold a straight face and call it that, begins toward the beginning of rush hour, around 5 pm. We take a motorbike, Shreejana’s, to the Kathmandu police station. There are four of us- three women and a police officer, dressed down in black shorts, floppy calf high boots, a khaki vest over an argyle fronted sweater. It is part of a security campaign to catch perpetrators of harassment on buses, particularly as it impacts female riders, called Project Safety Pin. A total of 84 police officers spread out on 28 teams throughout the metropolitan area, traveling during times of high commute. About a quarter of women aged 19 to 35 reported feeling some form of assault, according to a 2013 survey, and many of the people I’d talked to said they generally tried to avoid buses; they’d become increasingly crowded in recent years, had experienced uncomfortable advances from male passengers.
We walk on the street, allowing people to cut through us, slowing steps like obedient ants, and wait apart. Boarding, we pretend not to know each other; spread out to seats spaced far enough apart for passengers going on their separate journeys. We move slowly. The bus, too, seems to creak onwards. I feel lulled, catch my head falling into the strange, groggy transport sleep that often hits me nowadays, horrible sleeper and alarm setter that I am. We ride to the edge of town, depart and wait for another bus to come, one that will take us back on a different path. These buses are large, city beasts, ones with seats on two sides of an aisle as opposed to the bench seats in tempos or van seats in the smaller buses.
The places where the harassment occurs is, reportedly, outside the Ring Road- the infamous wide street, a landmark for defining the borders of Kathmandu city. And so our operation ends without issue, each of us departing from the central Ratna Park in three directions. Since its launched about two weeks before, 10 people had been caught by the teams deployed to focus on this issue.
The tempos here are usually all blue hues, but this ride was brightened by tumeric yellow. In Dallu, I cross the street after walking past the posed mannequin wearing too short Nike pants and chicken cages, the charcoal mechanic shop filled with wires and sparks that fly into the street. Just a little further up, before the Bagmati foot bridge that I’ve never seen meet soles, the tempos wait in a comfortable line. There’s a couple drivers I recognize, but the insides are nearly indistinguishable, made memorable by riders. But today, this ride is bright. It is late afternoon. The writing in red is typical of that on the inside of buses. Translated, it reads something like: “even if you have sorrow in your heart, climb in with a smile, and drop off after paying the rent.”
Jeeps are the sheep dogs of Nepal’s mountains, the tougher cousin of leaning, slow-response buses. Taking a lead from a Nepali family from Tamang on a bus from Kathmandu to Besishahar, we found a ride, eight hours, to Chame. It was misty, a little chilly when we headed out; seven people crammed into the front and back seats. The rest of us stood in the rear of the jeep, hands wrapped around the metal barriers, looking over our shoulders and up ahead as the jeep rolled downwards for the first leg of our journey. Our hips banged against the sides.
A seventeen year-old-boy along with us did the ride every day, coming back and forth with the Jeep to its trekker drop off points. He lounged casually with the car’s movements, slept deeply and rocked like he was dancing when we leaned against the Jeep’s rear wall, close to hour 5. It began to rain in large drops, and so as the bumps intensified, we tied a piece of blue tarp around the rails. This concealed us into a darker, moderately drier bubble. Crowded into the corners, experimenting with how best to position ourselves to lessen blows to bumps and banging into the sides, the tarp gave us knowing sneak peeks. The harshness of mist in contrast to the splattering mud road, a thin water fall through rocks on the opposite side of the river, disappearing into air, the out-of-the-seat jumps that solicited nervous laughter.
“Think we should get out maybe? To look at the road?” My friend Kim asked.
Later, we remembered that our fellow trekker from Tamang, a Buddhist, whispered a quiet prayer, beads in his fingers when the tarp began to offer teases of the edge.