I have a lot of memories attached to buses.
I was on a bus when it first dawned on me that I was going to be the farthest I have ever been from home, away from everything familiar. I was ten and on my way to begin my Secondary school education in Queens’ College, Lagos and I had no idea what to expect. I sat beside my dad at the back row of an Edegbe bus, he let me take the window seat which taught me my first Nigerian road travel lesson – avoid the seats just above the tyres. The most vivid parts of this first trip to Lagos that opened my eyes to the world that existed away from home were the toll-gate stops, the traders chasing cars with their wares; beautiful, yellow bananas and groundnuts that looked entirely different from the ones we had back home. I saw lepers for the first time. I remember reaching into my new purse to bring out money to buy some egg-rolls, because you see, for the very first time I had my own money. In my own purse. A whole seven hundred naira snuck into my palm by my mother, just for me. My father looked at me with disbelief asking “what are you doing?” and I remember being so confused because I thought it was very obvious, what I was doing. “I am bringing out my money to buy egg-roll”, I told him. He shook his head and said “My friend, you better put that thing back inside your purse. Who told you that you have money?” Then he reached into his pocket and paid for the egg-rolls. That exchange has stayed with me all this time, and I often turn it over and over in my head, trying to understand and find the meaning or the lesson I am convinced is hidden in it.
That route and the buses I entered became a steady part of that phase of my life. After that first trip, my travel companion was my older sister who attended the same school as me. Over time, the buses changed, services improved. From five passengers at the last row to four passengers, then for an extra five hundred naira the option of travelling in an air conditioned bus became available. What about the first time I entered a bus that had a television in it? I kept asking my rather impatient sister these stupid questions; where did they plug the TV or does it use batteries? How did they attach the Tv to the Bus? If you turn off the bus will the TV stop working? If you remove the Tv from the bus will it still work? Is it fair that the driver and passenger in front are unable to watch? Okay, where is the slot for DVD?
There was this time on the bus, I was so sleepy. My sister and I occupied two seats of the three-seater directly behind the driver. So there was nothing to lean on in front, by my left side was very unfriendly territory that my sister, she pushed my head away repeatedly, telling me “all you know is food and sleep”. Then on my right was unfamiliar territory in form of a young man in his twenties. He had headphones on and listened to music from a Discman, this already made me cool in my eyes. I tapped his thigh and he took off his headphones, without beating around the bush, I asked him if I could lean on his shoulders to sleep. He said I could and slouched a little to accommodate me. I leaned in and was out like a light in no time. I’m not sure how long I slept, but I woke up to my sister staring at me. “When are you going to grow up? When are you going to have sense? So you think it is okay, you think it is safe for you to just sleep on the body of strange men?” she asked. I was confused then, but I see her point now. That was the first time anybody has yelled at me in public, my first taste of public shame. It occurred to me only recently that the nice young man who responded to the debacle with silence shared in my embarrassment. I was twelve.
The bus also brought me my first my first kiss, or should I say my first kisser? I was in my last year of secondary school and I now travelled alone. My dad dropped me at the park that morning and he stayed till the bus got filled up and moved. This was quite unlike him, I was considered a big girl and a pro-traveler by this time so my parents had stopped doing stuff like that. Also, I knew he had an 8am lecture to give that morning and he was already late. Thinking back, I think he also noticed the light skinned young man that hadn’t stopped staring at me since I rolled my box to the bus. He also dropped someone off and was waiting for the bus to take off. I prayed and wished for my father to leave so the romance I could already smell in the air could take its natural course. But he did not, the bus moved and I was disappointed. About fifteen minutes into the journey, a lady passed me a piece of paper and said it was from her brother. Acting uninterested and puzzled was the hardest thing my fifteen year old self had done. It was the light skinned guy of course, his name was Romeo and he thought I was beautiful. I called him when I got to school, that was the start of the many long midnight calls and text messages declaring love. The kiss happened the next time I went home for holiday. I never saw him again after that one kiss, I wasn’t sure what exactly I was to do with him.
The bus also introduced me to Reggae music! I heard Buffalo soldiers on an intercity bus and it was such a strange but enjoyable sound, completely different from the Eminem and Kanye West I listened to in my prepubescent/pubescent years. That was the start of a brief but intense obsession with everything Reggae.
I was in a bus when I got a text from James informing me of the death of Michael Jackson. I realized then the reason MJ blared from the speakers of the bus, why heads were down and sighs were loud and heavy. It was a moment of shared grief, a connection between total strangers brought on by a loss that cut across time and age difference, speaking to a different place in all of us.
The bus has been my escape too many times. The entire days I spent jumping from bus to bus, trying to get lost in a city that knows my name, I entered a bus to Warri one time, then caught one going back to Benin less than five minutes after I got to Warri. I am not sure what was chasing me, only that I was being chased.
A bus preacher once implied I was possessed. He said “I see the demons fighting for dominion in your eyes, don’t you want to be delivered?” I hissed and put my earphones back on, hiding in the music I was forced to emerge from when I noticed a strange scruffy looking man gesticulating and pointing at me. How can you claim to be a prophet if all you do is state the obvious?
I don’t even want to go into the time the guy beside me chewed on my braids in the bus. Or the time I noticed a man had his penis out and was touching himself on the bus. Or the time the conductor tapped my ass as I alighted from his bus. Or more recently, the conductor that stretched his hands from his moving bus, reached me where I stood by the side of the road and grabbed the hell out of my left breast. I reacted to all these the same way I react to things I’m unable to comprehend, by not reacting.
I got my period on a bus to Lagos one time. I was traveling with my then boyfriend. We were close to Ore and we got there in time for me to sort out my business. Then I had to come back and endure the rest of the journey with the man I loved who was angry with me for not having the sense to stay back in Benin if I knew I was going to be menstruating during what was supposed to be our vacation. I begged and apologized for my irregular periods, telling him of all the other things we could do to each other. This was the beginning of a gradual falling, out and away from love.
I think I have found ‘love’ too on buses, the type that lasts only as long as that journey lasts, often leaving you wondering of what could be. There have been one or two strangers that tried to be more than that, failing to understand that not everything is made to last or exist outside of controlled spaces like buses. Or maybe they tried because they were unaware that I only flirt with love and real intimacy, I invite it over for drinks but I never let it stay the night.
Is this a lot to think about in the thirty seconds to one minute that drags on like elastic, just before the bus you are in collides with another bus? Is there enough time in the moment your life flashes before your eyes for you to wonder if you are also going to die on a bus?