The following is a paper I wrote for a university travel writing course. The assignment was to take a local bus and write about it. A Bus Story is the result and, in case you were wondering, I got an A.
I remember the first time I stepped onto a London bus. I hadn’t been to the UK before and every single thing was exciting. We had been there for a few days and I was still in awe that all of these places I had only seen on a screen were actually real and as amazing and imposing as I could have wished for. My pregnancy had been rough to that point and we had been uncertain as to whether I would be able to make the trip, so the enjoyment over every little London thing was intensified. We had just finished wandering around Harrod’s (where we bought nothing because have you seen those prices??) and I hit a wall—I needed a break from walking. That iconic red double-decker bus pulled up and we got on.
This bus had nothing of that long ago excitement. My daughter and I boarded the dingy yellow (and sadly single-story) bus just two blocks from our house. There was no hustle and bustle and exciting scenery—in fact, I spent much of the ride reminding her to pay attention to the stops and not her phone. I had had no intention of needing to use the bus system in this small New Zealand town. After all, we had plenty of space, parking was fairly easy, and we had a car. But kids grow up and want some independence, so learning the ropes of the bus system became necessary even if it was only to go to the mall.
The bus didn’t have the low-voiced bus chatter I had been expecting. To be fair, there were only seven people on the bus (including us) and between the grunting of the engine and muffled words coming out of our masks, understanding each other would have been next to impossible. Not a single person was looking out the windows, but there are only so many times you can look at empty shopfronts before you stop wondering if anything will ever move in. I found myself comparing this sense of sadness with that still remembered excitement of a single bus ride across the world.
We weren’t going overly far on that London bus, but still made our way up the stairs because if you’re going to ride a double-decker, you sit up top. The front seats were taken but the seats directly behind became ours. I stared out the window and couldn’t imagine this ever getting old. There was so much to see as the bus wove smoothly through spaces in traffic that weren’t there a moment before. I was content to sit and watch the city go by and found myself disappointed when we reached our stop.
This bus, however, lumbered through the streets and I couldn’t wait to get off. Looking at the downcast eyes around me, neither could anyone else. There was nothing new to see, nowhere new to go. Even the ability to actually get on the bus had been slow—gone was the ability to drop a few coins into a slot or tapping a debit card. Instead, we had to order a specific card online and wait for it to arrive. While waiting on a special card might be exciting for a 13-year-old, it made this 40-something rather grouchy well before the bus appeared down the road.
It’s funny—I grew up riding buses but hadn’t really thought of the fact that my kids barely have. I rode the bright yellow American bus nearly every school day of my childhood. As an adult, I’ve ridden city buses all over the world. They were all fairly straightforward to use and just a part of daily life. Here, though, there just hasn’t been any reason to pay any attention to the buses other than the occasional growl as one cut me off. My kids walk to school and I drive them everywhere else. I couldn’t fathom the need to get on a bus to go to the same places that are more easily driven to—until my daughter got old enough to want to go places without me.
I made a deal with her—if she researched how the buses worked, picked a destination, and figured out how to get us there, I would handle the payment and follow her lead to make sure she got it right. If she did, the bus system would be hers to use. If not, I could go back to ignoring them as best I could. As I sat next to her in the rear of this bus I didn’t overly want to be on, I daydreamed about all of the other bus rides I’d rather be experiencing in all of the countries I missed visiting because of the pandemic. I glanced over to see if she was finally coming to the realization that this was just a giant disappointment but instead caught the shining excitement in her eyes. This was her first New Zealand bus ride and most definitely the first travel anywhere she had planned herself. She had chosen a mask that matched her jumper—masks were a novelty more than a necessity to her. While I was embracing my frustrations with life in general, she was eyeing new-found freedoms. I needed to keep my grumbling to myself.
The bus ride was uneventful, if slow. Maybe it was the masks but there wasn’t a single word spoken from any of the other passengers. We were on the bus for twenty minutes before anyone got off and another twenty before it was our stop (and goodness, there were a lot of stops!). She had gotten it all right—we were at the mall. We thanked the driver as we stepped onto the pavement (who looked straight ahead and sighed as if responding would take energy he didn’t have) and headed into the building.
We weren’t there long—the destination wasn’t the point of this excursion. After a quick lunch and a fancy coffee drink, we found our way back to where we had been dropped off and waited for our ride home. What neither of us knew, though, was that the buses to leave the mall were on the other side of the building for reasons unknown. The walk had me muttering about dumb decisions while she happily asked to go into every store we passed. We got to the right spot where the cigarette smoke compounded my foul mood for this entire excursion. Two buses arrived at once and I didn’t say a word as she debated which one to use—until she chose the wrong one and I corrected her because despite my original intention to let her make mistakes, it turns out I just wanted to get home.
A year without travel does funny things to you. My husband and I had been talking for quite a while about when we would start teaching our kids how to use the local buses, but I will admit that I would have rather gotten on almost any bus in the world that day than the one I see go by my house. Give me a filthy bus with a hidden stop and a story to tell in a crazy fast-moving setting, not this trundling small town noise machine that goes from the supermarket to the shopping center. In fact, I was only on this ridiculous outing because I lost at rock paper scissors (which I can only assume is how all mature parents choose who has to do the unwanted kid-related tasks).
This bus took a slightly different route than the first and I moaned to myself that this was boring enough that I noticed. The bus was more crowded than the first and we spent a few stops standing in the aisle. There had been an empty seat that I had offered my daughter, but she didn’t want to sit next to a stranger. I told her that this would be a problem if she couldn’t get over it, but she quite literally stood her ground until two seats opened up together.
There aren’t many stops in our town and I had assumed that any bus that went down our main street would stop at all of them, but of course I was wrong and we had to get off a bit further away than where we had started. She claims she knew this was how it worked, but I’m pretty sure she had a moment of panic that this could cost her the ability to go out on her own. It didn’t matter in the end—we had to stop by the supermarket, anyway, to grab a few things for dinner. The autumn air was that exact crisp cliché that you read about and I found my mood getting lighter the further from the bus stop I got. Sure we were carrying bags that otherwise would have been easily stashed in the car for the drive home and I had had to buy said bags because I didn’t have the ones I always have tucked in the boot, but we were nearly at our front door.
Her younger sisters were waiting for us. You would have thought we’d been gone on a month long new-world expedition with the excited way they greeted us. They peppered my oldest with questions: “Did you wear your mask the whole time?” “Did you sit or stand?” “Was it fun?!?” I rolled my eyes at my husband as I tried to move the kids out of the entryway in order to put away the groceries that were now heavy on my arm. The gaggle of girls followed me into the kitchen and my oldest held court while I worked.
She showed her sisters her bus card and then carefully put it next to the student ID in her wallet. “It was awesome! The bus stops at so many places and I got to stand! I can go anywhere!!” And the girls, who are much more well-travelled than I was at that age, started comparing this bus ride to the many others they had taken, just as I had done. But for them, this bus was a growing up milestone which made it just as exciting, if not more-so, than the speedy bus racing down the peak of Hong Kong or the bus that dropped them on the shores of Loch Ness. And I thought back to that first London bus ride and how excited I had been to get on it, knowing even then that it was totally mundane for most of the other passengers, and gave in to the chatter of my kids.
That night, I ordered three more bus cards.
To read another example of my essay writing, please check out Misadventures in Egypt.