Water bottle? Check.
Smart phone? Check.
I am ready to step out into the Singapore sunshine. With my pretty pink umbrella, I walk the 300 meters to the nearest bus stop. I confer with my phone to figure out the arrival time of the bus I need to take. 3 minutes, it says. And it does. I squint into the cloudless sky as I take a sip of water, allowing the others to board. I am heading to the Arts House for a writing workshop. Bus number 961 will take me there in 1 hour and 5 minutes, as per Mytransport, the bus app that I use. I find a window seat at the rear. The cool blast of air that at first feels refreshing and then freezing, makes me pull out my jacket from my bag. I get comfortable and look around.
Tiny kids in uniforms, carrying bulging backpacks; teenagers with weird haircuts; young men and women with flashy phones; many age groups, races and nationalities ride side by side, focused on getting to their destination. They all enter from the front, tapping their EZ link cards and move politely to the rear. The auntie with grocery bags sit next to the young man who dozes off but miraculously stops short of putting his drooping head into her lap. A young woman gets down with her foldable bicycle. The baby in his mother’s arms looks around observantly, as if preparing for his own turn to ride the bus independently. There is a low hum of conversation, people whispering into their mobile phones in Mandarin, Tamil, Malay, sometimes Hindi too. Those infatuated with their phones watch movies or play Candy Crush. The ones with scarlet headphones marked with “b” have their eyes closed, music meditation I presume. Outside, the lanes are filled with cars, inching along in the rush hour, unlike the bus that zips across secure in its own lane.
I was 13 when I started taking the public bus to school. A bright red bus with “BEST” painted in white, route 333 that covered the distance between Sahar Village and Holy Spirit Hospital in Mumbai. “How much is your bus ticket?” my grandfather would ask. “Why don’t you buy a half ticket?” he would persist. “I am more than 12 years old. Half-ticket is for little kids” I would reply seriously. In my home, being allowed to take the public bus to school was a coming of age milestone. My brothers had been given the go ahead when they turned 11, a fact they never failed to mention, to emphasize the special treatment I was given ‘because you are a GIRL”. I didn’t mind. I was happy waiting in the line to board the bus, chatting with classmates, looking out for boys from the neighboring boys school. The buses ran frequently and I usually got a seat. The conductor moved through the aisle issuing tickets. I liked sit by the window, watching other kids get into their respective school buses, in yellow raincoats and gumboots.
Riding a bus in Mumbai meant arriving at your destination either drenched in sweat or monsoon rains. And with each season, I graduated from pimply teenager to diffident college girl. I took route 312 to Santa Cruz, a bus that went into the airport, in an era free of terrorist threats. A quick stop at Vakola church, a swing around the army cantonment and I would be at my college. Sometimes a group of students would venture out further, to “town”, to watch an English movie at Eros theatre. Or take another bus to Juhu beach to eat pani puris at sunset. The bus was always full of people. We asked for directions. We felt safe. And surprisingly, so did our parents, even though they couldn’t track us once we left home because phones were a luxury in those days.
My girls take the public bus to school in Singapore now. “Hats off to you guys for allowing your children to take public transport. And you just got here!” says the mother of Princess’ friend at school. HH and I decided early on that we would encourage the girls to be independent and travel alone. I agreed because I had done the same at that age. HH was reassured by the reputed safety of this city-state. We both were glad we didn’t have to drive them around as we were doing in India. Did I mention we don’t own a car here? That made the choice pretty easy for us. We send them out with water bottles for hydration and phones for connectivity. They always have enough money to take a cab in an emergency.
As parents we tell them to be careful, look before they cross the road and call us if they need help. But they will learn more from their own travels on these buses. Like the time Princess slept off on her way back from school and found herself far away from home. It was a day she had chosen to not take her phone to school. She panicked but found her way back fairly easily. She is the one who tells this story proudly now; a huge leap in self-confidence for a child who had been cared for extremely protectively till recently.
Or the time when DQ took her eyes off her Samsung S4 long enough to notice the pregnant woman who didn’t have a seat and got up for her; a kind gesture by a self-obsessed teenager.
One day they reached late. It helped them plan their morning routine better. Another day they got drenched in a sudden downpour. Now they take umbrellas. Everyday they carry their heavy backpacks but still have not learnt the art of taking only the minimum books!
I know that traveling alone but together with strangers on a bus will shape future experiences for them, like it has done for me. I feel at home in Rome when I try to figure out my way to the Vatican. I am alert in Paris as I take the metro. I love riding on the upper deck of the double decker red buses in London which remind me of my childhood. What better way to allow the personality of the city to rub off on you as you share the joint journey on a public bus? An immersive experience which grounds them while building a foundation for future travels in strange places.
Today they travel to school without us; tomorrow the world.