Life of nighttime travelling by bus
By Medha De Alwis
Have you been around the Colombo Technical Junction at around 9 p.m.? If you have not, it is time to make an expedition. Stand in front of the Medi House or the Hulftsdorp branch of Bank of Ceylon. Alternatively, you could opt for the Armour Street Junction bus stop or the intriguing atmosphere of Gold City at the Old Fish Market in Fort.
What would you see?
Super luxury, high-elevated, and air conditioned long-distance buses. Commonly known as “tourist buses”, you will see these in dozens, either parked or dashing into the dark night in the speed of a race horse. They are generally white and have flashy names of their own, proudly displayed in prominent letters. A huge luggage compartment would open as passengers board in, mostly showing their mobile ticket or the conductor making a paper list that is in his hand.
Trying to find out how many routes there are was a difficult task. Gulaj* has been in the booking business for two years now. He said that there are around 40 routes which start from Colombo. It is an extensive network to distant destinations such as Jaffna, Batticaloa, Kattankudy, Vavuniya, Ampara, Kataragama, Badulla, and Puttalam. You name it – you have many of these buses in a route. However, all the routes are not official. There are many buses that operate without a permit and many more operating on routes that are not approved at all.
How does not having a permit work?
Naleem*, who helps his boss in Kattankudy operate three buses, said that not having a permit is no issue. “One has to be good with the Police. It is all in their hand. We give a few thousand bucks to the Police on the way. Things are easier that way.” However, the passengers who take these buses seem to be happy that super luxury buses are on the go, with or without permits.
Safety and security
The time of the journey would be anything between five to eight hours. If you board from Polonnaruwa at midnight, you may arrive in Colombo by 3 a.m. This is with a few stops including the Air Port stop (which again has no permit, and this takes the high way!). I would leave you to calculate the speed in which the buses are driven and let not your imagination wonder as to how safe it is, or whether it is safe at all.
Facts in the ‘tale of two cities’
The bus would take off from one city at night. Having travelled overnight, it will see dawn in another city, hundreds of kilometres away.
- No. of stops: One to dine
- Interval time: 30-40 minutes
- Change of drivers: None
The driver’s side
Shabib* has been a driver in the super luxury intercity bus service for five years. “I hardly remember seeing daytime at home. I reach home after my shift in the morning. When I enter my home, others are leaving their homes. When I go out to work, others come home to relax. It is a different world for us.”
Naleem*, who has changed bus bosses during the past two years, said he feels sad when his children leave to school as he comes home. “I can’t get involved in any of their activities. I sleep at that time, and when I wake up, my family is ready to sleep.”
Be a gypsy every other day
If the driver’s and conductor’s home town is in Badulla, they would sleep at home when the journey ends in Badulla. But what is the situation when the journey ends in Colombo? They sleep inside the bus in the car park. Shiyad*, a bus booking operator, revealed that there are two major car parks in Colombo – one near the Sugathadasa Stadium and the other near Majestic City. Both the driver and the conductor sleep inside the bus. There would be no air conditioning at that time.
“After all, it is not safe to leave the bus alone. This is Colombo, not our home town. For the alternate day these two get to sleep on their mat at home, there is a watcher to guard the bus in the home town, who is paid Rs. 30,000 per month.”
A tale of woe
Saleem* was happy to open up as I joined his dinner table while the bus stopped to dine. It was an open-to-the-sky eatery in Narammala. Although a modest dwelling, the night had veiled its imperfections and the surrounding looked almost like a replica of an eating spot in the Arabian Dessert. A sumptuous meal was laid on the table for Saleem and his conductor Nizam*.
“It is only at night we get something nice to eat,” said a reluctant Saleem, who took a while to open up. He had first thought that I am an undercover CID lady officer. “With the Easter attack, all looked at us with suspicion. But now, all is well. We have more bookings than ever,” smiled Saleem, as he went on to say how he finds it difficult to keep up at night for years on end.
How do you keep awake?
Smoking and drugs are known to be two things that help them stay awake, and the reward would be numerous obvious medical complications, in addition to what comes along with breaking rest, continuous concentration on the road overnight, difficulty to the eye due to lights, and the stress of carrying the lives of 50 passengers.
There is a big number of government servants employed in the outskirts, and the upper earning section of that takes these buses. Driving to work for such a long distance even once a week is a risky tedious job, and the bus comes as a blessing.
“I catch a good sleep and wake up in the morning as they drop me at my door step,” said Ravimalie, a doctor in the Ampara District General Hospital. Asitha, a former states counsel, said he “could never sleep in the bus” no matter how much he tried. “I was beaten and dizzy during the next day. Finally, I felt that driving up was a better option.”
Ladies, you do not have to worry about eve-teasing if you travel in the night in one of these buses. Be sure to ask for a “ladies’ seat”. Some buses come with seat belts.
You can pick the seat number you want and opt for the window seat at the time of booking. Yes, there is a footrest too. Of course, there are similarities to a flight. It could be a bit cold, so carry a cardigan or shawl – yes, just like you would do on a flight.
Some super luxury buses play super loud music in order to keep the driver awake, inadvertently keeping the passengers awake too. Ragavani*, a lecturer at the University of Jaffna requests the air conditioning and music to be kept down. “They always comply. As a regular traveller, I know most of the drivers and it’s nice to see their polite welcome as I board in.”
Sujatha*, a weekly traveller, once had the not-so-positive experience of her female seatmate waking her up every time she dozed off. She tried to negotiate to sleep, but her seatmate did not understanding Sinhala or English. Sujatha did seek help from the conductor, who also did not speak those two languages. Fortunately, the driver did.
“Sometimes, it is a lot of translation work for a small matter in the bus. Some of the sleeping passengers wake up and volunteer as translators,” she grinned.
The first time Devaka* reluctantly took the bus to the Kalmunai Hospital where he works, he encountered the terrible experience of being asked to get off in Habarana and change buses. This was due to a mechanical fault and then he was put in a normal crowded night bus to commute the rest of the 100 kilometres. “That was the first and last time I took the bus. Plus, I felt as if I am in an alien land. Most of the people around me were in rags. I have no idea how they can afford Rs. 1,000. I neither felt safe nor comfortable,” Devaka said, opening up a mystery which really needs serious consideration.
Busticket, Busseat, and Busbooking are the three online booking sites in Sri Lanka. Seshan*, an administration officer of a booking network, revealed that there is a commission of Rs. 200 per booking, and the average daily number of bookings range from 150-200. “This too is a sleepless job. Passengers cancel with no notice, and some buses do not answer the phone to pick up the passengers. If a bus breaks down or gets delayed, it is I who get a good hearing. I wish we had money to invest in an online app so that there will be an end to these phone calls,” lamented the tired man.
There are many known and unknown facts in and around these buses. All the seats are fully booked, but most of the passengers do not seem capable of affording the travel cost. Some of them speak not a single word of the language used in the capital. Then what business brings them to the capital? How do buses without permits use even the highways? The drivers and conductors work daily overnight, breaking rest and sleeping on the floor of the bus. Will there be any legislature to ever regulate such working conditions? Will the speed ever be regulated? How about the risk over 8,000 passengers are at? You are left with many questions. Finding the answers is part of your duty too because even though it is not your ride, it is someone like you – a fellow human being!
Photo M N on Unsplash