Wednesday, April 13, 2011

It Finally Happened!

Are you wondering: ‘what finally happened?’ Did she get married? Did she finally start acting her age? Did she discover the proper way to make Moo Goo Gai Pan (or learn why it is called that)?

No, my friends. It is none of that. What happened is something that I have thought is inevitable since I’ve been here, and I’m quite surprised that it hadn’t happened before now. In order to tell it right, I have to go back to the beginning.

For this, the first actually gorgeous day in Wuhan I decided that nothing short of a day-long frolic would do. I got up early and got ready to go even before my appointed Skype chat with family, so that immediately after talking with my Sweet Gabriel I could just grab my bag and take off. And that is exactly what I did.

I walked up The Street, basking in the sunshine. Didn’t even have to wait for a bus; the bus was waiting for me. It was a double-decker bus, and not even overcrowded! I decided to sit on the lower deck because I was only going to travel 8 stops on this bus before transferring to the 507 line, which would take me right to the Yangtze River access point. My plan was to walk along the Yangtze and see what there was to see, maybe even take a nice picture or two to share with you.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

So: here we are, on a double-decker bus that was in no way overcrowded. Everyone who wanted one had a seat and the sunshine streamed pleasantly by outside the windows. For once, the bus driver did not have to fight traffic, because there wasn’t any. He did have to be careful though; the condition of the road had not improved overnight. There were still potholes and creaks in the pavement where one could lose a tire if not careful. Several centimeter-thick steel plates covered the worst of the road damage and workers were shoveling gravel and filler into other low parts of this damaged road.

At one point I felt the bus bottom out and heard the distinctive metal-upon-asphalt crunch. Immediately after, the bus got substantially louder and I could hear something dragging. I wondered if the bus had blown a tire or, heaven forbid broken an axle or a leaf spring. Judging by the sound the bus was making, it sounded at the very least like a muffler issue.

A kindly driver of a passenger vehicle honked his horn - which doesn’t mean much here, and then pulled alongside the bus and shouted at the driver while gesturing toward the back of the bus. Our valiant driver pulled over as best he could on this road with no lane markings and got out to examine his bus. We passengers started worrying when he didn’t return after a few minutes and the more intrepid of us got out to see what was wrong.

See that picture? It used to be a muffler. It is now a barely recognizable lump of metal. When the bus bottomed out somehow the muffler got caught on one of those centimeter-thick steel plates and got ripped right off the bus. By the time the concerned driver of the passenger car flagged the bus driver down it had managed to work its way out from under the bus and had been dragging by its rapidly unwinding flexible extension. To add to the poor driver’s woes, the bus’ right rear tire had a nasty puncture and was just flopping around on its rim.

The bus driver emerged again from the bus, talking to someone on his cellphone. I presumed it was either his boss or the bus depot on the other end, and he was asking them what action to take. Apparently he was instructed to pull the muffler free from its tenuous metal link and store it on the bus. Afterwards he was to drive his passengers to the next stop, where a replacement bus would soon meet them. Some of the passengers helped the bus driver carry the burning hot muffler back onto the bus and we all boarded again. The driver hobbled his bus down this terrible street that has the power to bring even double-decker buses to a grinding halt. Luckily he did not have far to go; just a little over a kilometer.

Some of us passengers waited for the replacement bus so they wouldn’t have to pay another fare. Others, such as me, boarded the next available bus regardless of what line it was and went on with our day.

I have talked about buses off and on throughout this blog, but now let me make this perfectly clear: I cannot say enough about the good men and women that pilot these buses through this city. They are, hands down, some of the best drivers I have ever seen. They drive for 10 and sometimes 12 hours a day over terrible roads in abject traffic conditions and, for the most part, are courteous and professional in their dealings with other drivers and annoying passengers.

All of the buses in Wuhan are standard transmission; the drivers have to constantly pump a clutch and shift gears. Considering traffic conditions around here, a lot of times they stay in first gear and play the clutch to move the meter or two that they have room to move in. Their buses are poorly maintained, as evidenced by the black exhaust the buses belch, the way the gears grind and the general condition of the body and the insides of the buses. Few of the buses are new, generally only lines 401 and 402 – called the ‘foreigner buses’ because they travel to all of the tourist hotspots are clean and well maintained.

Many drivers take passenger safety into consideration by refusing to overload their bus. They will bypass a stop, not letting anyone else on… much to the chagrin of prospective passengers who stand in the street trying to flag it down. Instead the driver will shout ‘does anyone need to get off the bus?’ and stop well beyond the appointed stop to let passengers off if such a declaration is made. In spite of the abysmal traffic conditions, where people cut each other off and turn onto main roads from alleyways without so much as looking at oncoming traffic, I’ve yet to witness a bus wreck – either while on a bus I’m riding or one that I’m not on. If something goes wrong with their bus, they have to handle it. All of this while still collecting fares from every passenger. All of this, and they get paid less money than I do.

All of this is on a good day. I haven’t said anything about driving in bad weather conditions.

Strangely enough, yesterday turned out to be a bad day for buses. I saw no less than 4 buses broken down and stranded by the side of the road. Whatever their failure was, I can certainly attest to the fact that it was most likely not the driver’s fault.

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